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Our approach to Independence – Part 3

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THIS IS THE third in the series looking back at how, 40 years ago, we messed up a golden opportunity to unify the nation in our quest for national independence. So far, we have examined the narrow selfish approach of the then Labour government, bent on having things go its way.

On the other hand, the Parliamentary Opposition behaved most irresponsibly, ending in attempts to block the path to independence.

But was there a different course that our politicians, elected by the people, could follow? There was, and an outstanding example at that, which, if followed, could have set a splendid precedent for national cooperation which could have served this country and its people well for generations to come.

Following the Resolution passed by the House of Assembly on March 23, 1978, authorising the Government to proceed to discuss with the British government our access to independent status, and talks held between those two entities the following month, the Labour government invited submissions from the public on proposals for a new Constitution for St Vincent and the Grenadines. A deadline of May 31, 1978, was set for these submissions.

In a country where such matters as the Constitution which governed us had never been a topic for public discussion and debate, this was always going to be unrealistic.

There had not even been any attempt at public education on the then existing constitution to prepare citizens for engaging in such an exercise. But the St Vincent and the Grenadines of 40 years ago, was, where civil society involvement in public affairs was concerned, a far more active society than that of today, and far less partisan too.
The invitation for proposals on the new Constitution galvanized civil society organisations into action and on May 19, 1978, some 20 organisations met at the UWI Extra- Mural Centre (now the UWI Centre for Continuing Studies), to hammer out a united civic response. Among these were trade unions (Teachers, Public Service, SVG Workers Union, now succeeded by the NWM), as well as organisations representing the Police, Nurses and taxi-drivers; youth organisations led by the National Youth Council; religious organisations including the Christian Council and Methodist Youth; service organisations (Jaycees) and political organisations (YULIMO and DFM, forerunners of the UPM, the PPP and the New Rescuers Movement of North Leeward). It was quite an impressive cross-section of Vincentian Society.

That historic meeting discussed the road to independence and passed a Resolution. In it, full support was expressed for National Independence which was recognized as “a necessary step in the political and economic development of our country”. It therefore constituted itself as a National Independence Committee (NIC) and elected hugely- respected barrister, the late Henry Williams, as Chairman.

However, in respect of the invitation to submit constitutional proposals, the NIC found the May 31 deadline “impossible” to meet and committing itself to solicit proposals and submit them to the Government, requested an extension of the deadline by three months. It also called for a massive public education programme, including the use of the state-owned radio station. One would have thought, that a government committed to leading its people into independence, would jump at such a display of patriotism and support, and seek to engage and embrace the NIC. But not so at all, for while being forced by lack of submissions to extend the deadline to July 31, the government chose to try and vilify the NIC and its respected leader.

These patriots were even described at a public meeting held by the governing party as “a bunch of nincompoops”.
This approach was to have serious repercussions for our country.

The proposals from this wide group were largely ignored, even though it was the NIC which did the bulk of public education on the need for independence and for a new Constitution coming from the Vincentian people and not imposed from outside. Additionally, while the Parliamentary Opposition was railing against independence, it was this grouping, while disagreeing with the approach of the government, which still put the national interest above all else, supporting the march towards independence.

Sadly, the stubborn partisan path continued to be followed and we limped along the road to independence in disunity and partial ignorance.

The precedent set then has continued to haunt us, including in the effort at constitutional reform which failed in 2009, right up to our divisions over the Caribbean Court of Justice. The clouds which gathered 40 years ago are still pouring rain on the national parade.

● Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.