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Patriotism and politics

Sunday, September 4, 2016

As T&T celebrated its 54th anniversary of independence last Wednesday, it is instructive to note that an inquiring narrative arose just prior to Independence about patriotism. 

The fact that such a debate arose in the first place confirms that there are doubts about patriotism in our society. The reality is that we never did anything to get our Independence as it only emerged out of the demise of the Federation of the West Indies in 1962.

The trajectory on which this country was proceeding together with Grenada, Barbados, St Vincent, St Lucia, Dominica, Montserrat, Antigua, St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla, and Jamaica between 1958 and 1962 was towards the creation of an independent nation-state that was to be called “The West Indies”.

After the Jamaican referendum of September 1961, in which Jamexit was supported by a majority of the Jamaican electorate, Dr Eric Williams concluded that one from ten would leave zero. This was not a stirring plea for independence for T&T, but rather a post mortem on the effect of the federation.

Between September 1961 and August 1962, our nation was constructed. Arthur Lewis was appointed as the federal negotiator to engage Williams on the subject of saving the federation with a revised plan to keep the remaining nine countries in it with T&T providing 75 per cent of the budget in exchange for 50 per cent of the seats in the revised Federal House of Representatives.

As a final offer from the federal government, that was a deal-breaker. Williams announced in January 1962 that T&T would also withdraw from the Federation and pursue its own independence. All of a sudden at the start of 1962 we moved from negotiating to stay in the Federation to suddenly becoming a nation-state.

Ellis Clarke produced a draft independence constitution in February 1962 for public comment, the Cabinet invited comments on that constitution in March 1962, an independence conference to discuss that constitution was held at Queen’s Hall in April 1962 (at which the opposition walked out on the first day), a joint select committee of the Parliament met for one week (May 9-16, 1962) to approve it, and a constitutional conference was held at Marlborough House in London (May 28- June 8, 1962) to finalise the constitution for independence.

By August 31, 1962, T&T was an independent state. After such a dizzying pace to move from the ashes of federation to the birth of a new nation in a matter of months, is anyone surprised that there are questions about patriotism 54 years later ?

There was never any real opportunity to discuss the independence project, so we simply made it up as we went along. There are still debates today about what constitutes national culture and even a botanical debate about the national flower, the single or the double chaconia. 

None of this was debated over any significant period of time, while the anthem was an amended version of Song for Federation that was originally composed by Pat Castagne and for which the revised version won him the national competition for a national anthem for the country.

The fact that all of this was put together so hastily by all who participated in the mad rush to become independent in 1962 is a credit to the competence of those who were in charge of the overall project. However, the byproduct is a debate 54 years later about patriotism.

The politics of the demise of the Federation and the sudden switch to nationhood left many gaps that are still being filled today. The political competition of the 1960s was very one-sided as the PNM was completely dominant and serious two-party politics only emerged after the NAR defeated the PNM in 1986 and the UNC emerged in 1989 as the only political party that could seriously challenge the PNM. 

We became a functioning democracy in 1991 when the PNM returned to power if the two-turnover principle of testing democracies is applied as the 1991 general election gave this country its second turnover of power. As far as democracy is concerned, the clock started running in 1991. There have been four more turnovers of power since then so we are only now beginning to come to terms with a critical dimension of nationhood.

The state is no longer a party and a party is no longer the state. That condition existed between 1962 and 1986. As a new generation of voters grew up and became political decision-makers, they were able to demand of political parties different levels of performance that can cause changes to take place.

The persistence of the existing constitutional and electoral arrangements will only make it more difficult for a newer generation of voters to bring about political change by the rotation of power that our majoritarian system requires.

Political divisiveness is a requirement of our system of government for it to work. Alternative systems founded on consensus models of government would suit our society better, but that is easier said than done. However, if ever adopted, the question marks about patriotism may recede. 


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