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The failure of federation

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Sixty years ago this month, the campaign for the election of the first Parliament of the West Indian Federation on March 25, 1958, was underway. Sir Grantley Adams and his party would emerge victorious and a Federal Government would be formed. Four years after that, by April 1962, the Federation would be terminated in the aftermath of the Jamaican referendum of September 19, 1961, on the issue of Jamaica’s self-determination to secede from the Federation.

The Caricom leaders of today still grapple with the failure of the Federation and failure to implement the Caribbean Single Market remains a major challenge.

Declassified correspondence sent to the Colonial Office by Arthur Lewis (the Federal negotiator) and a speech made by Eric Williams in 1965 provides insights into how the Federation eventually met its demise.

According to Williams:

“Where representation in the federal parliament was concerned, however, Arthur Lewis arguing on what he claimed was ‘the general consensus’ in the other territories that the formula arrived at in the Inter-Governmental Conferences should be maintained, committed himself to a Trinidad and Tobago representacomtion which was not based on the fact that Trinidad and Tobago accounted for approximately 60 per cent of the population of the nine territory federation. To put it bluntly, Trinidad and Tobago was to pay three quarters of the budget but to have less than half of the seats in the federal parliament. This was wholly unacceptable to the PNM Cabinet.” (Paul Sutton, Forged From the Love of Liberty, 1981, pp.297-298).

Arthur Lewis had been to see Eric Williams four times between the Jamaican referendum and the T&T general election of December 4, 1961, to discuss a future Federation of nine countries. His thoughts are captured in private correspondence (now declassified) that he sent to the Colonial Office about his meetings as follows:

1. “September 22: I went to see him to persuade him to declare in favour of a strong Eastern Caribbean Federation. He was full of venom and insisted that he wanted the whole Federation to ‘mash up’. Only then would he consider starting a new federation, on Trinidad’s terms...”

2. “October 6: I reported that Mr Bird of Antigua was willing to accept the main features of a strong federation, provided no attempt was made at a unitary state. He was pleased with my report that a reasonable settlement could be made. He informed me that Ellis Clarke had advised that the Federation would end in March, and I tried vainly to argue him out of this...”

3. “November 3: We had lunch in his house for two hours. He had previously read a first draft of my report, addressed to him. There was a marked shift in his thinking, towards a unitary state, but his mind still seemed to be open on this subject. The alarming shift was in his attitude to a conference. He could not have his party convention till mid-January. This would have to be followed by educating the public. Clearly he was thinking in terms of months. By now he had also publicly committed himself to the ending of the Federation in March. I gained the impression that destroying the Federation had become an obsession…”

4. “November 8: He had not yet received comments on my report. His mind was still toying with a unitary state, and seemed a little less open. But he argued in a friendly way…He would attend a conference if it was clear that the Federal Government would not keep interfering in the discussion...”

These exchanges show that the arguments between Williams and Lewis were pivotal and their failure to find consensus back then left the regional integration movement sadly handicapped. Caricom leaders of today are still contesting some of those battles that Williams and Lewis fought in 1961. Hopefully consensus will come in short order.


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