By Oliver Mills
Gordon Lewis, in his book “Main currents in Caribbean thought”, states that different European colonising groups put their distinctive mark upon different Caribbean colonies, and this is shown by the fact that, in the British islands, abolition by parliamentary edict made possible the future development of a constitutionalist politics, in a context where the colonies were governed by a metropolitan system in which a liberal bourgeoisie was in effective control of the state.
Oliver Mills is a former lecturer in education at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. He holds an M.Ed degree. from Dalhousie University in Canada, an MA from the University of London and a post-graduate diploma in HRM and Training, University of Leicester. He is a past Permanent Secretary in Education with the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands
He adds that in colonial systems therefore, the character of the overseas dependency is shaped, for good or ill, by the character of the ruling class of the mother country.
A metropolitan system therefore shaped and determined the development of constitutionalist politics in the English-speaking Caribbean, based on ideas of liberal democracy, reflected in party politics. This further manifested itself through the formation of constitutionally elected governments. We in the Caribbean have therefore experienced the imposition of a political system of party and parliamentary politics, and the accompanying merits, or demerits resulting from it.
Some allege that this system brought stable governments, the rule of law, and the sovereignty of parliament, along with periodic changes in government through the ballot box. Others argue it has resulted in social divisions, mistrust, unstable and uneven economic growth, and a bureaucratic process.
But this idea of the political party and the elected government has led to confusion as to their meaning and function even in independent Caribbean countries. The political party represents sectional interests, and special interest groups. It formulates policies which reflect the will of its constituents, and its elected officials must operationalize these concerns. The political party itself does not make policies, but when in power, after winning a majority of seats, puts its philosophy into practice.
Parties work to participate in, and influence the government by having its members elected. The leader of the party in power with the most elected members becomes the prime minister or premiere, and forms the government. The prime minister or premier is the head of government, the first among equals, and appoints ministers who head individual government departments. This official has extraordinary powers, which the opposition party leader does not have.
But although the political party with the most seats forms the government, the party itself is a political machine and not the government in the strict sense. The government consists of those elected members given ministerial responsibilities by the former party leader, now the prime minister. When people say their party is in power it means it has won the election. When they say their party is now the government, what is meant is that the party has formed the government. This means that the newly formed government comes from the party, but is not the same as the party. It has to operate in the interests of all citizens, not just those that have elected the party to form the government.
A political party is divisive and ideological, and concerns a sector of the electorate that supports it. A government should have no preferences. It treats its supporters and those who voted against it with the same level of fairness and respect. A government does not victimise, or deprive those who voted against it but should create an atmosphere where everyone gets equal opportunities.
There are cases in Caribbean politics where members of the electorate who support the opposition party recoil from supporting the programmes of the government, even though they benefit from them. They see nothing that the government does as positive, and some even withdraw from society, until the next election when they hope their party wins. They see any support of the government as helping it, and betraying their own party.
And we have some governments that undo the projects of the previous government even though they serve a social good. Sometimes they change the names of programmes to put their own stamp on them, but keep others because they are popular. In other instances, when a new government comes to power, many persons it suspects did not support it are made redundant, and its supporters assume their posts.
This should not be the case, since any government formed by any party should be politically correct, and ethically responsible towards its citizens. Government should seek to unify, bring about solidarity, and not create dissention among its own people.
When a government causes divisiveness through its policies, or the opposition seeks to belittle and devalue the policies of the government to score political points, this is not civilised political behaviour on the part of either party. And when people say my party is in power now, it suggests they should be giver greater preference over opposition supporters. This is unwholesome.
In one Caribbean country, it is said that the civil service supports a particular party whether it is in power or not. Here, party and government are equated with each other, when they should be technically distinct. When they are equated, it results in tensions, mistrust, anxiety, and insecurity, since some supporters with a militant attitude could cause issues, by calling for some opposition supporters to be dealt with. This is not democracy, and reflects an unenlightened view of the political process.
Recently, the leader of the opposition in a Caribbean territory complained about the irregular operations of the House of Assembly as it is managed by the current government. The opposition leader stated that, instead of conducting regular parliamentary sessions, the current government has avoided holding them, despite pressing issues facing the territory. The opposition official noted further that House sessions, which must be held every six weeks, have been infrequent, and when held, have been cut short numerous times, and written questions have gone unanswered. Further, when parliament is convened, the government has failed to give adequate notice to the opposition.
These charges reflect the helplessness of the opposition as a political party. It possesses fewer elected members than the government, and does not control policy, but can influence it. The government, however, does not have to heed to its requests. It is the government that makes and executes policy.
If the opposition party feels as it does about how parliamentary business is conducted, it should address these issues with the political directorate, to smooth out differences. If it sits on the periphery and trades punches, it could exhaust itself, while the government uses its political capital to make things happen, and because it is the government it is perceived as having the capacity to deliver.
But the opposition party in such cases appears unable, and incapable of meeting even the minimal needs of the populace, since it lacks the resources, while the government possesses the resources of the state, and the private interests that support it. This is another instance where the government dominates, and the political party with little influence barks, but lacks bite.
Parliamentary politics in this instance, and others, seems not to be living up to what it promised, and constitutional politics appears to be a myth, since both can be manipulated and interpreted to mean different things at different times.
So could it be that we have all been deceived into accepting without critique, the merits of parliamentary democracy, and are now experiencing the consequences? Further, is this what is meant by stating that in colonial systems, the character of the overseas dependency is shaped for good or ill by the mother country, and that different colonizing groups put their distinctive mark upon different Caribbean colonies?