By Anatol Scott
Given that an election in St Vincent and the Grenadines is not far distant and that the New Democratic Party (NDP) has convinced itself that it can win the upcoming election, many people will claim that this is not the time to be raising what will be perceived as negative matters about the party. They may be right in that opinion but I disagree somewhat. I think that the party leadership may be running a little ahead of itself because, based on my reading on the ground, I do not think they should be so confident of a win.
Anatol Leopold Scott is a graduate of the St Vincent Boys’ Grammar School. In 1969, he was appointed executive secretary of the St Vincent Tourist Board under James Mitchell, the then minister of agriculture, tourism, and trade. He emigrated to Canada where he worked at different jobs in government and private enterprises. He pursued higher education at the University Of Alberta, graduating BA (1993) with distinction, and MA (1994) in History.
After my most recent visit, I left St Vincent with the feeling that the party seems to have a definite tailwind, mostly among two segments of the population: the uneducated masses, and the struggling small farmers. These two groups, mostly consisting of non-urban voters, are the core of NDP support and their occasionally boisterous shouts are pushing the party to anticipate a possible win. These groups are mostly concerned with bread and butter issues, but the vast majority of them have little or no understanding or appreciation of fiscal and other national issues. This segment of the population is important but the NDP will be foolhardy to let the tail wag the dog, electorally speaking.
The small business sector, on the other hand, which used to consist of a large chunk of the former Labour Party wing of the Unity Labour Party (ULP) is virtually no more; most having departed to more lucrative shores, what remains is now a disgruntled remnant of their former selves. They have been replaced by the so-called ‘Syrians’ (a misnomer) and a few Orientals who seem to have invaded and bought out most of the small businesses in Kingstown during the ULP regime.
From this group, I sense social dangers ahead for SVG as a result of the lack of acceptance by most Vincentians of these ‘foreigners’. However, they do provide a valuable service in terms of cheaper prices for imported goods. They are very aware of the fiscal and other national issues but, given the huge, imprecise, and growing national debt, they are sitting on an uncomfortable fence that is made more discomfiting by the fact that the NDP has not really attempted to win over that group by clearly enunciating how it will go about dealing with or improving their lot. Among this group, I sense more of a commitment, by the larger ‘Syrian’ portion, to the ULP rather than to the NDP.
The civil servants are, for the most part, sitting comfortably, seemingly without a care, in their ULP provided nests and seem to have no need to worry about the near future. However, they are a large and powerful segment of the population, with important interlocking familial linkages to all other segments of the population. More than any other group, they have the power and ability to sway many members of other societal segments.
As expected, this group is very heavily committed to the ULP. Until they are faced with an issue that clearly affects their comfortable security, this group will likely be the NDP’s biggest stumbling block to power. Depending on how it is handled by both political parties, the recent NIS loan, pushed through by the ULP government, and the ancillary issues that flow from it could probably be the factor that would arouse a large portion of the civil service population to silently come onside with the NDP.
Given this combination of circumstances, it would seem to me that the NDP should not be pushing so hard for an immediate election. Now is not the time to ‘ring the bell’ because, if their wish is satisfied, they might find themselves in the same or a lesser strategic position than they are in now, i.e. with not sufficient winning seats to form a new government.
Overall, however, the main reason why I am advising caution has to do with one main issue. There is a huge, very visible rift between past and present members of the NDP. The strengths that can be provided by earlier leading members of the party are not present on any NDP platform and the weaknesses of the untried and untested newcomers are being enhanced to the party’s detriment. The united mixed front that could pull together major segments of the party and the society is not there and this is the NDP’s biggest weak spot.
There is, in other words, a huge political rift in the NDP that has to be fixed. If it is not dealt with and if the party loses the upcoming election, this issue will likely result in a quick and painful death for the NDP. But, if the party wins the election, this issue will, more than likely, lead to division in the government’s ranks. The all-hands-on-deck approach that will be needed to do the job that has to be done in SVG is not likely to be there.
In addition to this, the younger cohort of Vincentian voters who were kids during the earlier NDP rule, who have little or no memory of what government was like then, and who are mostly unemployed today, are disconnected from society and politics for the most part. The few educated among them have adopted a mindset that is now very well established throughout the world; they live in an electronic world and basically have no interest in politics. To them, these newcomers on the present NDP platform come across as a bunch of aging hotheads, lusting for power, and presenting very little to awaken some kind of allegiance in them.
If the party cannot mesh the past and the present, the old and the new together, if it cannot meld these factions and present a meaningful and united front to all segments of society, it will be operating at a far lower political level than it possibly could. Almost everyone that I spoke with in SVG recognized these problems when presented to them but their most common stance can be summed up in the words of a former, extremely committed NDP supporter who has made it clear that he himself will not be voting in the next election. His words were: “Yes, we know about the problems but we can’t deal with that now. First we have to win the election. Then we deal with the problems!”
My writings to this point have been very critical of certain political aspects of the ULP and the leadership of Ralph Gonsalves in particular. Given the political mindset of most older people in SVG that a person has to be either ULP or NDP, people would tend to jump to the conclusion, based on my ULP criticisms, that I am an NDP member or sympathizer. Let me make it absolutely clear. I do not sympathize with any of the two parties! But, it is in my nature to always empathize with the underdog, which is, in this case, the NDP.
I am basically a cynic in that, for me, if a majority of individuals agree on a particular subject, my natural tendency is to ask how and why they arrived at that point of view. Once I understand their logic, I can then open my mind to analyzing the opposing minority opinion. In the end, I can usually see the good and the bad points and the similarities in both points of view and, as a result, I usually end up walking on top of an imaginary bridge separating the two sides, heading in a completely different direction than both sides, separated from the crowd, but leading to a lonely mental space that, in my mind, pacifies or melds both sides of the conundrum. In terms of politics, the word that best describes this approach is Liberalism.
One of the reasons why I became attached to Canada, as opposed to the United States, for example, is my tiny involvement in the campaigns of three liberal Canadian politicians; they have best exemplified my type of liberalism in politics. Those three politicians are now legends in the political landscape of Canada. They are: Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Joseph Jacques Jean Chrétien (both became prime ministers of Canada) and Ralph Phillip Klein (a Liberal journalist, beer drinking pub buddy, who became mayor of Calgary, and who invaded the Province of Alberta Conservative party, and became an unmovable premier of Alberta).
Over the years, on behalf of liberalism, I have done my share of the legwork through active participation in the communities I lived in during the rise to prominence of these three politicians. All true Liberal politicians leave their unique mark; they are usually long lasting politically, and they usually end up being strongly loved as well as hated by most people at the same time, but social change for the better is their undeniable and lasting hallmark.
I am not a political neophyte! As a matter of historical interest, I have tried to follow the political idiosyncrasies of SVG during all of the years I have been abroad. I know that the question running around in the mind of the reader at this point is: What does this have to do with the NDP in SVG? After all, as most people would say, SVG’s political problem has nothing to do with liberalism. They would vehemently maintain that SVG’s choice is between a conservative and a ‘communist/socialist’ party.
Respectfully, I beg to differ for, despite the fact that it is not common knowledge, liberalism has played quite a prominent role in the history of SVG.
According to his autobiography, Beyond the Islands, the man who started the NDP in SVG, Sir James Fitz-Allen Mitchell is and has always been a liberal thinker. How and why his party was and is described as a conservative party is a bit of a puzzle. I suspect that, in the 1970s, during the world-wide hegemony of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, both hard-line conservative thinkers whose economic programmes have since fallen away from the acceptable wayside, liberalism was shunned, looked down upon to the extent that liberals themselves used the word sparingly.
At that time, in the 1970s, Canada was one of the few liberal strongholds in the world. It went so far as to be the first developed Western nation to begin opening its trading and cultural doors to Cuba, a thing that the United States still has trouble accepting and continues to hold against Canada. Internally, the country benefitted enormously as a result of its liberal political mindset. On many subjects, it incurred the wrath of the United States and Britain with minimal effect, but it would have been an act of sheer folly, during that time, for Mr Mitchell to introduce himself and his party to an overwhelmingly conservative Vincentian population as a liberal party.
So, why did he choose to name his political party the New Democratic Party? One must remember that Mr Mitchell pursued higher education at the University of British Columbia. He was there, at the time when the New Democratic Party of Canada (a socialist inclined party, by the way) was putting forward suggestions for improving the social network of Canada. That party was the one that introduced concepts such as the Canada pension plan, unemployment insurance, and universal health care to the Canadian people. They were not able to form a government but their so-called “communistic” (as opposed to “social”) ideas resonated among liberal Canadians and it was liberal governments that made these social programmes a deeply enshrined part of the social system that so differentiates Canada from the United States.
I believe that, since it was not politic for Mr Mitchell to brand himself as a liberal, his next best choice in naming his party was to adopt the most liberal linking Canadian party name and programme, hence the New Democratic Party. But, given that the powers that be in SVG (political and business) tend to be rather conservative, he chose to describe the party as being conservative while nullifying the socialistic background from whence came the party’s name. He then set about governing as a liberal without mentioning the word liberal. Do you get my point of how a liberal arrives at walking on the bridge and heading in a totally lonely, but different direction from the crowd? I may be wrong in all of this, but Mr Mitchell is the only one that can gainsay my interpretation.
This much is clear to me. The Mitchell years in SVG government, those years of liberal governmental thought, were years of amazing growth and prosperity for SVG. He took a bunch of guys who knew little about parliamentary rules and far less about government and made them into a highly disciplined team. There was a oneness between the government and the vast majority of the people. There was party politics to be sure but it was mostly fought among the socialistic university hotheads who, in the end and despite the brightness, were all out-maneuvered by the wily Ralph Gonsalves in his formation of the ULP.
From my prejudiced perspective, looking back over the years, the Mitchell government was the best that SVG has ever produced. Towards the end of the regime, a few mistakes such as the Ottley Hall fiasco were made but, overall, Mitchell’s years as prime minister were boom years. The country advanced by leaps and bounds. Landless people suddenly became positive as a result of land reforms and the glory of building their starter homes or owning a little farm. The middle class became so positive, so confident in the future that it bought into the ridiculous demand of around a 30 percent increase in pay, which was advanced by the then opposition leader, the enigmatic Mr Ralph Gonsalves. Lo and behold, that same opposition leader, as prime minister, is now having trouble to pay a one and one half percent increase to civic workers.
Established businesses were expanding and new businesses were springing up all over the place. Roads were built, repaired, and maintained. Massive new buildings appeared. The Cruise Ship Terminal and the relocation of the Grenadines wharf, the astounding transformation of the Grenadine islands from a state of the doldrums to a quietly humming economic engine, the Fish Market and so much that gave Kingstown a new look, a notable vibrancy. There was no need for a militaristic black shirt unit and haughty policemen and women everywhere.
Kingstown was not infested with the shameful, uncontrolled street vendors as it is now and it was very unlikely that we would have found unkempt sleeping bodies on the sidewalks or beggars at every street corner. The type of racialism that permeates the society today was not a burning issue. All of this was accomplished while working toward a fiscal surplus and without pushing the country toward a fiscal cliff. For crying out loud, we even had traffic lights back then. Imagine that!
Something happened shortly after Mr Mitchell left office. Something happened that destroyed the symmetry that once existed in the NDP! Something happened that resulted in propelling the country backward! Step by step, the party that Mitchell built began to slide toward a quicksand swamp. In a very short time, there was a disquieting ‘silent disappearance’ of the individuals that made that party what it was. In a very short time there appeared an intractable negative osmosis in the party’s image and fortunes. That has never been repaired.
This slide was not brought about by the astuteness of Ralph Gonsalves and his political gimmickry. It started within the party confines, before the ULP became the government. What remains of the Mitchell years is a love/hate dichotomy. We love him and we hate him at the same time! Although the leadership continues to blame Mr Mitchell for his ‘interferences’ the man is still admired and loved. The basic difference, the root of the problem between him and them, has to be recognized and dealt with if this party hopes to succeed in the upcoming election and in tackling the gargantuan task that lies ahead of it.
I have to ask: What happened to the party that Mr Mitchell built? Why has liberalism, that unknown force that once catapulted the nation forward, disappeared from the politics of St Vincent and the Grenadines?
Shall I continue? You might not like it!