From Statehood to Interdependence – A blueprint for devolution of power and meaningful constitutional reform

“I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.”- Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr

For those of you who follow my blog articles, you would recognise that I have placed much of what is happening in our beloved Federation at the feet of political tribalism, and moreover, that we should all be united in getting rid of this scourge from our lands. Interestingly, on Inside the News today on WINNFM, the topic of political tribalism was discussed, and although many were quick to point out its effects, I was disappointed that no one attempted to deal with the real underlying causes or even to provide solutions on how we as a nation can detribalise as we move forward.

Over the past year, I have been trying to grapple with elucidating the causes and finding solutions and several sources have presented themselves serendipitously. It is hoped that in penning this article, I would be able to convince, not only myself, but by extension you, my readers, where the problem lies and where crucial changes need to be made for us as a nation to change course and to use our creative energies to rebuild a better society for ourselves and the next generations.

Our first source of enlightenment begins with the commentary given by Charles Wilkin QC on the 30th Anniversary of our Independence.

“Statehood began in 1967 with unrest in Anguilla which was unhappy with its association with St. Kitts and rebelled. Within months of the beginning of statehood, the new state of St. Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla was embroiled in a state of emergency with leaders of its political opposition in jail and accused of treason. While Anguilla succeeded in separating itself from St. Kitts and while the opposition leaders were never convicted, that period spawned the political tribalism which remains the biggest obstacle to true national development. Labour and its supporters thought that PAM had tried to overthrow the government and PAM and its supporters thought that Labour was dictatorial and sought to get rid of their leaders. I am not in a position to make a determination on the factual accuracy of those competing accusations but they have existed for 46 years and our country will not achieve true independence until that unhealthy rivalry is replaced by a mature political culture.

I too, am not in a position to make a determination on the factual accuracy of those competing accusations, but what I have sought to do is to find independent sources that could throw some light on these events to get some idea of the cause(s) that lie at the root of our tribalistic politics. An explanation of the events and perceived root cause was given by Mr. John Rodgers in the House of Commons in England on 28th July 1967.

There is much to be discerned, but for purpose of this article, the following excerpts are very revealing!!

“St. Kitts received associated status on 27th February of this year. Five months later, Anguilla has declared its independence and the writ of the Central Government no longer runs over this small island of 6,000 inhabitants, 70 miles north of St. Kitts. Virtually all Opposition leaders are in prison, with no charges preferred against them…

…I want to address myself to two basic questions. First, why has this happened? Why have hopes been so quickly falsified and, secondly, now that this has happened, what can we do about it? I believe that Her Majesty’s Government must bear a tremendously heavy load of responsibility for this tragic state of affairs…

At the Constitutional Conference in May, 1966, these fears were voiced by Anguillans, who were afraid that they would not receive proper treatment from the Central Government in St. Kitts after independence. The fears then raised by these people were largely dispelled by a promise from Her Majesty’s Government, written into the Conference report, that each island would have its own local council. This is what allowed them to go home fairly happy. Paragraph 50 of Annexe B to the Report reads: The Constitution will provide that there shall be a Council for Nevis and a Council for Anguilla; that the council for each Island shall be the principal organ of local government for the Island: and that at least two-thirds of all members of each Council shall be elected on the same franchise as Members of the House of Assembly. I ask the House to note that in that extract there was no reference at this stage to any delay in setting up these councils, nor to the proposal that the council should be nominated, even though only for an interim period before elections were held. All this is subsequent to the granting of Associated Status.

The Anguillan’s fears as to there future were stilled, therefore, and they eagerly looked forward to the setting up of local councils, but no action at all was taken to organise local elections or the setting up of these councils. The fact is, and the Government must go in the dock for it, that the Government seemed to lose all interest at this vital stage, and it was not until January, 1967, some seven months later, that anyone was even sent to St. Kitts to help the Government there in the organisation of the local elections. From about July onwards, therefore, there was in Anguilla a growing fear that they would not get the councils they had been promised.

The fears of the people turned to acute alarm when the Secretary of the People’s Action Movement — the Opposition party which obtained almost all the votes in Anguilla at the previous election — received a letter, a strange letter, from Mr. Bradshaw, the Prime Minister in St. Kitts. The letter is addressed to Mr. Caines, the Secretary of the People’s Action Movement, and reads: Dear Sir, Reference is made to a letter of instant date addressed to me and signed by yourself as ‘(Secretary, P.A.M.)’, ‘P. E. Adams M.L.C. for Anguilla of P.A.M.’ and ‘William Herbert, President, P.A.M.’, referring to ‘proposals as to the composition and functions of the proposed local Governments under our new Constitution.’ There are no ‘proposals’ before my Government. (Signed) Robert Bradshaw, Chief Minister. That was a most surprising letter, and it naturally struck alarm in every Anguillan heart.

As a result of the fear, alarm and consternation caused by that letter, Dr. Herbert, leader of the People’s Action Movement, and Mr. Adams came to London early in February, when they saw the right hon. Lady the former Minister of State. At that meeting they were told that local elections could not be held until December of this year, and that, in the meantime, councils would be nominated. This proposal was later written into the Constitution. There had been no mention of this delay in the Report of the Constitutional Conference in the previous year. Dr. Herbert and Mr. Adams returned home undoubtedly two very worried and unhappy men.

In the meantime, the West Indies Bill was debated here, and my noble Friend, Lord Jellicoe, in another place, put forward to the Minister the fears of the Anguillans, but the Government were adamant that Associated Status must go forward as planned.

My point is that Associated Status should not have been granted until after local councils had been set up, as had been promised. Her Majesty’s Government have delayed granting Associated Status to St. Vincent — for other reasons, it is true — and there was no reason why they should not have delayed granting Associated Status to St. Kitts and Anguilla. The Anguillans were not satisfied with promises for the future. After all, some of them remembered an earlier speech of Mr. Bradshaw in which he said that he would make Anguilla into a desert. They were not assured when these happenings occurred. Had the Government taken this elementary precaution, it is very probable that the present trouble would not have arisen at all.

Let us fast forward to 1983, and return to Charles Wilkin’s commentary introduced earlier. He has identified several shortcomings, the unravelling of which is actually playing out today. He opined:

“While Nevis remains part of the nation, it too had serious misgivings for a hundred years before 1967 at being lumped by the British with St. Kitts. In 1977 an unofficial referendum was held in Nevis and 99 per cent of the people who voted did so in favour of secession. It was not surprising therefore that when the NRP held the balance of power after the 1980 general election, they used that power to seek to redress the wrongs that they perceived to have been done to Nevis by St. Kitts. This resulted in the constitution we adopted at independence which is another source of our problems as a nation…

…Many of the changes which I will go on to suggest are needed to our constitution should have been addressed at the outset, but the focus then was on the emotive matter of the relationship between St. Kitts and Nevis….

…In 1980 the NRP obtained the political balance of power which enabled Nevis to entrench its protection in the constitution. That protection is given by: – the right to secede; – the establishment of the Nevis Island Assembly with exclusive legislative powers over most matters affecting Nevis the main exceptions being taxation and security; – the establishment of the Nevis Island Administration with substantial executive powers; and – a guaranteed minimum number of seats in the National Assembly regardless of voting population. I have no issue with the right of Nevis to secede, but I have always argued against the structure of Nevis having a separate Government and also significant influence on the governance of St. Kitts. The 30 years have cemented my views. I think we need to revisit the so called federal structure. This was first done in the Phillips Constitutional Commission and Task Force of 1998 and 1999, which consulted with the country and made recommendations for change. We should dust off their reports and look again at creating a truly federal system which, while protecting Nevis as the smaller member, is more democratic in effect. There is in my opinion no justification for Nevis to have its own Government and also a guaranteed minimum number of seats in the National Assembly. A more balanced formula is needed…”

So we see, that the pendulum had swung from one extreme, from one with initially minimal or no local authority, to the other, with local authority, to the detriment of balance of powers between St. Kitts and Nevis, with real implications for outcomes of Federal elections and a less than ideal and uneasy relationship between St. Kitts and Nevis.

As of late, we have seen Nevis’ influence become crucial, and the incumbents are using all the tools in the Constitutional closet, at tremendous costs, so as to ensure political survival by any means necessary.

So how do we remedy these deficiencies, and to where do we turn? It is very ironic that our colonial masters in the United Kingdom are having similar challenges, and what is playing out there may be instructive for us here too.

An article published last year, Magna Carta 2.0: we need a code to manage central and local government, reads:

“Almost 800 years ago the Magna Carta was signed to protect the localities by limiting the power of the central authority in England. On 29 January 2013, a long overdue attempt to break the centralised nature of English governance was launched by the political and constitutional reform committee in the shape of a draft statutory code.

The code is designed to recast the relationship between central and local government and to enshrine in law the independence of local government as part of the country’s governing network. A major change introduced by the code would be to give local government the legally protected right to exist. No longer would central government – of any political party – be able change the boundaries of individual councils to suit themselves, nor would they be able to abolish councils or even whole layers of local government.

Council boundary changes will rest where they should: with the citizens and councils of each area. The plan in this new Magna Carta is to lay the foundations on which a stronger, re-invigorated, confident and independent local government can finally and fully emerge.

The decisions made about the issues and services that affect people’s day-to-day lives would be made by a democratically elected council, closer, more accountable and more immediate to local people than Westminster and Whitehall could ever hope to be.

The code not only protects local government’s right to exist, but specifically states that councils’ accountability is to local people, not to central government. It would allow councils to make decisions about vital local services without central dictate. Councils would be able to work alongside and co-operate with any organisations and in any way to provide local services to the standards that local people want. The code also stresses that the government should consult with councils at an early stage when it is developing policy on issues that affect local government.

The key issue, of course, is finance: without financial freedom, strong independent local government is difficult to achieve. So the code gives councils the ability to spend and to raise money in accordance with their credit rating within a balanced budget.

Central government will no longer be able to cap local finance. Finance will always be crucial element, but, it is to local people that councils must account for their tax and spending decisions, not Westminster and Whitehall: if local people want low tax and low spend, or high tax and high spend, that should be their decision. A happy corollary of real financial independence for local government is the likelihood of higher turnout in local elections, as the decisions voters make about who will run their council will finally matter again.

The code is a concise, determined and powerful statement of trust and confidence in local government as the cornerstone of democracy in England. It will allow for the full expression of the wide diversity of opinion that exists outside Westminster and Whitehall about how our local communities should be represented and served by their councils.

By freeing local government from central control and challenging the centralised nature of our democracy, the code gives local government the freedom and powers it needs to solve the complex problems faced by local communities, especially at a time of austerity. Not only will local government benefit but so, too, will local people who will be able to demand what they need locally from a council empowered to provide it.

It appears from politicians of both sides of parliament that we are all localists now; the draft code is the way to put that claim into action.”

The draft statutory code can be found at: Committee argues power and finance must go together if local government is to meet needs of local people.

Here are its conclusions:

  • “The balance of power between central and local government is skewed in favour of the centre and needs to be addressed. Government should give local councils the ability better to shape their services to the needs of local people.
  • The devolution of power to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland has been successful and is an evolving process. England is the odd one out. There is no apparent reason why local government in England is not capable of using similar powers.
  • Power and finance must go together if local government is to become an equal partner. Any attempt to make the relationship between central and local government more balanced would be meaningless without giving local government its own source of revenue. To achieve fully the potential of localism, a key plank of the Government’s policy platform, local government requires financial freedoms.
  • The Government should consider giving local authorities in England a share of the existing income tax take for England. The Committee does not propose a change in income tax rates. The concept of tax transparency would allow local people to see more clearly what their taxes pay for locally and encourage them to hold local councils to account for their expenditure.
  • The Government should consider how it can take its devolution of financial power further and free local councils in England to raise additional revenue, with the consent of their electorates.
  • English local government lacks some of the most basic constitutional protections that are available to some of its counterparts in a number of other mature European democracies.
  • The Government should examine the possibilities of a stronger constitutional status for local government, through an entrenched statutory code, or a similar proposal.
  • A code for relations between central and local government, enforced by statute, could be beneficial to both tiers of government for several reasons. First, it could help set out exactly where powers do, and should, lie, thereby increasing transparency for the electors. Secondly, it could help redress the overcentralisation of England. Thirdly, it could provide an economic boost that the country sorely needs.”

Even one of our elders, Mr. Earle Clarke, sensed this was the way to go, and he expressed this to me in his comment to my article, SIDF 2.0: An Investment by Citizens Program, where he wrote:

“When we were discussing the amendments to the Constitution, I rose and made the suggestion that we should have village councils. These councils would run the villages and communities and make recommendations to the Government of the day. To get away from the political tribalism, those running for office would not be candidates of any political party; they would be selected by the villagers; they would have to be persons of good standing in the community who have made worthwhile contributions to the village and the country. The villagers would have run the villages or communities and this would empower the village to raise its children. I believed at the time, that this effort would have rolled us back to the time when we were all our brothers keeper: It would have enabled us to demonstrate that we can run our own affairs and that we are the bosses, we know what we want, we demand that you, the politician report to us, informing us as to how you are working in our best interest. Those politicians who fail to report their stewardship to us, will be recalled and replaced. Sir Fred Phillip looked me up after the debate and said that the idea is a wonderful one, but that it would be too costly. I asked him if it could ever be too costly for true Democracy to work?”

He was on the ball!!!

In the words of Charles Wilkin, it is time now for us to mature and usher in a new political culture, one that is based on a balanced formula.

Given what I have said and quoted above, it is obvious where I am going.

We should now have local governments in St. Kitts, but this time, to maintain equity between St. Kitts and Nevis, we should have 3 local authorities in St. Kitts, each centred in the major cities/towns – Basseterre, Sandy Point and Cayon amalgamated with their environs so that the numbers are roughly equal. These can be centres of political, social and cultural activities, where each can compete and cooperate with each other in many endeavours. Given their past histories, each would have something unique to offer the other, and I have no doubt their engaged citizenry would help spur economic activity in the villages and towns. How this should be set up, I would leave to the constitutional lawyers and legal luminaries, and the exact details and responsibilities should be worked out carefully with much deliberations and adequate consultations with the general public at home and abroad. We have messed up twice before, but we should get it right this time.

With regards to the vexing issue of overseas voters, what Emile Ferdinand QC have stated in his article, THE NEED FOR FURTHER ELECTORAL REFORM IN ST KITTS & NEVIS: OVERSEAS-RESIDENT VOTERS, should be up for consideration. He wrote:

“Our diaspora clearly has many important roles to play in our politics, but voting in a local constituency, airfare paid for by others, is not one of them. Our diaspora can legitimately give material support to the party or candidates of their choice. They can seek to influence their friends and family to vote for such candidates, and do many other proper political acts. But voting in a constituency in St Kitts or Nevis where they cannot objectively prove residence, should not be one of the things they can do by the next Federal General Election, if we are to have a fair and less corruptible electoral system.”

On the same theme of devolution of powers from Federal to local governments, a virtual local governing body, geared to the diaspora, may solve the vexing issues mentioned by Mr. Ferdinand and help them play an active role in the growth and development of our country without the recognised complications mentioned above. The exact details can be worked out by tapping into the creativity and wisdom of our diaspora communities, which by not being disenfranchised, can serve as vital links in their homelands away from home.

As you can see, our political problems are solvable, and all that is needed is the political will. We can end our destructive political divisiveness once and for all, and usher in an era of shared progress and prosperity, with equality of opportunities that we can all be proud of. It is a moot point at this juncture whether the constitutional deficiencies of our Statehood or Independence were by design or by accident. We need to move forward now in this new era as we accept that our very survival as a nation is dependent on our declaration of Interdependence, from the Federal to the local levels, and with each other, both at home and abroad, and with our partners in both the regional and international communities.

We should not let the shortsightedness, nor the immaturity of our past paralyse or inhibit us as a people from flourishing and actualising our true God-given potentials any more!! There are hard lessons we have learnt along the way and there are still hard times ahead. Let us now dust off the dirt, roll up our sleeves, ask each other for forgiveness as we reconcile our political differences and get to work rebuilding our nation for once and for all for one and all.

3 thoughts on “From Statehood to Interdependence – A blueprint for devolution of power and meaningful constitutional reform

    1. Larry, you are right that to some extent it is all over the place, from England, to Anguilla, Nevis, St. Kitts and back to England again, which may have given you the idea that it is not cogent and coherent.

      What I attempted to do was use the original and brilliant ideas of the legal luminaries here and overseas and one of our engaging elders to show how our governing structures can evolve to the next level of having more empowered, accountable and transparent local councils/governments/administrations. By a devolution of power from the people in power to a more empowered people, most of our problems would be solved.

      We would help rebuild our nation with home-grown strategies, from the ground bottom-up, which would be more beholden to its local people, and less captured by vested interests locally and overseas.

      Having spelt it our for you, I hope the ideas are more clearer and to your liking.

      None of the ideas are mine, hence the extensive use of quotes, as I have to give credit where credit is due. I only took their ideas to their logical conclusion.

  1. Very thought provoking Bichara.

    I am not necessarily sold on localization but for that to work the scourge of tribalism must first be ended if not it would simply be extended to the local governing organs and then become even worse if that is possible. In order to achieve any real reform we need to exhale from the current disaster and have a decade in which to reflect and interact on the changes required to our electoral and governance systems. Changes can be initiated even before constitutional reform if the political will existed.

    We need Legislators who will curb their own powers. One piece of legislation is already on the books passed last September I.e the Integrity in Public Life Act. I can send you a copy. It is worth reading because if properly implemented many of the existing poltiical practices would be eradicated. But as can be expected not a move to implement it. And don’t hold your breath!

    In addition to that legislation we need Freedom of Information legislation. About a year ago there was active discussion within the Civil Service and NGOs and a Bill was drafted but again don’t expect that anytime soon. Thirdly Campaign Finance legislation is essential for democracy to thrive in small countries like ours. It is too easy to influence an election by money. A country is entitled to know where that money comes from especially one whose major export is passports.

    And perhaps the most difficult part of the exercise would be to wean our people off their dependency on Government which exacerbates the tribalism and to replace the prevailing entitlement mentality with a culture of initiative, social discipline and productive work while maintaining and enhancing social programmes.

    I will send you for posting on your site the 2010 report of the National Competitiveness Council which addressed many of the current pressing issues and is still very relevant. It was published but got very little press and of course scant mention from Government.

    Another point can be made that the professional elite of our country remain largely silent. We have 100 lawyers and 40 doctors and countless accountants, engineers, architects, economists, teachers and other well educated people. How many of them join in public discourse.

    Too many of them fear that they will be tarnished with the tribal brush. Well I have never been so tarnished because I speak about principles not men which incidentally is the motto of the Basseterre High School inherited from the St.Kitts Nevis Grammar School as it was when I received my excellent education.

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