Politics in a half made society - Trinidad and Tobago 1925-2001
by Kirk Meighoo published by Ian Randle, Jamaica, James Currey, Oxford, UK and Markus Wiener Princeton, New Jersey.
(A review by David de Caires, editor-in-chief of the Stabroek News)
August 31, 2003
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The book provides a useful account of electoral politics in Trinidad and Tobago from 1925-2001 - there is an afterword that takes us to the end of 2002. Given the long period covered there are inevitably gaps and less detail than might be desired in some areas. But overall we get a summary and highly readable account of Trinidad’s modern political development. Indeed, a similar work would be most welcome on Guyana and has been talked about for the last thirty years at least.
Dr Eric Williams, of course, bestrides the scene from the time he founded the People’s National Movement (PNM) in 1956 to his death in 1981. His Capitalism and Slavery remains a monument of West Indian scholarship. After leaving Oxford in 1938 he lectured at Howard University for nine years. In 1944 he was appointed to the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission and in 1948 returned to Trinidad as Deputy Chairman of the Caribbean Research Council. Between 1948 and the formation of the PNM in 1956 he initiated the publication of the Caribbean Historical Review (l949 to 1953), published a series of articles in the Trinidad Guardian and held seminars at his home. He received significant support from the Teachers Education and Cultural Association. By 1954 he gathered momentum with what Dr Meighoo describes as a number of scrupulously detailed addresses on West Indian economics, literature, agriculture and education. When in May 1955 the Caribbean Commission refused his request for the top job of Secretary General and declined to renew his contract he decided to form and lead a political party after long discussions with his friends Drs Winston Mahabir, Elton C. Richardson and Ibbit Mosaheb. He embarked on a series of “meticulously documented” addresses to mass audiences in Woodford Square in Port-of-Spain and at many other sites in Trinidad and Tobago. Presenting a petition for constitutional reform to Governor Beetham he set off overseas on a two month trip during which he met Aime Cesaire, George Padmore, CLR James, Arthur Lewis, Madame Pandit (the Indian High Commissioner in London) and Norman Manley. He addressed British MPs in the House of Commons on the then current issue of the proposed federation of the West Indies.
The party was formed on January 15, 1956 not long after his return. Williams was a scholar (or doctor) politician. He brought to his new job a level of academic insight unmatched in the Caribbean then or since. He also introduced party politics. Before then it was largely a matter of individual politicians doing their own thing. In the elections in September the party won 13 of the 24 seats but this did not give it a majority in the 31 member Legislative Council which included five nominated members and two officials. It is fair to say that Eric Williams dominated politics in Trinidad and Tobago for the next 25 years which included the transition to independence in 1962.
The immediate goal in 1956 was full internal self-government, achieved in 1961, but the party’s first Five Year Development Plan was presented in 1957 and there were reforms in many areas, from the public service to the system of education. The narrative brings out the sometimes almost frenetic opposition encountered from various parts of the political and social spectrum. Everything was new, the politics was fragile, `opposition for so’ seemed to be a virtue in itself. This mayhem was, of course, replicated in almost every other ex-colonial environment, particularly where there were substantial, different ethnic groups.
Dr Meighoo does not tell us much of Eric Williams the man. His formidable intellectual talents were accompanied by a sometimes abrasive personality, easily upset by the inadequacies of some of his colleagues, ill at ease in intimate social gatherings (one senior politician told of a small dinner at his house where the good doctor said hardly a word to any of his guests). Yet personality weaknesses which are more readily accommodated in the more developed, larger societies assume more significance in the hothouse atmosphere of newly independent countries.
Despite the most strenuous opposition from the Democratic Labour Party (which at one stage under Dr Rudranauth Capildeo seemed likely to result in violent struggle), from the unions (the Industrial Stabilisation Act made strikes illegal), the Black Power Revolution in 1970 led by the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) and a mutiny by a section of the Trinidad Defence Force led by Raffique Shah and Rex Lasalle, in broad sympathy with the Black Power Movement, Dr Williams kept the party together (there were, of course, resignations and changes of personnel) and in power until his death in 1981. Whatever his weaknesses, he laid the basis for modern Trinidad and Tobago. His successor, George Chambers, was less able to handle the numerous stresses and strains (the fall in oil prices did not help) and the party was comprehensively defeated in 1986 by the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), a conglomerate of political interests (party of parties) in which ANR Robinson and Basdeo Panday were two of the most prominent politicians. The NAR swept the polls in December 1986 winning 33 of the 36 constituencies, and Robinson became prime minister.
The NAR had an important programme of reform and development and initially enjoyed wide popular support but almost from the beginning it was bedevilled by political dissension, culminating in the expulsion of Basdeo Panday and others in October 1988. The NAR continued with an active programme of economic development and attracted substantial foreign investment but it encountered increasingly severe opposition from the unions and other groups. Then on the 23rd July, 1980 there was an attempted coup by the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen led by Abu Bakr. Eight days later they surrendered, with an amnesty which the court upheld.
A revitalised PNM under Patrick Manning won the 1991 elections with 21 seats, the United Natnal Congress (UNC) led by Basdeo Panday won 13 seats and the NAR 2 in Tobago, Robinson’s stronghold. The PNM continued the programme of structural adjustment of the Robinson government including trade and financial liberalisation, divestment of state holdings and encouragement of foreign investment. However, there was internal dissension in the PNM while at the same time Panday was consolidating the UNC. In October 1995 Manning called an election in November, a year early. The outcome was 17 seats PNM, 17 seats UNC, 2 NAR (Tobago). Robinson sought a meeting with Manning but after not getting a response put a proposal to Panday which led to agreement. Panday was sworn in as prime minister. A UNC call for a national front government was rejected by Manning. In 1997 Robinson became President when the 79 year old Noor Hassanali stepped down.
Basdeo Panday ran an astonishingly active administration in many areas, ranging from the strengthening and cleaning up of the police force to initiatives in education and culture. He secured further massive investments in oil and natural gas, also fresh investments in the ammonia and methanol and steel industries. He was able to attract a number of former PNM and NAR members to top positions in the economy and to head various task forces. Yet from the beginning he was involved in controversies with the media that led to increasingly bitter attacks, on both sides, and there were allegations from political opponents in and out of parliament of corruption in various projects and of attacks on fundamental freedoms, a lack of transparency and nepotism. As Meighoo puts it, as the government grew bolder, passions for and against it swelled. “It seemed that what the government saw as law and order others construed as a sustained `attack’ on `fundamental freedoms’. What the government construed as `inclusiveness’ was suspected by others as `racialism’”, and so on. Yet Mr Panday’s bellicosity did not help. The economy prospered but the politics was as vicious as ever.
What followed is within our recent memory. In elections in December 2000 the UNC won 19 seats, the PNM 16 and NAR one. However, it was said that Winston Peters and Bill Chaitan who won seats for the UNC were not eligible to sit in Parliament because of their dual citizenship. Manning said the PNM would not accept the results and they would go to the courts. There were also claims of vote padding, though a Commonwealth Observer Team gave the elections a clean bill of health. There were then major disputes over whether losing UNC candidates could be appointed Senators and sworn in as ministers (President Robinson refused to do so), and whether Peters and Chaitan could become ministers. There were later internal problems in the UNC leading eventually to Attorney General Ramesh Maharaj, Trevor Sudama and Ralph Maraj withdrawing support for Panday as Prime Minister.
Because of all these problems, Panday on October 10, 2001 advised the President to dissolve parliament and appoint Dec 10, 2001 for fresh elections. In those elections the UNC won 18 seats and the PNM 18. President Robinson resolved the constitutional impasse, after the two party leaders had signed an agreement at the Crowne Plaza Hotel asking him to do so “in accordance with the provisions of the constitution”, by deciding to appoint Manning as Prime Minister. Addressing the nation, the only reason he gave was a reference to the constitutional preamble that “men and society remain firm when society is based on moral and spiritual values and the rule of law”. Inevitably, the decision was highly controversial as the UNC had a larger popular vote and it was said that Professor Bogdanov based at Oxford University had provided an opinion to the effect that the President should have appointed the incumbent, Panday, as Prime Minister to avoid the appearance of making a judgment that the UNC had lost the election and the PNM had won. It is worth noting that before the meeting of the two leaders which led to the President’s ruling Prime Minister Panday had issued an official statement in which it was proposed that the two leaders “make partisan agendas secondary to the national interest and that we work out an appropriate arrangement for sharing power in a government of national unity” considering all the options including rotating leadership. This was the second time Mr Panday had made such a gesture. The PNM rejected this saying it was impossible to work with the UNC. The UNC then refused to cooperate in appointing a Speaker so the PNM, questionably, operated without a parliament until October 2002 when fresh elections were held. They also embarked on a number of investigations against the UNC government.
The PNM won the fresh elections with 20 seats to the UNC’s 16, making gains in several constituencies. Mr Manning, given a fresh start after all the problems he had faced in his party, embarked on a programme of development in an effort to exploit his historic victory.
That is the barest outline of the narrative provided by Dr Meighoo. It is good to note that he interviewed many of the key players. So many of our politicians die without leaving memoirs or without being comprehensively interviewed. It is invaluable to have even such a condensed record of one’s modern history, it helps to settle some of the issues and provide the basis on which analyses can be made. What lessons can we draw at this stage? One is tempted to say that the first is that some newly instituted democracies are virtually ungovernable. There is too little consensus on the rules of the game, anything goes, the most unreasonable and irresponsible kind of opposition is seen as acceptable, and beggar-my-neighbour policies prevail. Yet running a democracy anywhere is difficult, public opinion is fickle, today’s popularity can become tomorrow’s failure. One can also note as an aside that the possibilities for decisive decision making by small countries are severely circumscribed, particularly in these days when the writ of the international financial institutions runs far and wide. The aggressive nationalism of an Eric Williams is hardly any longer on the cards.
Trinidad and Tobago has had the good fortune to benefit from substantial revenues from the petroleum industry. It squandered the first opportunity. It now stands to benefit from massive investments in natural gas, and investments in other areas. It has developed an energetic entrepreneurial class which has begun to spread its wings. All it needs to become a model in the region is good leadership, political stability and an understanding that oil wealth can be debilitating, a curse in disguise, if it becomes a substitute for a work ethic. The government must plan the intelligent spending of its wealth in education, training, and providing for the future (many sensible ideas have been proposed), rather than squandering it now in politically motivated handouts.
Can Trinidad and Tobago achieve political stability? Guyanese will tend to view the answer to that question in terms of the problems posed by ethnic division. In Guyana these have so far appeared to be insuperable, though poverty and an ongoing brain drain since the fifties have greatly exacerbated the situation, unlike in Trinidad where most of the business and administrative classes have remained. There was also external intervention in the sixties in Guyana which helped to shatter its already fragile democracy. People are hurting and they’re looking for scapegoats. It’s all too easy for one party or the other to channel that energy into disruption. So the Guyanese experience, though analogous in terms of the ethnic mix, is clearly not on all fours.
In his conclusion, Dr Meighoo does offer a few brief opinions. He argues that some important aspects of politics in Trinidad and Tobago “should make one cautious about over-interpreting the role of ethnic competition, even in the face of stalemate”. He notes much political dissent remains incoherent and indisciplined, “seemingly averse to sustained organisation and/or expression through the existing formal institutions”. He refers to the frequency of demonstrations and protests (he should come to Guyana) and asks whether this can be remedied by constitutional re-organisation, or whether the problems are “deep seated in habit, history or social structure.” On the ethnic question again he notes that apart from elections, interpretations of politics in the post-Independence era purely on an ethnic basis cannot account for the anti-Williams black power movement and a number of other manifestations, including the loyalty to ANR Robinson’s prime ministership by a number of Indian cabinet ministers.
On the other hand, one notes his reference (p28) to the fact that in December 1954 four of the seven Indian members of the Legislative Council voted against a motion to accept the 1953 federal scheme and the other three abstained. The fear of domination has always existed. Interestingly too for Guyanese Dr Williams strongly opposed proportional representation (p 86) as an attempt to dissolve the PNM majority and create a weaker state.
Meighoo says that the “danger in Trinidad and Tobago has never really been systematic, organised ethnic violence as much as malaise, dysfunction, apathy and anomie.” He refers to serious crime and emigration. He sees the need for disciplined, effective political parties. Like all of us, he is grappling for answers to the problems of our post-colonial societies. These analyses, he suggests, are still properly to be made, the work has not yet been done to lay the basis. I believe he is correct in this assumption.
Dr Meighoo’s book is a valuable contribution to laying the basis for analysis. But I would have preferred another title. `A half-made society’ is a typical, Naipaulian condescension which even though it contains a kind of trivial insight is best left to our novelists and poets. Its use is, I suggest, incompatible with the conservative values Dr Meighoo espouses in his introduction. He says there that the conservative outlook, which he indicates that he shares, includes an emphasis on human imperfection; an insistence on the limits of human knowledge and an attitude of epistemological modesty; an appreciation of custom, habit, prejudice and `second nature’, a sensitivity to historical and particular contexts and scepticism towards universalism; the need for individual or socially imposed restraint and identity and hence, scepticism regarding projects intended to liberate the individual from existing sources of social and cultural authority. I believe that conservative intellectuals must in the final analysis take full responsibility for the societies they live and work in and are part of. He explains that in using the phrase he is referring to the `newness’of societies like Trinidad and Tobago and perhaps, he says, even Canada and the USA (they would certainly not refer to themselves as half made).
We are, of course, in the process of nation building, trying to build a society of which we can be proud and in which all can have a place. The task is far from complete, the challenges are great. It may partly involve the kind of creative myth making about ourselves and our struggle for survival that has taken place long ago in the societies we now consider mature and developed (see, for example, on the question of the Nation State `The Ethnic Origins of Nations’ by Anthony Smith, Nations and Nationalism by Ernest Gellner and Nations and States by Hugh Seton-Watson). We need, as a society, to try harder to overcome that self-contempt that has been the lot of ex-colonials everywhere.
The changing times, the new economic blocs, the cold blast of free trade, the clouded destinies of our fragile societies are leading to increased neurosis and insecurity about our future and who we are. At a time like this, our intellectual elites have a responsible role to play. `Half made’ is not the kind of phrase we should readily use about ourselves, though we might forgive our creative writers if they use it in an effort to explain our agonies and our problems of identity.
Trinidad and Tobago may have a unique opportunity to lead the way in Caricom if it can get its act together. It has already taken an initiative for closer association with certain territories for which Mr Manning must be congratulated.
Can it take advantage of this historic opening?