Not for the first time, those who govern us are ignoring at their peril the quintessentially Barbadian value of pragmatism. The long history of this isle is replete with episodes of studied, careful, practical application of ideas and principles, for good and ill, either in the name of progress or in dreams deferred. Nothing before its time, goes the popular Bajan refrain, even as we march ahead of the moment or hustle to keep up with the times. It is a history our leaders themselves have written with notions not merely of what is merited but what is timely.
Indeed there are anomalies. In the considered judgment of the electors, the message to reject the programmes, policies and personalities of the previous administration ought to have been such an expelling blast that it led to superabundant electoral excess for a governing party – entirely out of character in the Barbadian tradition.
The immediate jewel of the incoming government loomed large in its sight. The big-ticket item was the transition from a realm to a republic. This should have surprised no one. Both major political parties have at various times while in power committed themselves to a new constitution of Barbados with a native president replacing the monarch and viceroy. It therefore needed not be a campaign issue. What really did we expect? For indeed, a republic is a reordering of the way in which the sovereign power of the people is cast.
In the view of the late and revered professor of jurisprudence and UWI law dean, Simeon McIntosh, we have long practised ‘republicanism’. “Republic”, from the Latin root words, “res publica” – “public thing” or “commonwealth”. In Roman law, res publica was the juridical concept that secured the rights and determined the responsibilities of the Roman citizen.
For Professor McIntosh and many who agreed with him, our ‘res publica’ is inextricably bound up in our sense of self, our mirror image of ourselves.
His seminal 2002 work, Caribbean Constitutional Reform: Rethinking the West Indian Polity was the first body of Caribbean constitutional theory. He went beyond Sir Fred Phillips’s discursive compendium that traced the Commonwealth Caribbean’s constitutional development from emancipation to independence.
McIntosh’s core argument: constitutional reform must lead to a redefining of West Indian political identity.
Our history is of our written constitutions all having their origin in the British Parliament whose unwritten English constitution has evolved over centuries.
It angered McIntosh then as it riles us now that these constitutions were all the result of the collaboration of the regional political elite and British officials with absolutely no participation from Caribbean people.
Many citizens were left unaware that the supreme law of their newly sovereign land was an Act of the British Parliament, not their own. Many did not grasp that by mutual agreement, we would adopt the monarch of our colonial master as our own head of state, styled as the Queen of Barbados. We reposed our people’s sovereign power in the Crown. Initially this was not altogether a bad thing. It acknowledged the complex history of our colonisation which thrust multiple ethnic heritages together under a single language.
All of this proceeded except as an act of the people, save a last-minute general election of November 1966, a mere 27 days to independence day. Even the Canadians were minded to repatriate their constitution almost 40 years ago.
Were Professor McIntosh, who left us in 2013, alive at this juncture of our political maturity, he would have found ample support for his long-held belief that the Constitution of Barbados ought to be properly enacted by the People of Barbados. He proposed a constitutional convention where delegates from every corner of the land meet to write our founding documents and fashion a new political order.
More than the anemic committee meetings held in the swelling dew of night, we the people should have begun the steady, deliberate and consequentlal process of constitution.
We have 99 problems. Constitutional remedies may indeed be required to meet the problems of justice, equity, governance we face. We need more secure guarantors of our fundamental rights and freedoms, stronger institutions for the protection of the public interest, more teeth and autonomy for some of our constitutional officers, namely the state prosecutor and auditor-general. We most certainly need a check on ministerial power and an end to the erosion of the independence of our civil service.
But none of this, not the details of governance, nor the trappings of nationhood, nor the form and manner of our system of honours, not even what and how we should formally call our new nation, ought to be contemplated let alone be drafted without extensive, intensive public education and participation. The Government has been found wanting at this critical moment and invites confusion and resistance by saying, ‘let’s have a republic now and a constitution later.’
More than once in the three years of this administration, we have needed to remind it to heed the Barbadian inclination toward pragmatism and managed enthusiasm. We feel compelled to issue another sober reminder amid the heady march to a republic.
Political independence must mean more than our current status: Commonwealth Caribbean nations that are independent subjects of the Crown after being colonial subjects. If we are maturing, then we should maturely follow the process of ‘lawful devolution of sovereignty’ as Professor McIntosh described it and engage in genuine constitutional reform, not window dressing – yet again – that reduces our people to mere spectators on the sidelines of history.
The Constitution of Barbados is a sacred document in the secular temple of our democracy. It ought not be treated as a malleable piece of legislation, like a Liquor Licence Bill or the Dangerous Dogs Act.
It must be enacted – constituted – by its people.