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Reflections on Independence

Peter Wickham

Reflections on Independence

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It is customary around this time of year to present reflections on Independence. While People & Things focused on other issues last week, it would now appear prudent that I speak to this important issue and clarify my position.  
In another media role last week I engaged this issue with two gentlemen more senior than myself and expressed views that became controversial, since I appeared to be suggesting that it was a mistake to have gone the Independence route 46 years ago.
Suffice to say, nothing could be further from the truth but it is nonetheless useful for me to restate my position in print.
Having been born in 1968, I have never known a non-independent Barbados. However, I am prepared to trust the accounts of people who lived in the colonial era and therefore genuinely believe that our founding fathers made the correct choice to pursue Independence at that time. I am therefore a supporter of the Independence movement and support the philosophical underpinnings of Independence and decolonization.
To my mind, Independence and decolonization are a natural extension of an individual’s desire to be “free” and live in a state that s/he controls by way of some democratic process.
Hence, if one casts one’s mind back to 1966, there would be few who would disagree with the decision of Errol Barrow and others to walk this path.
It is important to understand, however, that the state of independence is not static and will from time to time mean different things and therefore needs to be contextualized within the era to which one speaks. As such, it is possible for me to support our decision in 1966 but equally appreciate the virtual absence of an Independence movement in places like Cayman Islands, Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands (BVI) today. These countries have never pursued independence and it is highly unlikely that they will at this time, so as we celebrate our achievement 46 years ago, it is prudent to ask why others think differently.
The answer to all this lies in an analysis of the context within which Independence rests and an appreciation that this context changes. As such, in the 1930s when my grandfather wrote People & Things, Independence was not an option
and so he spoke about improving social conditions by communicating more effectively with the mother country about the dire economic and social conditions here.
He understood the developmental needs at the time and also appreciated the extent to which colonialism mitigated badly needed development. His proposed solution was not, however, to encourage Independence since that was not a language spoken at the time.
As we reflect on the era, therefore, Wickham is seen to be no less revolutionary than those who followed and pursued Independence largely because one appreciates that the concept of a revolutionary evolves within the political context of that era.
This brings us logically to the contemporary context, where CADRES has noticed a trend in all of the “colonies” it has surveyed. Without exception, CADRES has noticed that there is very little (if any) popular appetite for independence in what are now called British overseas territories such as Bermuda, Cayman Islands and BVI. Moreover, we have also noticed that in places such as St Vincent, Barbados and Australia which have contemplated taking their independence to its logical conclusion, which is to become a republic, there is no overwhelming support for this change either.
It is even more interesting that in the peculiar instance of the Falkland Islands, they not only want to remain a “colony” but indeed want to remain a British colony.
It does not take long to understand that the level of disinterest in independence is related to the comparable living conditions in these places. Citizens of these territories consider themselves “blessed” since they enjoy comparably higher standards of living than the rest of us in the Caribbean.
In addition, they carry British passports, which given them visa-free access to the United States and preferential access to the entire European Union to live and work if they so choose.  
These “subjects” of Her Majesty also vote freely in their internal elections and elect representatives who have the freedom to run the affairs of their states to a large extent even though they cannot “touch” foreign affairs or external financial matters.
It is also noteworthy that no overseas territory carries the type of debt burden that any one of the independent Caribbean territories is presently grappling with.
If we pursue a similar analysis with respect to the abandonment of our constitutional monarchies for the republic, similar comparisons arise.
In the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana have become republics and don’t appear to have done comparatively better than those which remained “behind”. We seem to forget the case of Dominica, which became a republic from the beginning, and also the excellent American model which, like France, has provided a model of the type of governance that the republic can usher in.
Certainly the foregoing analyses are to some extent superficial. I would be the first to agree that they compare “apples” with “oranges” since the reasons for persistent underdevelopment in several of these places is as unrelated to their independent status as the comparative prosperity is a consequence of persistent colonialism.
One example of this presents is Bermuda’s visa-free status, which several forget it achieved long before its mother country Britain did.
Nonetheless, people assume a relationship and this provides a rationale for opposing a change that people believe will make life harder for them.
There was a time when I, like so many of my elders, believed it was unfortunate that people didn’t see independence the way I did and believed that such people were not sufficiently enlightened.
With the passage of time, however, I have come to accept that we all want different things in life and that it is right and proper for us to have different desires.
People living in overseas territories seem happy with their lives and the extent to which they have control of their destiny and apparently so do we.
As such, most political leaders in overseas territories and elsewhere are fascinated by independence and becoming republics, while their citizens are more interested in nice roads, houses, visa-less shopping trips to Miami and the “right” to live and work in 27 European countries.
I am still convinced that our founding fathers did the right thing by pursuing Independence. However, I am equally convinced that a person living in a colony now and not wishing independence stands on equally “good ground”.
I am moreover convinced that the adoption of the republic should perhaps not be a priority for any Caribbean country at this time.
• Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).