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Arguing About Eric Williams
As the argument about the role of Eric Williams in the 50th anniversary celebrations came to a boil last week, it was apparent that the PNM was trying to ensure that Williams is given pride of place in the celebrations; while the Government admitted that Eric Williams will play a part, but not the major part.
In arguing about Williams, it must be noted that many of his influences are being challenged today. The concept of the dominant single party that will seek to capture power on the basis of establishing its hegemony over the society seems to have dissipated. The extent to which the PNM has changed since the time of Eric Williams makes the point that his own role inside the very party that he formed and led has changed.
Perhaps the best example of this is the debate over the future use of the balisier tie. At one time, all PNM legislators and local government councillors and aldermen were required to wear it on all formal occasions. That is being relaxed today, as the party seeks to rebrand itself with a relaxed balisier-tie philosophy.
This debate has to be juxtaposed against the current debate about the role of Eric Williams in the independence celebrations this year. The dismantling of the Williams legacy inside the PNM is ample proof that the party is in transition from an icon who will be remembered by the older population and many people in the diaspora.
For the 25th anniversary, there is no doubt that Williams would have played a more prominent role because he served as prime minister for 19 of those 25 years. However, for the 50th anniversary the situation has changed and the diversity of what has to be celebrated means that the impact of Williams cannot be as great as it was before. Nevertheless, it should be noted that he was a highly influential figure who was able to dominate the political landscape of his time because he had established a political machine that was highly efficient.
In his later years, when addressing one of his party conventions, he made it abundantly clear that he did not want anything named after him nor did he want any honour in his name. Needless to say, his wishes have been violated on a wide scale primarily because his supporters wanted to find ways to honour him.
He remains a curious and enigmatic figure who was able to attract wide appeal for his political oratory and scholarship in negating the imperial influences in the region, while simultaneously showing great reverence for British institutions and culture.
It was that kind of enigma that would lead him to embrace the Westminster-Whitehall model and hold on to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in the face of a Constitution Commission, led by Sir Hugh Wooding, that had proposed a significant departure from the Westminster-Whitehall legacy and would seek the abolition of the Privy Council.
That contrast would demonstrate Williams’ tremendous ability to uphold British traditions, so that many in the society came to believe that these institutions belonged to us. Indeed, there is a debate about whether these institutions are ours by virtue of historical evolution or by virtue of suitable adaptation of an import. Williams clearly came down on the side of the latter. However, his discourse is being challenged in the society today, as fewer people who were influenced by him remain in positions of authority.
The nostalgia that is expressed by some people who seek to keep his legacy alive has to be contrasted with people from the same political background who think that the time has come to move on. It is that dialogue that has won the battle inside the PNM, which has converted the balisier tie from being mandatory to being optional. Whether they realise it or not, Williams is no longer the dominant figure in the minds of today’s youth and so, the PNM has to work out a way to make him relevant to them if they want to argue over his role in the 50th anniversary.
At the moment, the PNM is going through a period of reorganisation and introspection in order to locate itself in the politics of today, in the aftermath of the 2010 general election that was called two-and-a-half years early. Part of that challenge relates to debates that were already underway prior to 2010. There were some who felt that Patrick Manning had dismantled some of the Williams legacy and that he was becoming all too powerful inside the party.
This disenchantment was causing other political forces to attract former PNM supporters. One of them was the Congress of the People who began to ingrain themselves into the psyche of many disenchanted PNM supporters that assisted in their victories in Lopinot/Bon Air West, D’Abadie/O’Meara, and Arima. For those voters, the memories of Eric Williams is not a motivating factor because they took their exit from the party. Whether the PNM can attract them once again is a matter for debate.
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