By Stanley (Stalky) John
(Tribute to former prime minister, Sir James Mitchell, delivered at his state funeral in Kingstown, on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021.)
In conveying salutations to Sir James on the occasion of his 90th birthday last May, I made the observation that clearly, in his approach to the passage of the years, he shared the wisdom of that renowned English Philosopher, Bertrand Russell. In that he lived as if he saw his life:
“… like a river growing wider, the banks receding, the waters flowing more quietly, and without any visible break, becoming merged in the sea increasingly, in the universal life, still at work, but knowing that others will carry on what he can no longer do and content in the thought, that what is possible was being done and will be done …”
I have been asked to speak from the vantage point of my personal association with this legendary public figure, to whose life and service to the nation, we pay homage today.
The context and dynamic of our association
Our association was marked by the inherent tensions of adversaries on matters related to public policy and to our respective partisan political agendas, which for a period, presented existential threats towards one another. Sir James was in the opposition when I entered the political arena as an SVLP government senator in 1983, and he was at the pinnacle, as PM in successive NDP administrations throughout the period that I served as an opposition senator from 1984 and as Political Leader of the SVLP from 1992 until it transformed to the ULP in 1994 and my exit from active politics in 2001 having failed in to be reelected MP for East St George as the PPM’s Candidate.
So we experienced many points of tension and conflict, but in later years, we stayed in touch, sharing mutual respect and our interests in public affairs. Today, I join in celebrating the life of a national leader, one that has made an enduring contribution, not just to his native land SVG, but also to the Caribbean Region.
An epic public life career
Since his lamented passing, many eloquent encomiums have been deservedly showered on this Vincentian icon, from far and near. His journey in public life was epic. Accounts of the ups and downs are legion and are now part of the Vincentian folklore.
As a young opposition senator, one had ample opportunities to challenge and interrogate close-up, the relatively consummate political titan that Sir James represented at the zenith of his career and to observe and probe his political astuteness.
Even as he boldly embraced his many successes in public life, he was defiant in his defence of those episodes for which he received criticisms. Yet history will be the final arbiter of the true measure of his contributions.
The transition to elder statesman
May I, however, anticipate, by asserting here, that the outward modality of his transition, from the pre-eminent role as PM to elder statesman, after a storied political career, will forever be saluted as a profoundly edifying precedent in our national life. It reflected Sir James’ attainment of personal growth as a leader, with admirable sensitivity to the wider national interests.
The veritable political fire-storm which followed the 1998 general elections, marked by heightened militancy among public sector unions, provided an irresistible opportunity for the opposition to fuel and exploit dissent. In this milieu, Sir James for a variety of reasons, some personal no doubt, but others clearly political, graciously announced his intention to demit office as PM, a decision on which he acted in October 2000.
By doing so, he acknowledged that the country and its people are bigger and more important than he was. And that their interests should be given paramountcy over any sense of personal destiny which he entertained.
His vision and caution
Sir James gave expression to the experiences from which he drew, in shaping this critical perspective and insights on our island-state’s condition and its future within the wider Caribbean nationality, for which he advocated with passion, when in his essay on “Our Rights of Passage” which he first published in 1976, but republished in his anthology of Speeches titled “Caribbean Crusade”, he left us these poignantly cautionary reflections:
“The real threat to our liberty today is not from the grandiosely styled ‘Metropolitan presence in the Caribbean’, but from tyranny within the narrow confines of the island state. For all its evils the legacy of colonialism includes certain institutions whose function is to protect the rights of the individual. As the independent authority of these institutions withers away, gradually but not so subtly, we are creating a vacuum. One day someone will fill that vacuum for us, and we will be starting all over again.
My experience as Premier, involved as I was and continue to be with the Caribbean scene, revealed to me clearly the degree to which our institutions are threatened by the ready and unruffled acquiescence of our people. In November 1973 in my mini-state address I spelled out the problem in these words:
‘Make no mistake about it, horrors of hatred, the denial of reason, the loss of a sense of beauty or the right of personal choice, and the collapse of our fundamental freedoms may well take our indifference and complacency by surprise. . .’
Caught up in the momentum of independence, the former anti-colonial politician acquires the art of control, an art that continues to be refined after independence. At some state we have got to ask the question, how do we reconcile government’s quest for control with the citizen’s pursuit of freedom? The pursuit of independence is the pursuit of home rule. We indeed end up with rulers who are preoccupied with ruling rather than the proper administration of our affairs. It is in this context that we need to understand how our system should work, and to recognise the failures of our institutions, and so to determine the courses of action which can guarantee our freedom. For no final refuge will exist in the right language of a constitution when the institutions upholding it have collapsed.”
Hopefully, the significance of those observations will inform our consciousness as we negotiate the challenges ahead.
I repeat today sincere condolences expressed privately to his daughter Louise, Sabrina, Gretel and Gabija, on behalf of my family and I, that as you mourn the sad passing of your departed father, in your moments of shared grief, may you, your families and those loved ones who survive him, find comfort in God’s blessings and grace and in the fond memories which you shared with him. Be assured that he was an outstanding man who stood tall among his peers and that he gave distinguished service to his generation. His memory will endure in the numerous lives that he touched, many of whom today share your loss.
Rest eternal grant unto Sir James O lord and may light perpetual shine upon him. May his soul rest in eternal peace.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].