By Alvette “Ellorton” Jeffers
Gaston Browne does not believe in village councils. I know this because I asked him around the time that he was campaigning to be the leader of the Antigua Barbuda Labour Party (AB&LP). He did not give my question a thought. His response was a quick and emphatic “no.” Then, I thought his was a visceral response. Since becoming Prime Minister, he has clearly demonstrated his deep antipathy towards the concept of local government and particularly its manifestation in Barbuda. Even if a disagreement over the development of Barbuda did not exist, Gaston Browne would still make visible his ideological hostility to any self-governing community
It is not an exaggeration to say that, in this regard, Gaston Browne appears more anti-democratic in temperament than the colonial government that V.C. Bird replaced. In relationship to it, he appears more like a political Neanderthal, notwithstanding the fact that a fawning and ingratiatory Lawrence Jardine (and former leftist), has dubbed Brown his prized “visionary.” Let me show why Brown is no “visionary.” During the time when there was not yet adult suffrage and the leaders of the Antigua Trades and Labour Union (AT&LU) had to have property to participate in the elections of the 1940s, the colonial government passed the Village Council Act of 1945. The 1945 Act permitted villagers to seek administrative authority over some matters that had immediate importance to them.
Section 2 of the 1945 Act states: “The inhabitants of any village or group of adjacent villages in the island of Antigua may request the Minister to cause a village council to be established in their village or villages. Section 9 (1) of the said Act stipulates that “a village council may, with the approval of the Cabinet, make by-laws for the good rule and government of a village, for promoting and protecting the health of the inhabitants thereof, for the prevention and suppression of nuisances therein, and for the imposition and recovery of licenses, rates, taxes, fees and dues within the limits of the village as the case may be.” Section 10 of the 1945 Village Council Act states that the fees collected by the Council “shall be applied exclusively to the use of that village or group of adjacent villages as the case may be.”
I have not been able to ascertain the extent to which the village councils functioned in the 1940s, or if any were constituted. That aside, the significant point to grasp is that the idea that villagers can govern some aspects of their daily activities challenges the notion that all power has to be centralised and that society runs best when it is dictated to solely from above. This concept of power-sharing, codified in law, was unlikely an aberration, for its introduction coincided with the intensification of the AT&LU’s demands for wage increases and the expansion of democracy to allow people of African origin to have some say in how their lives should be governed and VC Bird’s entry into the Legislative Council. Consequently, there was set in motion an unravelling of the old, colonial order. The introduction of the village council, at such a time, suggests that working class struggles were influencing colonial decisions on how society could be politically managed. That, I believe, is a permissible deduction until someone proves that I am mistaken.
When V.C. Bird and the AT&LU governed in the 1960s, they never embraced the village council concept. The government and trade union could have easily facilitated the transition because the trade union had its village sections that influenced public policies that originated at the union’s yearly conventions. These AT&LU village sections could have become local, self-governing bodies with power to impose and recover “licenses, rates, taxes, fees and dues within the limits of the village or the group of adjacent villages” as the 1945 Act allowed. Additionally, the village council could have provided training for the villagers in the practice of democratic self-governance, and encouraged local communities to be proactive. Instead, AT&LU’s village sections retained their role and continued to serve mainly to reinforce the centrality of the government in community affairs. While V.C. Bird remained in office during the 1960s, the 1945 Act remained a dead letter.
Antigua has had three different governments since 1971. They were the Progressive Labour Movement (PLM), the Antigua Labour Party (ALP) and the United Progressive Party (UPP). Except for the UPP, none has ever contemplated sharing power with local communities through the establishment of village councils. The village council outlined in the Act of 1945 is no longer a radical idea, if it ever was. It is not your workers’ self-governing council that arose during the Russian revolution of 1917 to represent a new form of working-class control of society. Nor was it similar to the Paris commune of 1871 which was working class-led government that resulted from its seizure of power. The village council principles do not come close to the idea of the People’s Assembly contemplated by the 1979 Grenada revolution as the form of working-class expression of power to the people. Though the village council would, initially, be expected to be in alignment with the State, none of the political parties has ever seen any social benefit in actually giving local communities in Antigua the power to govern their villages in collaboration with the Antiguan State. Maybe, these parties envisioned their disruptive potential.
What has happened since the emergence of Black, political rule in Antigua is a movement in the direction, away from any notions of autonomous, local entities as complementary to the system of government or as competing sources of political influence. All the political parties that have ruled Antigua and Barbuda since the end of white rule in the 1960s, have tightened their grip on power by either instituting or maintaining existing laws that regulate the verbal and actual expressions of the working class and people in general. These governments have curbed the press and passed labour laws that make general strikes and secondary boycotts illegal. They have subjected the conduct of the trade union to the authority of the State. As a result, the trade unions that gave birth to the modern political parties and liberated the working class from some of the worse abuses of plantation capitalism, are no longer the single and authentic voice of the working class that V.C. Bird and the AT&LU were insisting upon being during the 40’s and 50’s when the plantocracy was encouraging the colonial administration to setup independent, industrial boards to arbitrate disputes. V.C. Bird preferred a fight to the finish between workers and plantocracy. The Antigua Workers Union (AWU) in its early days decried the legal obstacles that V.C. Bird and his government were creating to derail the union’s work The parties that the unions spawned have deliberately created a political wedge between the workers and trade unions into which the parties have entered to become the main influence among the working class. Consequently, the parties have succeeded in eliminating the unions significance in the parties’ contest for political pre-eminence.
In Antigua, power flows from the top down and this system is complemented and reinforced by an electoral system that always produces a one-party State that does not share power with any other political constituency. The point I am making here, is that Antigua’s politics have produced a government/State that continuously attempts to eviscerate political competition. It shows no willingness to be collaborative especially when political decisions about the allocation of resources for the socioeconomic development of the society has to be made. It zealously guards its monopoly over these matters. Parliament, out of which the political Executive comes, steadily boosts this concentration of power and the centralisation of decision- making in the hands of the same Executive with new legislation. Its power is further fortified by armed men in uniform and out of uniform whom the State relies upon to quell disruption by dissenters when other forms of incentives to encourage compliance with its directives fail.
This is the political culture which Gaston Browne sustains in Antigua and, therefore, Barbuda’s local government is to him and his government, an anomaly that cannot be allowed to function as a democratic counterpoint to his preference for an Antiguan State that wants sole authority over both islands. It is not just for this reason that I say Gaston Browne is a political Neanderthal, which by definition means, “a person who has very old-fashioned ideas and who does not like change.” It is also his declared intention to strip the local government of functions some of which the 1945 Act, passed during the period of white rule in Antigua, would permit if Barbuda Local Government was established thereunder. It is not, for Barbuda’s Local Government is sanctioned by the Constitution of Antigua and Barbuda. The Barbuda Local Government has the “right to raise and collect revenue…to meet expenses necessarily incurred in the performance of its powers and functions.” The Village Council Act of 1945 allows for “imposition and recovery of licenses, rates, taxes, fees and dues within the limits of the village or the group of adjacent villages as the case may be.” The 1945 law allows the Village Council sole authority over the disbursement of the funds it collects. The 1945 Act and the Barbuda Local Government Act recognise that these administrations gain legitimacy if they are able to provide for the people they are mandated to serve. In threatening to “take away the Council’s authority to mine sand and sublease land” which is a protected right (Observer, March 04th, 2020), Gaston Browne is essentially attempting to undermine the authority of Barbuda’s Local Government, and if possible, render it non-functional. Section 123 of Antigua and Barbuda’s Constitution makes that impossible, because any change to Barbuda’s Local Government requires the consent of Barbudans. Barbudans are not going to facilitate Browne’s antiquated politics that predates 1945. Beyond that, however, Browne’s actions are steeped in an authoritarian idea of government that people all over the globe are rejecting. The numerous demonstrations taking place on all the continents, are a clear indication that people do not want to be dictated to from above by a political and economic class of people who have within them the feeling that they must rule, and society must subordinate everybody’s hopes and aspirations to theirs. Those days are gone. Everywhere, this idea and practice is being challenged. What Barbudans and people of the world want is more democracy and liberty. Not less. What we are witnessing on the global stage is the emergence of a social type that is prepared to risk everything, not only to be heard, but to have an important role in whatever the society is going to decide. They are saying that the society has to be structured in such a way to allow their participation. Barbudans are a part of this international movement. It is time for Antiguans to get on board. Antiguans can start by saying that they support the decentralisation of power, more democracy and liberty for Barbuda, and then demand it for themselves too. Lastly, other than surrendering to the democratic wishes of Barbudans, Gaston Browne would have to use State-sanctioned violence to force compliance. If Brown has to contemplate such an action, he is already a loser because he would have ignored Barbudans’ long history of resisting Antigua’s attempts to impose its decisions on them without first seeking their agreement.