Home / View Point / Guest Columns / No going back: “(our) political culture serves neither PNM nor UNC”

No going back: “(our) political culture serves neither PNM nor UNC”

Dr Keith Rowley’s bigger problem is not the UNC but the culture of the PNM of which he is so deeply a part.

Honed and hammered by the 30 unbroken years in government from 1956 to 1986, the culture has shaped not only the PNM but the entire political system in which opposition is a reflection in mirror image, identical but reversed.

Photo: Then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) shakes hands with her successor, Dr Keith Rowley, en route to Nelson Mandela's funeral in South Africa. (Courtesy News.Gov.TT)
Photo: Then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) shakes hands with her successor, Dr Keith Rowley, en route to Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa.
(Courtesy News.Gov.TT)

In this way, the PNM and the UNC—successor to the DLP and ULF—are the ying and yang of T&T politics, contrary yet complementary and working in tandem, each depending on the other for survival.

After 30 years of trading places since 1986, we have ridden the culture to a political dead-end where we’ve been passing time and entertaining ourselves by exchanging one for the other. This is a truth we have known for at least 25 years.

Whatever the shenanigans for which we punish governments at the polls, it is to the political culture that we should look for the root of the problems in which we are  stuck.

This is easier said than done given that our own personal politics is as much a creation of the culture as that of our political parties.

These days, the culture is on rabid display as Dr Rowley and his government seek their footing on old familiar places that have long ago ceased to exist.

Photo: Whaddap, cocoyea! A PNM supporter celebrates at Balisier House after the election results on September 7, 2015. (Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)
Photo: Whaddap, cocoyea! A PNM supporter celebrates at Balisier House after the election results on September 7, 2015.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)

The legacy party has become a victim of its own legacy.

There is a reason why PNM governments are notoriously bad at communications, and it doesn’t all have to do with Maxie Cuffie. The reason lies in the party’s culture as expressed through its communications.

The PNM is, after all, Dr Williams’ party in which, when the leader speaks, “not a damn dog bark.”

Operational changes introduced in the 36 years since Williams have hardly touched the fundamental top-down nature of the party’s culture, which is at sharp odds with today’s flattened, inter-connected, multi-directional world of constant communication.

Sub-consciously, even generations who never laid eyes on him are probably still waiting for Dr Williams to speak first in order to know what to say.

This same political culture explains the high priority placed on image-making and reality creation by the parties that have emerged out of the opposition to the PNM’s 30 years of unbroken dominance.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago's first Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams. (Courtesy Information Division)
Photo: Trinidad and Tobago’s first Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams.
(Courtesy Information Division)

In the hard, dry world of prolonged opposition, where shifting alliances and fracturing are routine occupational hazards, there’s a high premium on invented images of unity, harmony and strength.

It is no co-incidence that the governments of the NAR, UNC and PP made such extraordinary investments in image-making and reality-creation and alteration. The downside, of course, was the risk of self-delusion.

The founding culture of our politics survives, not only in the way our political parties engage the public but in the perspectives from which they govern.

As the party that inherited and managed the colonial administrative and institutional structure for 30 straight years, the PNM is conditioned to operate within the status quo.

In contrast, the opposition sees the status quo as a bulwark of PNM power to be subverted, thwarted and out-smarted.

Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago prime minister Basdeo Panday (right) shares a joke with then Cuba president Fidel Castro during the closing ceremony of a CARIFORUM meeting in 1998.   (Copyright AFP 2014/Roberto SCchmidt)
Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago prime minister Basdeo Panday (right) shares a joke with then Cuba president Fidel Castro during the closing ceremony of a CARIFORUM meeting in 1998.
(Copyright AFP 2014/Roberto SCchmidt)

This difference in perspective may well have been at the heart of the early break-up of the NAR when the wings of the party with PNM antecedents came into explosive conflict with the ULF.

In its modern expression, the political culture serves neither the PNM nor the UNC.

Faced with the challenge of transformation, Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s PP government opted to side-step it with a guerrilla approach to government which set her team on a collision course with almost every institution with damaging effect.

In his turn, Dr Rowley, like Patrick Manning before him, fed off UNC disruptiveness by promising a return to order and process.

By now, he has probably discovered that there is no order to which to return. The clock cannot be reset to 2010.

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley. (Copyright News.Gov.TT)
Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.
(Copyright News.Gov.TT)

Frustration is the only guaranteed outcome from a system that has collapsed but which remains resistant to change.

The historic challenge before us now is to break through the dead-end by reconfiguring the elements of the old to create something new.

There is nothing new in saying that we need new politics. But to change the politics, we must first change the political culture of this place, beginning with a willingness to question our own instincts and beliefs.

We need deep reflection on the political system in order to understand how it is working to undermine our aspirations and paralyse our potential for change. Although not impossible, it is unlikely that such introspection will come from the parties which are already hard at it, fighting the next general election.

The loud political noise blasting through the atmosphere is really the sound of anxiety rushing to mask the very real political vacuum that now exists. It is here that our most fertile opportunity for transformational politics lies.

Photo: Protest in La Brea. (Copyright Trinidad Guardian/Rishi Ragoonath)
Photo: Protest in La Brea.
(Copyright Trinidad Guardian/Rishi Ragoonath)

Given the well-toned survival instincts of the political culture, it will not be easy.

But we can make a start by resisting the call to divide ourselves and join a herd while embracing our responsibility for independent thought and for engaging each other, across our differences and in our common interest.

AboutSunity Maharaj

Sunity Maharaj
Sunity Maharaj is a journalist with 38 years of experience and the managing director of the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies. She is a former Trinidad Express editor in chief and TV6 head of news.

Check Also

Criticism vs Critique Pt 1: Colm, the crowd, critics, commentary and keeping it constructive

Finance Minister Colm Imbert announced an increase in fuel prices with immediate effect. Cue outrage …

14 comments

  1. Without a revolution changes come slowly. One such change: no party is guaranteed to win an election as in the days of Eric’s PNM. Maybe, just maybe we might see some light within the West Minister type political system we were bequeathed by the British.

    • Maybe. Although I wish we could go with something that fit our own circumstances.
      I can understand that, in a two party system, whichever side proposes change will be viewed skeptically by the other side though. That’s the dilemma.

    • I too Lasana, wish for a system more fitting to our culture. First step constitutional change. Would we see some movement this year?

  2. Yup, medicority reigns ….

  3. Oh dear…. a perspective embraced by many for many decades and by Fanon since the 60s.

    Alas, Sunity, the darling of the opposition for the last couple of years, will now be pariah. Keep an eye out for those criticisms from a different group now. It will be hard and cruel just as it was from the other side.

    Let no damn dog bark.

  4. Sunity Maharaj, I remember a pearl from your one-time tv commentator and football coach Michael McComie that stood out for me.
    He said that, in Trinidad and Tobago football, players are often just happy to be not as bad as their opponent.
    They gauge what they had to do based on their opposition and not their own potential or responsibilities.
    Sport is just a reflection of society. I think it holds true in many sectors including politics.

  5. “But we can make a start by resisting the call to divide ourselves and join a herd while embracing our responsibility for independent thought and for engaging each other, across our differences and in our common interest.” This is is, right here. We had the opportunity and blew it. Let’s see what 2020 brings.

  6. I agree… but I think the diehards of the PNM & the UNC won’t understand or will refuse to acknowledge what was posited in this article.