On Tuesday evening last, I participated in a panel discussion hosted by the Presentation College Past Pupils Association on the issue of governance. As part of my introductory remarks, I made the assertion that Trinidad and Tobago was not yet a nation.
In her own introductory remarks, one of my fellow panellists, Director of the Police Complaints Authority and well-known political commentator, Gillian Lucky, emphatically asserted that I was wrong, that Trinidad and Tobago was in fact a nation, and there was no need for the discussion to be side-tracked by that issue.
And it was clearly not just Ms Lucky who felt that way. From the roar of approval that greeted her pronouncement, it was clear that most of the people in the audience at the Naparima Bowl that night were in agreement with her.
I was, to put it mildly, completely taken aback by this response to my position. The discussion continued thereafter with a vigorous and interesting discussion of constitutional reform but my mind kept coming back to this issue of nationhood. For it was clear that in that audience, on that night, I was definitely in the minority and I struggled to grasp how, on an issue which seemed so patently clear to me, so many other citizens could hold the diametrically opposite view.
As I pondered this issue in the days following, I began to understand that I should not have been surprised that so many people were of the view that we were already a nation. The fact is that we are repeatedly told that we are a nation. The final words of our "National" Anthem, after all, ask God to bless our "nation". Our politicians refer to us as a nation. The press refers to us as a nation.
But the fact that any proposition is repeatedly or vigorously asserted does not make it true. And clarity can only begin with clear and precise definitions. While the terms "state" and "nation" are often used interchangeably, there are important differences between them.
The accepted definition of the term "state" was supplied by Max Weber in his essay Politics as a Vocation. Weber defined a state as "A sovereign entity (rules itself), within a defined/specific territory (in defined borders), that holds a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence in the enforcement of its order." A state does not necessarily rule a people with a common culture; it is essentially a political construct.
The term "nation" on the other hand, refers to the people within a state, (or, in some unique cases, without a state or straddling many states) and speaks to the extent to which that population shares all or most of the following attributes: a common culture, a common language, common traditions, a common history, common standards of social morality and, above all, a common vision of their identity as a people.
Fifty years ago, following the grant of political independence, Trinidad and Tobago became an independent state, with the right to take our place on the international stage as a "supposedly" equal player. But we were not a nation. Indeed when Dr Eric Williams gave his famous independence speech about no more "Mother India" and no more "Mother Africa", a speech which was quoted with passionate approval by Ms Lucky, this is precisely the point he was making.
What Dr Williams was in fact saying is that, now that we were an independent state, we had to begin the process of building a nation; that is, forging for ourselves, out of our diverse ethnic, religious, and linguistic backgrounds, and rising above the different ways in which we came to be part of the land; a common culture and a common vision of our identity as a people.
Fifty years after we became an independent state we are not, yet, a nation. Those who want to insist that we are a nation would have to explain how and why, on an important occasion as our 50th anniversary of independence, the Government and the Opposition of the day held two separate celebrations. They would have to explain why, if we are indeed a nation, our politics is still sharply demarcated by racial identification. They would have to explain why there is still such utter confusion over issues of public morality and standards of conduct. And above all, they would have to define what is our national identity.
It is important to understand that the fact that we are not yet a nation is not something for which we need to be ashamed. As I stated in this column last week, "Nation-building, history tells us, has always been a long, painful, ofttimes bloody and violent process, for which there are no guarantees ever given." And for us the task was always going to be particularly difficult since, "…. at the beginning of our journey we were not one people. We were an agglomeration of many peoples of different histories, cultures and hues, each having a different psychological and spiritual relationship with the land in which we found ourselves."
But it is exceedingly important that we do not fool ourselves about who we are and what we are. The differences between the points of view of those who would assert that we are a nation and those who say we are not, are not simply differences of semantics and definitions. For the particular point of view also determines the agenda for political action and discourse and for public policy.
For if we are already a nation then there is no need to work to bridge our racial and cultural divides, we are already one people; if we are already a nation then let us not complain about the standards of morality in public office which we see operating currently. They are our national standards; if we are already a nation then let us not even discuss constitutional reform; our present Constitution is already the expression of who we are and our vision of where we want to be.
There is one other point I wish to make. I have asserted that we are not yet a nation and that our public energies and efforts must be directed to the task of building for ourselves, of ourselves, a nation, stable and enduring. The question is why? Why do we have to be concerned with building a nation of ourselves when we are already an independent state?
The answer is that the "independence and sovereignty" of the state and its supposed equality with other states is only a fiction of political nomenclature. The truth is that the international political arena is a scene of vicious contestation of might and power and self-interest. And the only way a small state such as ours can survive and maintain our independence and sovereignty, is if our state, in its international relationships, is backed by the power, majesty and force, of a people united as a nation.
And may God bless our efforts to build a nation.
—Michael Harris has been
for many years a writer and
commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean.