Every vote is a conscience vote
I don't believe that genuine people of conscience could ever enter politics the way we practise it in Jamaica and still remain genuine people of conscience.
The difficulty, it seems to me, is toeing the party line.
When the party whip demands that you vote a certain way, and your conscience tells you to vote otherwise, what are you going to do?
Everyone - even politicians - has a conscience.
Psychologists tell us that conscience is a faculty, an intuition - a still, small voice, if you will - that assists us in distinguishing right from wrong. Our consciences produce feelings of remorse when we do something that goes against our moral values, and feelings of integrity when our actions conform to our norms.
"This above all: to thine own self be true," Polonius advises his son.
Not to follow your conscience is to fail to be true to yourself; and it will compromise your relations with others; but if you are true to yourself, then "it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man" (from Hamlet, by William Shakespeare).
To have integrity (i.e., not to be divided within) and honour, we must always follow our consciences; we must always do what we believe to be right. To do otherwise is the beginning - if not the attainment - of corruption.
I am always amused when I hear that our Parliament is going to have a "conscience vote" on something. So what are the other votes? Why are our politicians not expected to engage their consciences every time they vote? Aren't they supposed to be an Honourable House? Is this an admission of perennial parliamentary disingenuousness?
Last week Jamaica's lower House of Parliament voted along party lines on bills seeking to remove the Judicial Committee of the United Kingdom Privy Council as Jamaica's final court of appeal. This was not a conscience vote; it was a vote along party lines. For once, all 63 members of parliament (MP) were present (when last has that happened?) All 42 People's National Party (PNP) MPs, including the Speaker (it is unusual for the speaker to vote) voted in favour, to barely achieve a two-thirds majority in our 63 seat parliament; and all 21 Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) MPs voted against.
Are we to believe that all 63 MPs were genuinely supporting the position for which they were voting? Or were they galloping under the whip? Did an Honourable House meet and vote last week?
If so, I hope the perfect attendance record keeps up.
My views on abandoning the Judicial Committee of the UK Privy Council as Jamaica's final court of appeal are well known, for often have I written about it. I am an anti-colonialist, and want Jamaica to become a mature independent nation. But for me, both the PNP and the JLP have misused our independence, abusing their political power for their own advantage. I had expected that 50 years after we began to paddle our own canoe, the value of our human capital would have exploded through education, reducing illiteracy and poverty.
What we did after 1962 was to replace the white bushas on the big plantation which is Jamaica, with brown and black ones, who have sought to increase their power. I do not look at doing away with the Privy Council as deepening our independence, but as politicians seeking to consolidate their power.
Before I support doing away with an institution that has worked, I want to see a reduction of local corruption. I want to see genuine campaign finance reform. I want to see transparent declarations of income and assets by politicians and public servants, instead of secret declarations which are not verified, and where there is no consequence when these secret declarations are not filed.
The United States broke their colonial ties centuries ago. President Obama is not addressed as the 'most honourable', and given automatic national honours, or anything. The mayor of New York City is not addressed as 'your worship' (who is expected to worship who?) and does not wear a cow chain around his neck, or a funny hat. If we really want to cut colonial navel-strings, why have we not removed any of the fripperies and frivolity associated with our colonial past, which can be done by simple majority?
Instead, in the last few years, we have increased the prime minister's title from honourable to most honourable, and have awarded him or her an automatic Order of the Nation, whether they have been a good prime minister or not.
Frankly, I do not believe that this Caribbean Court of Justice move is to deepen independence; I believe it is to deepen power. I hope it is defeated in the Senate.
I wish politicians behaved as if they had a conscience.
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and a rural development scientist.