Thu | Jul 18, 2024

Peter Espeut | King Canute and Daryl Vaz

Published:Friday | June 21, 2024 | 12:06 AM
Daryl Vaz
Daryl Vaz

King Canute of England who reigned from 1016-1035 AD has long been the victim of bad press and negative political spin. Apparently it is true that he set his throne by the seashore and commanded the incoming tide to halt and not to wet his feet and robes. Of course the tide continued to rise as usual and dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person.

In modern journalism and politics this story is usually cast in terms of “Canute’s arrogance” of “attempting to stop the tide”. King Canute is portrayed as a pompous, conceited, pretentious and self-important egotist highly impressed with his own power who thinks he just has to speak and it will be done.

But that does not accord with history or legend. What actually happened next (according to Henry of Huntingdon) is that “the king leapt backwards, saying: ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws’.” He then hung his gold crown on a crucifix, and never wore it again “to the honour of God the almighty King”.

King Canute – a Viking – apparently was quite a warrior; he led a Viking force from across Scandinavia which invaded and captured England in 1015 AD. He had a set of courtiers who fawned upon him, and flattered him, constantly as we today would say “bigging him up” about his power and his accomplishments. His actions at the water’s edge were to silence the toadies around him advising him to do this or that. King Canute knew the limits of his power – what he could do and what he couldn’t – and he staged a graphic demonstration to prove his point.

King Canute was not the problem; it was his entourage – the hangers-on – his advisers. His wisdom was to dismiss their overly monarchical approach, and to put things in their proper perspective.


Presently Jamaica is a monarchy, not just because our head of state is the British monarch (we can easily change that), but because our politicians have become accustomed to King-Canute-like behaviour (in the worst interpretation of the term), which is going to be harder to change.

We all are appalled at the recent brutal murder of Danielle Anglin, a teacher at St Peter Claver Primary and Infant School, linked – apparently – to the transportation she took that fateful morning. In response, Daryl Vaz, the minister of transportation, announced (recommended?) a ban on the increasingly popular ridesharing or ride-hailing apps with immediate effect, and wrote the two telecoms companies asking (instructing?) them to disable the apps. Good monarchical (King-Canute-like) actions.

It turns out that Transport Minister Vaz has no power to give that kind of instruction to telecoms companies, but he thought he did; and his advisers must have thought he did. In admitting this, Vaz declared last week Friday:

“In discussions, both have indicated an unwillingness to block the apps on the basis that there is no legislation in place. I feel very strongly that any minister of government who sees or deems an issue as a national security risk, that legislation should be in place and it should be clear and definitive that it is an instruction and an order, not a request.”

And so the solution is more power for the government. Transport Minister Daryl Vaz says he will be engaging the Minister of National Security, the Minister of Justice and the Cabinet to establish regulations that will prevent telecommunications companies from denying a request from the Government which seeks to protect national security. When King Canute speaks, the telecoms companies must turn back the apps!

Of course the telecoms companies are not the problem; the real problem is that these transportation entities have been operating for several years without government regulation. King Canute failed to speak to them!

I am prepared to believe that in this case Minister Vaz received bad advice. His main error was in entertaining bad advice without due diligence. I hope that those advisers have been suitably turned back.


One of the problems with the monarchy that is Jamaica is that over the years government ministers have accumulated King-Canute-like powers in their portfolios. The Government environment agency can deny a permit to mine in an ecologically sensitive area, and the relevant minister can overturn that ruling without explanation. The licensing authority for fishing can refuse a licence to fish on sustainability grounds, but the minister can overrule them and award the licence without explanation. And so on.

In many situations government ministers have the power to exempt persons from following due process (like in procurement procedures) without explanation or announcement, and waive duties and taxes. They make the laws to give themselves these almost absolute powers.

As we seek to prepare a new constitution for our beloved nation we should be seeking to limit the King-Canute-like powers of government ministers, not increase them. When technocrats make a ruling, if a government minister wishes to overturn it, proper justification must be given, and it must be made public.

When it comes to bidding on contracts, construction companies who are given duty waivers and exemptions on the importation of heavy equipment will have an unfair advantage over companies which have to pay all their taxes. Ministerial power should be used to level the playing field, not the opposite.

Accountability mechanisms for lapses in regulatory supervision must be in place. A minister who fails to take steps to prevent the “buying of licences” to drive motor vehicles, must be sanctioned; a minister who fails to take steps to prevent motor vehicles from being “passed fit” to be driven on the roads without ever visiting the examination depot, must be sanctioned. The refusal to recommend impeachment provisions for non-performing government ministers or members of parliament is self-serving and shameful.

If they spoke, something would have to be done. I would welcome a command from King Canute when it comes to anti-corruption.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Send feedback to