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Matondo Mukulu: Britain can do it, why can't we?

Published:Friday | April 22, 2016 | 12:00 AM
President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron participate in a joint news conference at 10 Downing Street, Cameron's official residence, in London, last Friday.
Matondo Mukulu

The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) and the European Union (EU), though performing different functions in different parts of the world, have both been on my mind for the past three weeks. I suspect that this has been on account of the fact that currently in the UK, the public is caught up with the question of whether, come June 23, the electorate will decide (in a referendum) on the question of whether it will stay in the European Union, which Britain joined formally in 1972.

The connection between the European and the Caribbean project is not direct, but it is important to note that both are institutions that can express the desires of their constituent nations.

The referendum on the UK's continued membership in the EU was called by the British PM, some say out of political necessity. Whatever the real reason, it is important to note that the vote has two sides. On one side are the Stayers (relatively monolithic group), who include the PM, and on the other side are the Leavers (not a very monolithic group).



The argument advanced by the Stayers is essentially both economic and social. Thus, it is contended that Britain, being the fifth-largest economy in the world, must stay in the EU so that it can continue to enjoy access to the markets, without which it will be left out in the cold, in a world where most countries are members of one trading group that is more minded to strike deals with another group/trading bloc.

The economic argument is strengthened, they say, by the evidence that shows that by being in the EU, the UK will have access to a market that has 500 million buyers, which, in pure economic terms means a market that is valued at £16.6 trillion . The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) says, in its clear support of the 'stay in' campaign, that the EU (in 2011) accounted for 47 per cent of the UK's inward foreign direct investment. It is this economic argument that President Obama made during his joint press conference with PM Cameron last Friday on his official visit to Britain. The stayers add more weight to their argument by making the point that the free movement of persons across what is in essence a visa- and, some say, passport-free zone, has worked wonders in terms of cultural exchanges facilitated, but it is correct to say that what is truly driving the Stay campaign is the economic argument, with its supporters saying that EU membership has converted Britain from being the sick man of Europe into an economically competitive nation, with a marked improvement to its GDP.



The Leavers, chief among them London Mayor Boris Johnson, apart from appealing to those nostalgic about the Old Empire, say that membership has brought more red tape from Brussels, which, in their view, cancels out any so-called economic benefits. The figures that are advanced by the No campaign have been tackled by the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, and the appearance before a Commons Select Committee during this week of the chief executive of the Leave Campaign (Matthew Elliot) did little to add weight to the No campaign's argument - at least that's what is being said by those on the other side.

While I am following the arguments on both sides with a critical eye (of course, I will be voting to stay), I have been somewhat impressed by the fact that within the British Cabinet, there has been a freedom given to members to take a particular side in this referendum. In this regard, it is noted that Cabinet heavyweights such as the justice secretary, Michael Gove, and Chris Grayling (leader of the Commons), are opposed to the PM's position. What we see playing out daily in the media are exchanges between persons who sit together weekly to make decisions on government policy, while observing the constitutional convention known as collective responsibility.



This leads me to ask the question: Should we now expect the Jamaican Cabinet to put the question of whether Jamaica's final court of appeal should be the CCJ to a referendum? Would Cabinet members vote collectively, or could we expect, as is the case with the British Cabinet, that Prime Minister Holness would allow a free vote on such a question, at a time when he does have a very small parliamentary majority?

I ask this question because as someone who knows a thing or two about this debate correctly reminded me last week, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) does not have a monolithic view on this issue. At one point, the JLP wanted to stay with the current status quo of appealing to a foreign court, but there are those within the party who have taken the view that Jamaica should have its own final court of appeal, and, in effect, give the CCJ the proverbial middle finger.

While I think that the proposed Jamaican final court of appeal nightmare is jurisprudential and economic folly, I think that the current silence and unwillingness to allow a free vote is reflective of our political immaturity. The last time that a Jamaican PM allowed a free or conscience vote was when PM Patterson allowed PNP MPs to vote on the question of the abolition of the death penalty. I was a youngster then, but the records are there for all to read.

I have no reason to believe that a free vote on the abolition of appeals to the Privy Council would not yield significant benefits in the sense of public education. Of course, my dreamy assumption is premised on the Jamaican media being very critical in its analysis in the run-up to any such referendum as being overly deferential to politicians will not help voters to make a decision.

The British Cabinet is giving us, practitioners of a Westminster style of government, a lesson in political maturity, and while there are serious tensions and even casualties (such as the resignation of the work and pensions secretary), it cannot be denied that there is an admirable state of political maturity on display, which we in the Caribbean must take a serious look at.

It is not an effective response to say that they've had a longer run at this democracy thing than we have had as in today's world, information is available, and it is for us to make effective use of this information so that we can practise a politics that is more beneficial to the idea of Jamaica.

I have shifted my position on the question of whether there should be a referendum as I am now firmly of the view that we should have one as this is an important generational question that must be decided by an informed electorate, with both campaigns (abolish or not to be abolish) making a concerted effort to focus on the issues at the core at this critical and defining decision.

If the British can do it, why can't Jamaica? As I focus on the June 23 UK referendum, I am eagerly awaiting a decision from the Jamaican PM as to when we will have our own referendum on the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

- Matondo K. Mukulu, former acting public defender, is a practising public-law barrister and attorney. Email feedback to and