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Wednesday 16 October 2019
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Commentary

Coalition of the willing

A “coalition of the willing” is a very good phrase and concept, and something many a prime minister would like to be able to count on, especially the embattled UK Prime Minister, Teresa May. Only the second female British prime minister, she will go into the history books as having failed one of the greatest tests put to any serving political leader for the last seven decades.

PM May has to contend with the direct opposite of a coalition of the willing as the UK approaches D-Day for withdrawal from the European Union. For those not following the mayhem that engulfs the British Parliament, not only is the Conservative PM isolated and her party in disarray, with MPs resigning almost in droves, the opposition Labour Party is in equal crisis, with its leader Jeremy Corbyn lacking a firm grip on his MPs, who are also defecting, as his Brexit policy lacks all credibility. Cross party alliances are emerging, trying to stave off what once seemed unthinkable but has become a definite possibility, namely, that the UK will crash out of the EU next month with unfathomable results for the economy and society. A sign of what’s to come is Toyota’s announcement that it is losing $13 million a day in the UK and is cancelling plans to extend manufacturing operations in a part of the country which desperately needs the economic uplift. That blow came as the other Japanese industrial giant Honda announced its intention to close its only UK vehicle manufacturing plant, bringing the direct loss of 3,500 jobs and thousands more down the supply chain.

Travelling from St Vincent last week I noted that the swanky new Argyle international airport, opened two years ago, is the result of what the Vincy Prime Minster Dr Ralph Gonsalves dubbed “a coalition of the willing”. It must have taken a lot of diplomacy to pull all the necessary will together, because not all Vincies wanted it and the headline partners were odd: Taiwan’s President Chen Shui Bien, deceased presidents of Venezuela and Cuba, Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro respectively, and deceased PM Patrick Manning. In addition, six other rather unexpected countries were part of the coalition, including Turkey, Mexico, Austria, Georgia, Libya and Iran. Not all provided cash, and the project was not fully funded so an international airport contributory fund was established under the management of a trust headed by the Vincy governor general. They raised another over 1.2 million EC dollars from many small contributors, with returning Vincy nationals contributing a large part of the funds received. During excavation of the airport site, archaeologists discovered evidence of indigenous settlement as far back as 2,000 years, which delayed the already complicated project.

PM Gonsalves did not coin the phrase, which has been around since the mid-1990s. It was US President George W Bush who put it on the linguistic map when putting together a multi-national force for the controversial invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein and led to civil war in the mid-2000s. I am intrigued about why Dr Gonsalves chose that expression when it has been always linked to confrontation. Maybe it recognises the paradox of the hugely disparate group of donors and their complete interdependence. It might also describe the precariousness and vulnerability of a/the coalition and the need to be resolute. It is clearly a political statement, since the obvious, usual, big partners are absent – the US and EU – and one wonders why?

The new airport is the triumph of the impossible because I cannot imagine any other international airport being built on soft loans, donations from private citizens and such a ragtag of donor countries, many only contributing skills and knowledge. In any event, Dr Gonsalves turned the concept on its head, and the Vincy airport is a fine example of people working together for non-violent ends, even if all the partners might have wanted something different out of the deal. What remains is for the economic development of St Vincent and the Grenadines to take place so that the airport could be put to good use and not become a white elephant.

It is clear that users of new technology have borrowed the concept of a “coalition of the willing” and applied it to galvanising diverse groups around the world into action on major issues such as the environment, international immigration policy, human trafficking, child abuse, gun control, racism, etc. One has to wonder why, then, did the British PM not borrow it herself and establish a diverse, cross party parliamentary group comprising all the disparate factions that could settle their differences before any draft Brexit plan was published. Mrs May might also have made some important discoveries that would have empowered her rather than rendered her, at best, pitiful.

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