The Struggle for Freedom

CHAPTER 7
THE BATTLE BEGINS

All this became a more general and directive social force with the foundation in 1938 of the Progressive League, under the impetus of the riot movement (to become, later, the Barbados Labour Party) and with the establishment of the Barbados Workers’ Union in 1941. The monolithic organization thus created, recognized two basic that in the Barbadian case, he lacked the power to certify legislation defeated in the legislature. So, almost as much as in the Crown Colony territories, there was the reluctant grant of individual constitutional “advances”. These included the reduction of property qualifications for voters, the enfranchisement of women, the so-called “Bushe Experiment” of a quasi-ministerial system, adult suffrage, the payment of legislators. In addition, there was the introduction, in 1954, of a full-scale ministerial system, along with the new office of the Premier, the attempts, finally, to whittle down the powers of the nominated Legislative Council. And, as elsewhere, there developed a continuing climate of frustration as the defects inherent in each individual “step forward” became painfully apparent almost before the Governor of the day had completed the usual smug address, complimenting the colonials on their loyal devotion to British constitutional precedents, and the British on their generosity in granting to their subjects, a fresh part of “the best system that the world has ever seen.”

It is true enough that the changes, collectively, had the effect, over the decade between 1944 and 1954, of replacing the old executive machinery of the Victorian period (basically unchanged since 1881), with a modern cabinet system worked by elected ministers accountable to the popular house, and based on organised party support (for which the British could take no credit). In addition, those ministers became individually responsible in Executive Committee for propounding departmental business and collectively responsible in the House of Assembly for the public defense of government policies, with administration concurrently passing from the old colonial secretariat to the new cabinet body. It is true, too, that the new machinery undoubtedly enabled the Labour welfare programme much more expeditiously. Yet, with all that, Barbados still remained in “statu pupillary” to the Colonial Office. The dignity of the new title of Premier, the first such office in the West Indies, did not lessen the fact that the Governor retained the ultimate power in the areas of foreign affairs and the administrative establishment. Neither did the change of title from Colonial Secretary to Chief Secretary disguise the fact that the British official, accountable to the Governor, continued to control, among other things, the areas of defense and security, the police and the ceremonial and administrative work of the Executive Committee.

That this was so, became clear from the series of constitutional crises that took place during this period. These included the 1946 fracas over the anomalous status of the Attorney-General; the difficulties created by the continuing presence of nominated officials in the Executive Committee; the prolonged struggle to clip the wings of the Legislative Council, the Barbadian House of Lords; and the 1959 crisis over the question of the Governor’s appointive power with respect to the nomination of aldermen to the newly created Bridgetown City council. All of them were proof of the emptiness of the Barbadian claim to be the pacesetter in West Indian constitutional development, the image of Barbados duce et auspice duce. That was particularly so in the vexed issues of the second chamber and the role of the Governor. The Legislative Council throughout its life, had been almost wholly a reserve of the upper class white sectors of sugar and commerce, placed there by a gubernatorial power of unilateral appointment that was only qualified, late in the day, by the right conceded to the Premier to nominate his own candidate to act as Leader of Government business in the upper chamber. A thoroughly reactionary body it consistently opposed the introduction of the ministerial system, paid legislative service, and universal suffrage, all on the inarticulate major assumption that, in the words of R. G. Mapp, the “coloured boys” could not run anything. Arising out of the Labour Government’s drastic reform of the old vestry system of local government (which in itself, with its political church wardens, like Mottley, building up a “boss” system on the basis of colossal poor relief expenditures, constituted a superb example of Dickensian Barbados) that crisis brought into question, the constitutional convention of 1954. This convention accepted that the Governor in Executive Committee would accept, in legislative matters, the advice of the Ministers except in the event of “grave or exceptional circumstances.” It laid claim to extravagant powers, even going so far as to argue that, as a delaying and revising chamber, it could (1) amend or reject any measure, “of whatever nature it might be”, coming to it from the House, and (2) insist that a rejected measure, before being returned for further consideration by the Council, should become the subject matter of a new general election or of a special referendum, powers long ago abjured by the British House of Lords. It must be noted, as a footnote to those claims, that the 1963 controversy over the council’s attitude to the legislation concerning the right of peaceful picketing in industrial dispute, only avoided a head-on clash by the pretence that the Government party’s promise, in its 1961 election manifesto, to revise the then existing trade union act, in effect constituted such a popular mandate. It still remained true, despite such minor retreats, that the members of the upper house, including its sole trade union member, were possessed of an anti-Jacobinical mentality so morbid, that they could not even entertain the mild suggestion of some representation of the official opposition (after the fashion of the British House of Lords they affected to adore) in their set-up. That such a measure of institutional conservatism could grow up in a body which, having only been established in 1874, was a comparatively modern item in the Barbadian constitutional scheme, speaks volumes for the deep power of tradition in the Barbadian political mind. It is not surprising that, in 1964, it was replaced by a more up-to-date Senate.

It could, of course, be argued that an unrepresentative second chamber, being present in many independent countries, is not in itself evidence of colonialism, although the fact of its being recruited, in the Barbadian variant, by the nominating power of a colonial Governor weakens the analogy. Even in its successor body, the new Senate, the Governor continued, anachronistically, to wield a power of discretion¬ary nomination of a certain percentage of the membership. If, in any case, the matter of the bicameralist structure was a struggle between Tory Barbados and its own domestic critics, such was certainly not the case in the 1959 episode concerning the newly-formed Bridgetown City Council. Arising out of the Labour Government’s drastic reform of the old vestry system of local government (which in itself, with its political church wardens, like Mottley, building up a “boss” system on the basis of colossal poor relief expenditures, constituted a superb example of Dickensian Barbados) that crisis brought into question, the constitutional convention of 1954. This convention accepted that the Governor in Executive Committee would accept, in legislative matters, the advice of the Ministers except in the event of “grave or exceptional circumstances.”
As early as 1951, the Labour regime could boast of an impressive record of legislative achievement. “In the field of social services,” its Manifesto of that year stated. “the Labour Government can claim an impressive record in the recent session. It increased Old Age Pensions. It enlarged and increased the scope

Sir Robert Arundell chose to believe in 1959, that the appointment of aldermanic members to the new Bridgetown municipality constituted such circumstances, with the result that whereas, in 1954, he could announce that new system as the latest development in a process whereby the elected Cabinet took up the reins of government with “dignity and assurance”. By 1959 however, he was being pilloried, by the same Cabinet, as a hypocritical villain assaulting the spirit of the constitution. Nothing could have bet¬ter illuminated the dangers secreted in the West Indian tendency to embrace uncritically British constitutional conventions, as if a colonial Governor, however liberal, could be reduced to the ornamental status of a constitutional monarch. The very vehemence of the response of the Barbadian politicians to the 1959 episode indicated, perhaps, the extent of their naivete. It was probably true that, in the words of one of them, the Governor had so acted because he was mortally afraid of making it appear that he was attempting to upset the equilibrium of the Bridgetown financial magnates. But it was equally true that in their conviction, that their Premier enjoyed a relationship in Barbados with the Governor akin to that of the British Prime Minister vis-a-vis the Queen, the Barbadian political leadership had allowed its Anglophilism to get the better of its sense of colonial realities. Nor was the answer to their dilemma, the introduction of a written and rigid constitution after the American fashion, as some of them sternly demanded. Only independence (which has finally come in 1966) can put an end to such constitutional storms in colonial teacups. Only independence too, perhaps, can put an end to the more general contradiction of the Barbadian political spirit, between an inordinate pride in an immaculate constitution and the continuing need, as each succeeding storm exposed its weaknesses, to reform it.