ARTICLES: THREE CASES OF CONSTITUTIONALISM AND CUCKOO POLITICS: CEYLON, BRITISH GUIANA AND GRENADA

III – BRITISH GUIANA

 The constitutional history of British Guiana has largely followed the pattern of other colonial territories. In the latter stages of colonialism a Legislative Council elected by restricted franchise finally gave way to a Council elected by universal adult franchise. The major change in Guianese political and constitutional development took place in 1953 with the granting of a new Constitution, following the recommendations of the Waddington Commission. Amongst the features of the Constitution were the establishment of a bicameral legislature, with a House of Assembly consisting of twenty-four elected members and three ex-officio members, the Chief Secretary, Financial Secretary and Attorney General. The Speaker was appointed from outside the House by the Governor; however, he had no casting vote. In addition, a State Council was established from the House, consisting of nine members, six of whom were appointed by the Governor, two of whom were chosen from elected ministers, and a last member who was appointed after consultation with the minority parties.

The most significant feature of the Waddington Constitution, however, is that it called for the establishment of an Executive Council consisting of a President, three ex-officio members from the House of Assembly, and six Ministers chosen by ballot in the House. Of these latter, one was to be elected by the Ministers on the Executive Council to be the Leader of the House. However, one Minister Without Portfolio appointed by the State Council, was also included in the Executive Council.

Despite all these impressive bodies the Governor had at his discretion, reserve powers which he was to use later in the year to suspend this same Constitution. The Waddington Constitution also introduced universal adult franchise for the first time, and in the first election of April 1953, the People’s Progressive Party, led by both Dr. Jagan and Mr. Burnham, won the majority of the seats. In October 1953, six months after the election, the Governor, using his discretionary powers, suspended the Constitution and relieved the Ministers of their Portfolios.

The Waddington Constitution was based on the assumption that until B.G. developed a competitive party system, it was necessary and even preferable to stress individual representation as against party representation. As in the case of Ceylon, they anticipated that B.G. would follow the general pattern of colonial societies, namely of middle class domination in politics with possibly a working class-peasant electoral base.

The framers o! the Constitution were very ambivalent in regard to the line lo be drawn between individual and collective responsibility. On one occasion they said that responsibility had to be vested in the Ministers, and that this responsibility must be real. On another occasion they said that since B.G. had not developed a political tradition the appointed officials should have power for a considerable period of time. In B.G., however, there was a somewhat peculiar phenomenon in what appeared to be an ideologically oriented, non-racial party. One wonders, however, whether the ideological and organizational cohesion attributed to the P.P.P. at that time were not more real in the minds of the colonial officials than in the movement itself. For example the P.P.P. in their brief reign before suspension did not pass any radical measures calling for drastic social and economic change. They often gave the impression both inside and outside the Legislative Council that they were far more radical than they really were. Their employment of the socialist rhetoric probably even deceived themselves as to how radical they were.

This resulted not surprisingly in a showdown between the elected officials and the appointed ones, and in the eventual suspension of the Constitution. The Robertson Commission, which investigated the suspension of the Constitution, said that the P.P.P. had consciously violated the intent of the Constitution by acting extra-constitutionally. This was the bulk of their criticism. They considered that the gravest error of the P.P.P. was to attack the Civil Service and the Public Service Commission on the grounds that they represented the imperial power. There was, in addition, the ideological problem, which simply meant ‘that the British Government was very wary about the possibility of a Marxist-Communist party with an external alliance emerging in the Caribbean. Britain was not only part of the Western alliance, but at that time was at war with the Communist world in Korea. A Communist Guiana would have been an embarrassment not only to her, but even more to her North American ally. Furthermore, the threat of a Communist Guiana represented a dangerous precedent to the established pattern of middle-class politics in the British Caribbean. B.G. also had the potential of becoming a beach head of communism in Latin America. By suspending the Waddington Constitution Britain believed it was putting an end to domestic chaos in Guiana, as well as preventing the communisation of the colony and perhaps the rest of the area.

In the suspension order itself, however, two grounds were given for suspending both the Constitution and the Ministers. The Robertson Commission and the Governor at that time, Sir Alfred Savage, argued that it was possible to allow self-government by constitutional means, almost regardless of the domestic politics advocated, provided that the British Government was satisfied that this constitutional government had no external sympathies, or ties with non-Western powers. The British Government thus introduced a new dichotomy into Guianese politics. Essentially they argued that it was possible lo be socialist (internally) and to obtain independence, but difficult, if not impossible, to be communist (internally and externally) and to obtain independence.

The split in the P.P.P. was ostensibly over these ideological issues. In reality, however, it was primarily a factional dispute with racial overtones. Factional disputes, especially in cuckoo systems where there is no real power to distribute, quickly degenerate to simple procedural politics. In fact, within a short period, both leaders became committed to the parliamentary system and developed electoral parties, whether from necessity or choice. The fine distinctions between socialism and communism became increasingly remote and abstract for the Guianese polity.

Given the basic conditions set down for them, the leaders found that the appeals of race and ethnic identification were much more useful than ideology in obtaining electoral support. Dr. Jagan, given his early ideological and cultural predispositions, portrayed himself as a serious ascetic leader with a sense of historical mission. Mr. Burnham proceeded to portray himself as a brilliant legal mind capable of inspiring the nation to fulfil its destiny within the context of the West Indian community. A number of commentators have suggested that personality differences alone have stood in the way of coalition. This, however, is a gross over simplification. The differences in political style and strategy between the two leaders need to be examined. Many years of political competition have made both leaders contemptuous of one another in their struggle for office. Once it became clear that office was more important than content, any coalition based on ideological premises became impossible.