The 1957 General Elections "Marking Time" with the Renison Constitution
By Cecilia McAlmont
February 1, 2007
It was the year of the Bandung Conference in Africa. For Africa it was also the year when, a decade after the dismantling of the British Raj on the sub-continent of India, it would have concrete evidence that the process of decolonization was truly on its way with the independence of Ghana.
For the citizens of British Guiana, after three years of "marking time" under an Interim Constitution and a nominated Interim government imposed after the suspension of the comparatively forward looking Waddington Constitution, it was the year when they were given an opportunity to vote for a second Interim Government but one which would once again include an elective component. Although, it is still some seven months before the actual fiftieth anniversary of that election, I thought it might be a good thing to jog the memories of those amongst us who were old enough to participate in the activities and those among us who were too young or had not yet been born. Perhaps we would all appreciate where we were, how far we have come and how far we still have to go.
The Waddington Constitution
To appreciate the significance of the 1957 General Election which was held under the auspices of the Renison Constitution, it is necessary to examine in some detail the specifics of the suspended Waddington Constitution, the Interim Constitution which took its place and the operation of the government under the latter.
The suspension of the Waddington Constitution, described in a Foreign Service Dispatch to the State Department in Washington, DC as the "Bloodless Imperial Coup in British Guiana" was the second political demotion for the colony in twenty five years.
The first, was undoubtedly the introduction in 1928 of Crown Colony government which finally dissolved the Dutch inherited Court of Policy and Combined Court in the latter of which especially, the elected members held a decisive majority although that majority was in favour of the planter class who used it to preserve their own interests at the expense of the mainly non-white working class majority.
However, in the aftermath of World War II, Britain, though eager was cautious in the dismantling of her cumbersome and burdensome Colonial Empire. Her first step, especially in the Caribbean was to grant Internal Self Government, preferably under the auspices of Federation, as a prelude to independence. In the specific case of British Guiana on October 8, 1950 a Commis-sion under the chairmanship of Sir E.J Waddington was instructed "to review the franchise, the composition of the Legislative Council and any other related manners, in the light of the economic and political development of the colony, and to make recommendations." The commission recommended the introduction of universal adult suffrage; a bicameral legislature consisting of a House of Assembly of 24 elected members and three ex-officio members: the Chief Secretary, the Financial Secretary and the Attorney General and State Council consisting of 6 members nominated by the governor; 2 nominated by the majority group and one by the minority group in the House of Assembly. However, while there was no longer any income or property qualification, elected members had to be literate in English. There was also to be an Executive Council consisting of the Governor as President, three ex-officio members, namely the Chief Secretary, the Attorney General, the Financial Secretary and seven ministers. Six of the seven ministers were to be elected by the House of Assembly from among elected members and one by the State Council.
It soon became evident that the Waddington Commis-sioners and Whitehall had severely underestimated the extent of the growth of political consciousness among the Guianese people. Using as its yardstick the weak British Guiana Labour Party which had been formed by J. B. Singh in 1946 and all but disappeared after its defeat in the 1947 elections, they had by and large ignored the emergence of the mass based People's Progressive Party (PPP). They had postulated: "Ministerial responsibility in England is collective, predicates the existence of fully fledged party system. This does not yet apply in British Guiana‚€¦It would (be) unrealistic to recommend constitutional arrangements based upon fully developed party organizations which do not yet exist." This sentiment was underscored by the fragility of the other parties that emerged to contest the elections - the National Democratic Party (NDP) which emerged out of the League of Coloured Peoples and was described by Raymond Smith as follows: "the tendency to fragmentation which is characteristic of loose organizations with ill defined goals produced a series of damaging splits in the fabric of the NDP before the elections." A faction of the NDP, the People's National Party, the United Guiana Party and the United Farmers and Workers Party also contested the elections.
The gross underestimation of the far reaching political aspirations of the British Guianese led to the colony being granted a constitution that was described as "one of the most advanced in the British Colonies at the time." The framers of the constitution had certainly not envisaged one party gaining 75% of the seats. The PPP acted on the assumption that their overwhelming victory at the polls was a mandate from the people to implement, as rapidly as possible, the promises of their manifesto - secular education, land reform, low rental housing, establishment of new industries. According to the leader, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, it was their responsibility "to bring a socialist new deal to the lives of the working people of our country." In their impatience and perhaps a lack of knowledge of what in today's parlance would be termed "politically correct behaviour," their modus operandi and often their utterances alarmed other Caribbean nationalists, the conservative elements within the society, and Governor, Sir Alfred Savage. At a time when the Cold War was beginning to 'heat up' and Britain accepted the Truman Doctrine, the PPP's efforts to remove the ban on the entry of West Indian communists to the country and the introduction of a Bill to repeal the Undesirable Publications Ordinance seemed to be further proof that the PPP were a bunch of rabid Communists.
The Interim Constitution and Government
The constitution was suspended under the following three instruments - the British Guiana (Constitution) (Amendment) Order-in-Council 1953 which revoked the constitution as the principal instrument of policy and gave to the governor the full discretion in the exercise of all powers conferred upon him by the Constitution. The third instrument asserted his authority over the Executive Council. On October 8, 1953 elected ministers lost their portfolios and the following day, "Black Friday," the State Council and House of Assembly were prorogued. However, by the British Guiana (Constitution) (Temp-orary Provisions) Order-in-Council 1953, an interim Constitution was set up, based on the recommendation of the Robertson Commission which had been appointed to make recommendations in respect of changes to be made to the constitution. Among others, the Executive Council, with a purely advisory status, was reconstituted and now consisted of the Governor, as President, the Chief Secretary, the Attorney General, the Financial Secretary and not more than seven nominated members who could be either unofficial or official. There was also a Legislative Council consisting of a Speaker, the Chief Secretary, the Attorney General, the Financial Secretary and twenty four nominated members. For the first time the colony had a legislature without an elected element. It was indeed a retrograde step.
The interim government turned out to be a collection of individuals with little in common that could weld them into a competent, effective political force. They lacked the capacity to implement the ambitious development plan which envisaged the expenditure of $46,000,000. However, the plan was undersubscribed both in terms of finance and the human resources necessary for its successful implementation. According to Daniel, the economy 'stagnated' and 'stumbled' under the Interim Government. Not only did they prove incapable of performing the main task for which they had been selected, their administration which drew criticisms from all sides, was rocked by other unsavory incidents which embarrassed and outraged the governor, the citizens and Colonial Secretary. To add to the country's economic woes was the contentious split of the nationalist PPP into Burnhamite and Jaganite factions. The "marking time" period was proving to be extremely tumultuous. By mid 1955 Sir Alfred Savage resigned a beaten and disillusioned man.
His place was taken by Sir Patrick Renison who was cited as a man who had tamed and coopted a radical party in British Honduras. He was tasked with the responsibility of developing a new policy towards the colony. According to Daniel, "while Britain could not discredit Jagan, they maybe could pull his fangs". This was an important part of Renison's responsibility. He, however, soon realized that the restrictions which were to be used to "pull the fangs" of the PPP would also crush the milk teeth of the cubs he was to nurture to take over the territory of (as Whitehall hoped) a soon to be toothless feline. The Renison constitution was to be an integral part of the mechanism to help get the job done.
I will conclude this discussion - the campaign, the elections itself and the results in the anniversary month of our 1957 "marking time" elections.