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The Interim Government (1954-57)
Dictatorship by the Colonial Office

by Odeen Ishmael

On the 1 November, 1953, just about a month after the overthrow of the PPP Government by the British Government and the landing of British troops in Guyana, the New York Post wrote:

“If London's intervention in British Guiana held promise of curing or alleviating some of the colony's basic ills, it could be justified even though there was originally no immediate danger of a communist coup. Unfortunately, the British have unwittingly created a vacuum that may be more dangerous than the condition existing before.

“London plans to appoint an interim government to rule until another constitution is framed. A commission is to proceed to Guiana soon to work on the latter task.

“But a dilemma immediately confronts Britain. Can it establish a representative interim government without including members of the majority People's Progressive Party? On the other hand, how can it include members of that Party when the White Paper has condemned it as communist-run and troops were sent to eject it from office?

“There are only two circumstances under which Britain may logically name PPPers to the interim government: if a split occurred and the non-Communists were willing to cooperate.”

Clearly, the British had already set into motion plans to split the PPP, for surely they felt that having some "safe" members of the PPP in the planned Interim Government would add some respectability to it. At the same time they hoped that such persons would be able to win the confidence of the people to get them to support the plans of the Colonial Office. Apparently, however, the time period was too short to bring such plans to fruition.

The Colonial Office found it extremely difficult to get people with popular support on its Interim Government which it eventually scraped together and named on the 27 December, 1953. The seven-man Executive Council included three businessmen, two persons who were defeated in the 1953 elections (one had even lost his deposit), the former Financial Secretary and the leader of the opposition of the deposed House of Assembly. The twenty-four members of the Legislative Council included the chairman of the Sugar Producer's Association, a director of several companies, five defeated candidates (four of whom had lost their deposits), two civil servants and the members of the opposition of the deposed House. Included in the Executive Council and the Legislative Council were the Chief Secretary, the Attorney General and the Financial Secretary, all British-appointed colonial officers.

The members of this puppet Interim Government were mainly elite and middle-class elements drawn from the National Democratic Party which had won only two seats in the 1953 election. This party, shortly after, merged with other reactionary factions to form the United Democratic Party (UDP). Thus, the puppet administration put back into power the same influences which controlled the country prior to the PPP victory in April 1953.
For its part, the PPP issued this statement soon after the Governor, Sir Alfred Savage, announced the formation of the Interim Government:

The [PPP] Party did not expect any of its representatives to be nominated to the Interim Government and would not have acceded to its members being nominated to the Legislature since it is commonly known that we have always fought against the nominated system. It is a decadent and bad form of government which is formed without the consent or choice of the people. It is a reflection on the ability of any people to choose rightly and well. Consequently, ever since our policy and programme were formulated, we have gone on record against the nominated system. . . . To this principle, as indeed to all our principles, we shall always firmly adhere. Sir Alfred's [the Governor] refusal to nominate any PPP member was not, however, due to our stand on this high and laudable principle. It was due, as he put it, to the fact that ‘none of them has had the courage to openly declare himself or herself as opposed to the communist influence which presently dominates the Party’."

On its establishment, the Interim Government publicized ambitious plans and promised to improve economic and social conditions in the country. However, among its first actions was its confirmation of the declaration of the existing state of emergency. Then, under the direction of the Governor, who assumed dictatorial powers, it detained in prison a number of PPP militants. It also placed Dr. Jagan under restriction in February 1954 just after his return from India, and he was in April imprisoned when he broke the restriction order. A few days before his release in September, Janet Jagan was also imprisoned for five months on trumped up charges.

In the meantime, the Interim Government moved to undo all the PPP’s legislative actions. This included the re-enactment of the Undesirable Publications Ordinance which placed a ban on progressive literature and films. (This repeal of this Ordinance had been approved by the Legislative Council in PPP and was awaiting final approval by the Upper House when the constitution was suspended.) Through the emergency regulations and this Ordinance, hundreds of people were arrested, intimidated and threatened. The youth arm of the PPP and the British Guiana Peace Committee were banned and in May 1954 the Police was ordered to close down the PPP headquarters in Regent Street, Georgetown.

But terror tactics by the Governor and the Interim Government could not force the people to give their support to them, since in addition to their leaders being harassed, social and economic conditions were deteriorating. Housing, particularly on the sugar estates, was not improving. Unemployment was also increasing as a result of factory closures and technological innovations. The pro-British Daily Chronicle in April 1954 complained: "Unemployment ranks are swelling. People are getting restless. The Government must find work now. They want action today, not merely promises of big things in the future."

The Anglican Archbishop of the West Indies, Dr. Alan John Knight, commented on the feeling of fear that stalked the land. In a sermon at Christ Church in Georgetown on January 2, 1955, he stated: “The trouble is that the whole country today lies prostrate in the merciless grip of that evil tyrant whose name is fear. Far too many people are afraid to speak their minds, let alone to take positive action in the cause of righteousness.”

Hoping to offset these problems, the Interim Government went on a spending spree. A sum of $44 million was voted for developmental expenditure for 1954-55. (The Colonial Office had previously agreed to an expenditure of $26 million for the ten-year period, 1949-59. A World Bank mission in 1952 had also recommended an expenditure of $66 million for a five-year development plan.) Thus, the sum voted to be spent by the Interim Government for just one year exceeded by far the previous plans of both the Colonial Office and the World Bank.

In addition, the puppet administration went on a propaganda blitz with wild claims and promises as to its proposed development plans. Much wastage occurred and money was wildly spent on planning some of its ambitious projects. For example, $30,000 was spent just to design a seven-storey hospital and one-third of a million dollars was paid to a British consulting firm to plan a 70-mile highway between Georgetown and Rosignol.

Furthermore, there was evidence of corruption and nepotism. Lord Lloyd, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, commented in March 1955: "I also hope that efforts will be made to tackle all the causes of discontent, oppression, failure to respond to justified complaint and outright dishonesty and greed."

In the light of the prevailing situation, the PPP described the economic policies of the Interim Government as "national bribery" and "national sell-out". The Party attacked the development plan for its inadequate size and its lack of emphasis on industrial and agricultural development. The Party also warned the workers that the objective of the Interim Government, in its plan to indulge in heavy expenditure, was an attempt to bribe them away from the PPP.

But the promises and lavish spending of the Interim Government were not successful in drawing away support from the PPP. Actually, the strength of the Party grew; the Interim Government was met with such disfavor that it threw into the camp of the PPP persons who were hitherto neutral or against it. And despite the many efforts to restrict and destroy the PPP, the Party won a majority of seats in most of the village councils in local government elections held at the beginning of 1954.

When efforts failed to deplete the strength of the PPP, the Colonial Office, for psychological reasons replaced the principal personalities involved in the suspension of the 1953 constitution with hope that the new appointees would do a better job in undermining PPP support. Sir Patrick Renison replaced Sir Alfred Savage as Governor, Derek Jakeway succeeded John Gutch as Chief Secretary and Attorney General, Frank Holder, was promoted to Chief Justice.

But removing these officials made no impact on the people. Attempts at nation bribery were proving very expensive; corruption was widespread and the Interim Government came under attack from every quarter. Further, the cost of living was rapidly rising and rice farmers suffered a drop in prices in 1956.

The UDP, whose members and supporters comprised the majority in the Interim Legislative Council, was obviously worried that the policies of the Interim Government were not winning support away from the PPP which continued to maintain that only democracy and determination would improve the social and economic conditions in the country. A desperate UDP, therefore, wrote to the Chief Secretary, on the 20 December, 1954 saying that "for sometime now we have been of the firm opinion that the Interim Government would be assisted to a very great degree in winning the confidence of the people had it established further contact with certain sections of the community via independent Ministries of Industry and Commerce, Education and Labour."

The UDP saw their participation in the puppet Interim Government as a chance to be in "power", and many of their members who held leading positions in the administration (such as John Carter, Lionel Luckhoo and Rudy Kendall) were fearful of any forthcoming election. On the 26 October, 1956, during discussions in the Executive Council on the issue of a date for general election under a “new” constitution, Rudy Kendall, the Minister of Communications and Works, called for a delay in the election to allow the Interim Government to win some support. He stated that "in spite of its inherently unpopular nature, the Interim Government had done a lot to push the development program, but that because preliminary investigations take time to complete, it would be some time yet before some of the projects could exercise any considerable impact on a large part of the population."

As a result of poor performance of the Interim Government, even its mouthpiece, the Daily Chronicle on the 27 November, 1955 complained in an editorial:

Two years have gone by and we are no better off than we were before the political debacle. We have had more houses built, we have had self-aided schemes, a little of this and a little of that, but the population is increasing faster than ever, unemployment is increasing and the cost of living continues to rise. We submit to marking time politically, and even here we expect the time has come for some closure to that, but must we submit to marking time where the economic development of the country is concerned? Must we continue to live as we are living, or should we say, existing. Let there be an end to this nonsense.”

W.J. Raatgever, President of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Interim Government, during a debate in the Legislative Council in November 1955 declared: "So far as I have seen – and I have gone around quite fairly – there have been no developmental work done in this country." Even Jock Campbell, Chairman of Bookers and champion of British colonialism, had been forced to make these criticisms in August 1955:

"The political situation in British Guiana can best be described as quiescent. . . . with this Interim Government with some emergency regulations still in force preventing open subversion and indiscriminate agitation, and with British troops in the country, there is little fear, at present of serious disorder. But this is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs and the country cannot exist for long – and certainly cannot progress – in a political vacuum."

W.T. Lord, another nominee to the Legislative Council, complained on the 21 December, 1956 that the Minister of Agriculture, Lands and Mines, Frank Mc David, had failed to formulate a policy with regard to either land or agriculture and that "not one constructive idea has been produced."

It was clear that the Interim Government was suffering from inertia and money available for development in 1954-55 was under-spent because the members of the government could not come to an agreement on how to spend it. It must be noted that of the $44 million earmarked for that period, only $26 million was actually utilized.

Faced with a deteriorating economic situation, the British Government sought an electoral solution after it felt that the PPP would lose if the electoral boundaries were manipulated. The British Government probably also developed the opinion that PPP supporters were either disillusioned because of many of their leaders being imprisoned, or had moved away to join with the Burnham group after the split in the Party in February 1955. The British Government was apparently convinced that the Burnham group would win the election, or would join with the UDP in a coalition government, thus forcing the PPP in opposition.

The colonial authorities also wanted a commitment by an elected government on the issue of the West Indian Federation. In a statement, Government Renison explained: "If British Guiana was still without any form of representative government which would decide whether not to join the Caribbean Federation, it would be a disappointment."

The leaders of Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad also influenced the British Government to reach the decision to hold a general election since they had been convinced by Burnham's propaganda line that he would win any forthcoming election and lead Guyana into the West Indian Federation. (The West Indian leaders, Grantley Adams, Norman Manley and Patrick Solomon of Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad respectively, apparently gave Burnham their unilateral support when they met with him at the Ghana independence celebrations in early 1957.)

The Governor admitted that the period of the Interim Government was a "frustrating period of marking time". This was not strange since dictatorial and non-democratic rule by a motley group of unpopular persons appointed by the British Government could not generate any form of progress.

Finally, a new constitution drawn up by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Alan Lennox-Boyd, was announced on the 25 April 1956. But this was even more backward than the one proposed by the Robertson Commission (which met in 1954 to rationalize the overthrow of the PPP Government). This new constitution provided for a single chamber Legislative Council of 12 elected members counterbalanced by 8 nominated and 4 ex-officio members (i.e., senior colonial officers), and an Executive Council of 5 elected members counterbalanced by 5 non-elected (i.e., 4 ex-officio and one nominated). The Robertson Commission, though providing for similar control of the Executive Council by the Governor, had recommended that the legislature should have, as in 1953, an elected majority. For the House of Assembly, it had proposed 25 elected seats, one more (for Rupununi) than in 1953.

The PPP immediately registered its opposition to these constitutional proposals and demanded that the new constitution must introduce a large measure of self-government.

After the announcement of the proposals was made, the Governor left for London for consultations. On his return in October 1956, he announced modification in the original plan – that the legislature would have 14 elected seats instead of 12, 3 ex-officio members and as much as 11 other nominated members. (After the elections in August 1957, only six nominated members were appointed by the Governor.)

Even before general elections were announced for August 1957, Burnham declared that his group would contest all 14 seats. The UDP also made a similar statement. On the other hand the PPP continued to agitate for changes in the proposed constitution and made attempts to form a united front with Burnham’s group and other political parties to contest the elections. However, after these attempts proved to be futile, the Party finally decided to contest 13 of the seats.

At the general election, the PPP convincingly won 9 seats, while Burnham's group won 3, the UDP 1 and the National Labour Front (NLF) 1. Two months later, Burnham's group merged with the UDP to form the People's National Congress (PNC).

With the formation of a new PPP Government (even though with limited powers) the period of the Interim Government came to an unlamented end.

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