CHARTING THE COURSE FOR DEMOCRATIC CHANGE
The Waddington Commission Report and the First Congress of the PPP
by Odeen Ishmael PhD
In 1951, fifty-four years ago, two momentous events occurred in the history of Guyana. These were, first, the visit of the constitutional commission sent by the British Colonial Office to examine the proposals from Guyanese and to decide on what new constitutional advances should be introduced; and, secondly, that year also marked the holding of the first annual congress of the one-year-old People's Progressive Party (PPP).
Both of these events remain extremely significant in Guyanese history. The constitutional commission (styled the Waddington Commission, after its chairman) introduced a relatively advanced constitution to the then British colony. But, more significantly, it agreed to the demands of the fledgling but increasingly popular PPP that universal adult suffrage must be implemented in the general elections which were to come later in 1953.
The winning of adult suffrage was a great victory for the masses of the people who were now presented with the opportunity to participate in the total development of their nation alongside the PPP. The party, meantime, had already signified that it was ready to confront colonialism, and to struggle for the economic, social and political advancement of the country.
The first Congress was important, too, because it established a disciplined and organized approach to the political struggle. A program published in April 1950, one year before, was adopted by this Congress. It showed that the party was organizing itself to wrest concessions for the people from the colonial rulers. The organization of its propaganda work, its campaign among trade unions, and its influential work in rural communities, in particular, would eventually win it more support within the next two years even more than it actually estimated. The program also enunciated that the main objective was the winning of independence for Guyana.
B. Appointment of the Waddington Commission
The formation of the PPP in 1950 and its first Congress just one year later coincided with the anticipated appointment of the constitutional commission. On the 25 August 1948 the Legislative Council had debated the question of adult suffrage. Dr. Jagan, the only member of the Political Affairs Committee in the Council, took up the cudgel of the struggle for the vote for all citizens and spoke vigorously in support of it. However, the vote was defeated as the privileged conservative elements plus leading lights in the League of Coloured Peoples Dr. Gonzales, Dr. Nicholson and Rudy Kendall voted against.
On the 16 December 1948, the Governor in his address to the Legislative Council announced that a commission would be appointed "shortly" to examine the possibility of granting greater participation of Guyanese in governing the country. Even earlier, in 1941, the British-appointed Franchise Commission which visited Guyana had come close to granting universal adult suffrage after it had received a number of petitions calling for the removal of all property, income and literacy qualifications for the voting population.1
Agitation activities by the Political Affairs Committee (PAC), particularly during and after the 1948 sugar strike which led to the killing of the Enmore Martyrs, hastened the appointment of the Commission. The PAC Bulletin of the 17 December 1948 carried a strong appeal to "Change the Constitution!" It stated: "What does constitutional reform mean? In terms of the working man, the citizen of British Guiana, it means a greater issue in the Government. . . Number one on the list of needed reforms is universal adult suffrage."2
The Women's Political and Economic Organization (WPEO), formed in 1946, also took up the call for adult suffrage with special reference to women's exclusion from the vote.
On the 8 October 1950, the commission, comprising of E.J. Waddington as chairman, Dr. Rita Hinden and Professor Vincent Harlow as members, was finally appointed "to review the franchise, the composition of the legislature and of the Executive Council .. . . and to make recommendations".3
In April 1950, the PPP issued its first call for constitutional reform and self-government. In December 1950, two months after the Waddington Commission was appointed, the party began circulating a petition for a "Free Constitution". The December 1950 issue of Thunder declared that a new spirit was sweeping the country, and added: "In all parts of this country of ours, men and women, students and young people are struggling to free themselves of the chains that bind them, and of the cultural tyranny that stunts their growth."4
This petition was circulating and gathering thousands of signatures when the commission arrived in the country on the 15 December 1950.
C. PPP Proposals to the Commission
The PPP presented both written and oral evidence to the commission. Oral evidence was given on the 2 February 1951 by a delegation made up of Cheddi Jagan, Forbes Burnham, Aubrey Fraser, Clinton Wong and Janet Jagan.
In its memorandum submitted earlier to the commission, the party proposed that the Guyanese people should be allowed to frame their own constitution by the election of a constituent assembly on the basis of adult suffrage. It demanded that any future constitution must allow full internal self-government with a unicameral legislature fully elected under universal adult suffrage without any literacy qualifications. The Executive Council, the PPP insisted, must be presided over by the Prime Minister and should consist of eight other Ministers. The Governor's position was to be that of a titular head of state with no veto, and he should act on the advice of the elected Ministers. However, he was to hold reserve powers limited to defense and external affairs.
Among other demands by the PPP was that the Speaker should be elected by and from the Legislative Council which should also have the right to change the constitution by a two-thirds majority; there must be fully elected local authorities based on universal adult suffrage; there must be no nominated seats in the Legislature or local authorities; and that all checks on the work of the elected government were unnecessary and offensive.
The PPP objected to a bi-cameral Legislature unless the second chamber was also elected. It saw no need for a State Council (or nominated upper house) and insisted that such a body could only serve the reactionary and undemocratic purpose of curbing the will of the people.
A number of reactionary elements in the society also submitted evidence to the commission and proposed measures which were in total support of colonial rule. These organizations included the political arm of the Roman Catholic Church, The Sword of the Spirit, which vehemently opposed the introduction of universal adult suffrage.
D. The Report of the Waddington Commission
At the end of the sittings, the commission departed for Britain to prepare its final report. The chairman, E. J. Waddington, recommended to the body that they should agree to the introduction of a unicameral legislature with 18 elected, 6 nominated and 3 official members appointed by the Colonial Office. However, the two other members, Harlow and Hinden, argued against nominated members in the unicameral legislature since they felt that such a legislature would be packed "with the Governor's friends".5 They made recommendations which formed the basis of the final constitution which was eventually handed down. These proposals suggested a bi-cameral legislature with a State Council or Upper House which would be totally nominated. As would be seen after the 1953 elections, this all-powerful Council was indeed packed with the Governor's friends!
In its report presented to the Labor Government in Britain, the Waddington Commission made the following proposals for British Guiana's new constitution:
1. Universal adult suffrage would be introduced in the forthcoming elections. All persons 21 years and over would have the right to vote. The literacy qualification would be abolished.
2. There would be a bi-cameral legislature with a life of four years. This would be made up of:
(a) A House of Assembly of 24 elected members and 3 other official members appointed by the Colonial Office. These three members would be the Chief Secretary, the Financial Secretary and the Attorney General. This House would be presided over by a Speaker appointed by the Governor from outside the Legislature, but he would have no vote.
(b) A State Council comprising of nine members to be appointed by the Governor. Six of these were to be appointed by the Governor at his discretion, two on the recommendation of the six elected Ministers, and one appointed after consultation with the independent and minority party members of the House of Assembly. One of these nine was to be chosen by the others as president of the Council.
3. There would be an Executive Council consisting of the Governor as chairman with a casting vote, the six elected Ministers, the three Colonial Office appointees in the House of Assembly, and a member of the State Council, to be designated Minister without Portfolio.
4. The Governor would hold reserve veto powers for use at his discretion in the interests of "public order, public faith and good government",6 but he would be bound automatically to act in accordance with the advice of the Executive Council.
5. Certain money bills could be delayed in the State Council for up to three months and other bills for up to one year.
6. The three official members would hold the important portfolios of Foreign Affairs, Police, Law and Order, Defense and Finance. The commission was adamant that these portfolios "cannot yet be transferred with confidence to elected Ministers".7
The commission also declared that Guyana was not yet ready for internal self-government, and that checks that would be carried out by the nominated State Council "form an integral part of democratic government".8
According to the commission's proposals, the Leader of the House the title of the chief of the elected Ministers would be devoid of any power.
Despite all of this, the Secretary of State for the Colonies of the British Labor Party Government felt that the Waddington Commission was too liberal in its recommendations, and he suggested that the number should be reduced to five, with the right of selecting those Ministers granted to the three Colonial Office nominated members!9
The PPP raised strong objection to this backward proposal. However, the Labor Party was voted out of power in the British elections, and the new Conservative Party Government upheld the recommendations of the Waddington Commission. Towards the end of 1951, the British government approved the Waddington constitution as that under which a new government would be elected and formed in 1953.
Despite the limitations of the new constitution, it was much more advanced than that under which the 1947-1953 government operated. The election of the 14 members of that legislature was based on a restricted franchise with property, income and literacy qualifications. A smaller number of other members nominated by the Governor and the Colonial Office also made up the legislature, over which the Governor and the Colonial Office had total authority. There was no ministerial system and the Governor could veto any bill.
E. Criticisms of the Waddington Constitution
The report of the Waddington Commission immediately came under attack from the PPP, which by then had become even more organized following its fist Congress just a few months before. Writing in the Thunder of November 1951, Forbes Burnham, then chairman of the party, said that the report succeeded "in illustrating that indeed the state is an instrument designed to maintain the dominance of the ruling class and that there is no advance to be gained except by relentless and determined struggle".10 And in the Legislative Council in January 1952, Dr. Jagan attacked the proposed Waddington constitution as being merely a fake and another tactic of the British colonialists to perpetrate exploitation and maintain the old order. He urged the struggle for immediate self-government.11
An official statement of the program of the PPP issued in January 1952 described the Waddington constitution as a "new formula for the continued subjugation of our people".12
The Thunder of September 1952 predicted the dictatorial use of the veto powers by the Governor under the new Constitution. It added: "Our party will never rest until these checks and veto powers are completely removed."13
F. The First Congress of the PPP
The struggle for self-government and a progressive constitution had become reinforced just before the holding of the party's first Congress, and this was intensified following that historic event. The Congress which was held in Georgetown on the 1 April 1951, adopted the party's constitution, and the delegates who traveled from all over the coast of Guyana, elected the following officers: Leader, Cheddi Jagan; Chairman, Forbes Burnham; First Vice-Chairman, H. Aubrey Fraser; Second Vice-Chairman, Clinton Wong; General Secretary, Janet Jagan; Assistant General Secretary, Sydney King; Treasurer, Ramkarran; and General Council Members, Ashton Chase, Rudy Luck, F.O. Van Sertima, I. Cendrecourt, May Thompson, H. Critchlow, E. Kennard, Theo Lee, U. Fingall, Jainarine Singh, Sheila La Taste, J.P. Lachhmansingh, C. Cambridge, Fred Bowman and Pandit S. Misir.
By the time this congress was held, the party had already set its aim at "dislodging the older style political movements which appeared and disappeared equally quickly before and after each election".14 The party also emerged after this congress as "a different kind of political party with a strong organizational apparatus, a guiding ideology and grass roots support . . . the first mass party to appear in Guyana".15
With the anticipation of the general elections in 1953, the PPP, more than any group, was prepared for the contest. It had organizational preparedness and, with its strong teams of campaign workers, it worked assiduously to win the support of the people of the country. Both the major ethnic groups, the Indo- and Afro-Guyanese, were united under the leadership of the party which they saw as their only salvation for the future. This unity was so strong, even up to the period following the suspension of the Waddington constitution, that the President of the East Indian Association, C.R. Jacob Sr., a leading opponent of the PPP, was to declare later in 1954: "There is greater unity today than there ever was in the history of this country, and it was because of this unity, that Guianese witnessed the great conspiracy of last year which resulted in the rape of the Waddington constitution."16
The PPP hoped that in the 1953 elections it would win enough seats to form a strong opposition, and planned to continue the "politics of protest"17 in the legislature. It was clear that at that early period the party underestimated its real strength.
By the time house-to-house registration of voters was completed for the 1953 elections, 208,939 voters were registered. Of this amount over 150,000 were newly enfranchised. It was estimated that since about 40,000 were illiterate, special arrangements had to be made to allow them to vote.
G. Blocks to the Constitution Placed by the Governor
The massive victory of the PPP in the April 1953 elections caught the British government by complete surprise. The Governor, Sir Alfred Savage, almost immediately began to institute systems to block moves by the PPP to implement its electoral program. In the State Council, the six members appointed at the Governor's discretion were all vigorous anti-PPP supporters who even included defeated candidates in the elections. Yet, in what was clearly an immoral act, these persons were now put in a position to place checks on the work of the democratically elected PPP government. Despite winning 18 of the 24 seats in the House of Assembly, the PPP had only two nominees on the State Council. The Governor did not see it fit to choose PPP members in the six he selected, thus ensuring that the Party held a minority on that Council. One of the Governor's nominees was Lionel Luckhoo, a defeated candidate, who had conducted a bitter, heavily financed campaign against the PPP in the period before the elections.
Further, since the constitution gave no power to the PPP Government to control the public service, many of the senior officials were openly unsympathetic and disloyal to the Ministers with whom they worked.
The Governor also placed all forms of stumbling blocks in the Executive Council to prevent the smooth running of the government. It was clear that the colonialists were caught in a dilemma. They did not expect the PPP to win the elections and they anticipated that Ministers would be drawn from different parties and, thus, the Governor would have been able to manipulate them.
In the Executive Council, the Governor and the official members showed no signs of being able to set aside their personal dislike for the PPP Ministers. They acted as though their primary function in that Council was to prevent the PPP Ministers from implementing any of the party's policies. They always tried to bluff the Ministers into believing that certain proposals were administratively impracticable and constitutionally improper.
The Governor himself prevented the Executive Council, which had a PPP majority, from adopting proposals to which he was opposed. As chairman of the Council, he insisted at first on deferring discussions of a subject, with the hope that differences would arise among the elected Ministers, thus enabling him to obtain a decision acceptable to himself at a subsequent meeting. He also deliberately disallowed discussions on issues he opposed to ensure they would not come up again for Executive Council decision.18
H. The Constitution Suspended
As a result of the strong opposition of the Governor and his nominated friends in the State Council and the Executive Council, the PPP in September 1953 launched the Patriotic Appeal. Through this Patriotic Appeal, the population was urged to sign a petition opposing the undemocratic system of checks imposed by the Governor and the State Council, the retention of the three officials in the House of Assembly, and the veto and reserve powers of the Governor. This petition was intended to urge the British Government to amend the Waddington constitution and to make it more progressive. Clearly, the British Government was not interested in allowing democracy to flourish in its colony. Progressive Labor leaders in Britain such as Aneurin Bevan declared later that it became clear that "the people of British Guiana had every freedom to elect their Ministers as long as those Ministers did not oppose the official policy of the Colonial Office".19
The plan to control the population under this constitution and the eventual destruction of the same constitution in October 1953 was caused not by the PPP's refusal to work under it because of the Party's ideological positions. While the PPP was working in the spirit of the constitution, the problem was that it was not doing so according to the plan laid down by the British Government. For once the party gained majority control of the Executive Council, the working of the constitution was leading to one of inevitable conclusion the exposure of the Governor and the limited constitution. According to Dr. Cheddi Jagan, it was really to forestall this exposure that the British troops marched in during October 1953 and not because of the Party's alleged "disruptive and undemocratic ends".20
I. Some Lessons Learned
What can be learned from those events of five decades ago? It was the PPP that fought to give Guyanese the right to "one person, one vote". In the valiant struggle for free and fair elections from 1968 to 1992, it was the PPP which led the fight and marshaled an alliance to force the PNC regime to hand back this right to the Guyanese people. Just as how the PPP struggled and agitated for universal adult suffrage in 1951 before the Waddington Commission, in more or less the same way it battled vigorously to ensure that this hard-fought-for right was finally returned in full to the people. Elections held from 1968 to 1985 saw a repeated blatant seizure and strangling of the people's votes. The Guyanese people, as a whole, must ever be on alert and make sure that they never again lose their right to vote freely and elect a government of their democratic choice.
A government chosen democratically must implement a constitution devoid of despotism. In 1980, the PNC imposed a constitution which instituted a President who was all powerful, in the same manner the Waddington Constitution gave the colonial Governor unlimited veto powers. Fortunately, with the return of democratic government in 1992, constitutional amendments have been made to remove such despotism, but there is still much more that will have to be done to fashion a constitution that will generate national unity.
On reflection, the first PPP congress really chartered the path for a democratic change. It built the stage for a new era in Guyanese history the struggle for independence and the advancement of social, economic and political progress.
The period of the first congress saw the welding of national unity in Guyana. At that time strong unity prevailed. However, after 1961 serious divisions developed and have plagued the country every since. Certainly, much effort has to be continued by Guyanese politicians and grass-roots organizations to build trust and national unity. These essential factors are the main ingredients for social and economic development in Guyana.
1. Blanshard, Paul. Democracy and Empire in the West Indies. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1947. p.129.
2. PAC Bulletin. Georgetown: PPP, 17 December 1948.
3. Report of the British Guiana Constitution Commission, Sir E.J. Waddington, Chairman. London: H.M.S.O. Colonial No. 280, 1950-51. (Hereafter cited as the Waddington Commission Report).
4. Thunder (newspaper). Georgetown: PPP, December 1950.
5. Jagan, Cheddi. The West on Trial. Berlin: Seven Seas Books, 1980. p.101.
6. Waddington Commission Report. op. cit.
9. Jagan. op. cit. p.143.
10. Thunder. November 1951.
11. Jagan, Cheddi. Fight for Freedom Waddington Constitution Exposed. Georgetown: PPP, February 1952.
12. Thunder. January 1952.
13. Thunder. September 1952.
14. Premdas, Ralph. "The Rise of the First Mass-based Multi-racial Party in Guyana". Caribbean Quarterly, Vol. 20, Nos. 3 & 4. Kingston: UWI, September-December 1974.
16. Jagan, Cheddi. "Splitting Tactics Used in Guyana". Caribbean News. London: Caribbean Labour Congress, March 1955.
17. Jagan, Janet. History of the PPP. Georgetown: New Guyana Company, 1963. p.11.
18. Report of the British Guiana Constitutional Commission 1954. Sir James Robertson, Chairman. London: H.M.S.O., 1954. Para. 117.
19. Kumria, K.D. "British Guiana Constitutional Report". African and Caribbean World. London, December 1954.
20. Jagan, Cheddi. "Guiana The Road Backward". Caribbean News. London: CLC, December 1955.
(Based on a speech delivered at the 1991 PPP Congress.)