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Haphazard Approach To Constitutional Reform?
As I’ve said on another occasion, the current international political ferment and economic fluidity have made it necessary to examine carefully the bedrock of assumptions upon which national constitutions are based.
I’ve formed the view, mistakenly or not, that constitutional reform or enactment, as the case might be, cannot be approached in a haphazard “cut and paste” fashion or simply adopting some model or paradigm without reference to the historical or social context in which the said constitution can be allowed to function as “supreme law,” or you might say to “reign supreme.”
In my humble view, the approach should be to carefully balance the available choices in the context of the structural inferences from the relevant societal intentions and legitimate interests. There is the view that although there are political and moral premises, of one sort or another, on which national constitutions are presumably based, the option of an overwhelmingly secular state which accommodates all persuasions that are not mutually antagonistic is probably the best one.
In essence, it should reflect an equitable and realistic dispersion of state legal power with appropriate sensitivity to individual rights and protective of the national and a variety of legitimate interests. And that’s not “airy fairy” theory. Ideally, a constitutional system should, in my humble view, be one that’s neither a strait-jacket nor capable or capricious change but has the capacity to endure even as it evolves.
Besides this, the mind-set driving constitutional reform should take into account that a national constitution could, usefully, be a repository of past political compromises or a projection of future aspirations. That’s probably asking too much of our politicians. But we can hope, can’t we?
In our specific case, there are “straws in the wind” that constitutional reform is on the political front burner. We’ve heard that before. There’s talk about “term limits ... parliamentary recall ... referendum et al.” I can’t recall whether we heard anything about “political campaign financing.”
That simply crossed my mind when I became aware of the case of a co-chairman of the British Conservative Party “donations committee” being recently trapped into a recorded “unauthorised” attempt to peddle political influence for a price. He was summarily “thrown under the bus” by his political party.
That reminds me of the occasion when Dr Eric Williams publicly reprimanded the party faithful for not paying their party dues by telling them that, if they don’t, there are those only too willing to pick up the tab, but it would no longer be their own political party.
After all, our political financiers “never took vows of poverty.” As the old people say, “You scratch my back and I’ll rub you belly.” Not only here but elsewhere as well. So he who pays the piper calls the tune. And the puppet master controls the dancing to that tune.
It therefore behoves us to look very, very carefully before any government, however presumably well-intentioned, leaps, possibly giving us cause to rue the day when “crapaud smoked we pipe and dog ate we supper,” if ever we happen to be saddled, by sheer mathematical parliamentary fortuity, with a constitutional arrangement whose implications we neither hitherto fully appreciated, aspired to, deserved, even if the government had “a mandate from heaven” and we were required to put our trust “in the hands of those who walk or think they can walk on the waters.” That’s a road, at least, at our peril once travelled. As they say, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
As we know, or ought to, political independence caught us not only knocking at an open door, as even Sir Ellis Clarke, the constitutional adviser to the Cabinet, averred in a recorded interview but we were nudged, in Britain’s final efforts to divest itself of the rest of its colonial appendages, since we were no longer “crown jewels of the empire.”
Dr Williams astutely negotiated an independence constitution that was tailor-made to suit his style and brand of governance. The more discerning “huffed and puffed” that the prime ministerial office was vested with too much power and not constrained by adequate “checks and balances,” thereby creating the potential—or recipe, if you prefer—for political dictatorship or “maximum leadership,” as was the fashionable term then in vogue.
Williams was not singular in that respect. Guyana is still floundering in the dubious legacy of Forbes Burnham. Some otherwise intelligent people seemed not to grasp the notion that the potential for “a benevolent dictatorship accommodates as well an equally malevolent one.”
I’m not here suggesting that Dr Williams was devoid of democratic notions, but he was autocratic by inclination and temperament. Politically, Williams belonged not to the order of the dove but to the tribe of the tiger. Trust me on that.
At his death, a long-standing ministerial colleague blurted out that “Williams was a genius, Williams was a saint.” That’s carrying hyperbole to Olympian heights, but this is not as flippant as it sounds. Those sentiments may have been more widely held among the Doc’s fanatical supporters. Love him, hate him, he aroused strong passions either way. He was revered and even reviled with an intensity of passion that had to be witnessed to be believed.
Selwyn Ryan once suggested publicly “that Williams took us for a nation of sheep.” Really? Perhaps it’s because it seems we don’t have a problem being led by goats. Williams created a political party, essentially in his own image and liking, with such a characteristically strong brand that even today, despite his memory and legacy having been treated by his political heirs and beneficiaries with benign neglect, they have no qualms about surfing on the still viable Williams brand name.
I seem to recall two occasions when constitutional reform commissions were set up (no pun intended). One was by Eric Williams and the other was by ANR Robinson. To this day, I remain convinced that in both instances they were not intended to be taken seriously but were merely diversions of face-saving distractions. But more of this anon.
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