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Understanding our constitutional foundations
With the Government of Trinidad and Tobago fast approaching the launch of its major constitutional reform exercise, I am continuing my series of articles that raises issues that may be considered relevant to changes of our constitution.
There is a fundamental issue about whether or not our constitutional foundations are homegrown by virtue of historical evolution or whether they have been imported. Elsewhere, I have juxtaposed the views of Norman Manley on this question against those of Eric Williams in which the former argued that Jamaica’s constitutional foundations are the product of a long history of evolution that culminated in an independence constitution that could have been considered homegrown.
I have highlighted the views of Eric Williams before where he argued that the British Constitution, suitably modified, was good enough for us because it was good enough for Great Britain.
In both cases, one may argue that the end product that emerged at independence just over 50 years ago was in fact “the British Constitution suitably modified”. There can be little dispute with that, however, the deeper argument is over the issue of whether the foundation is homegrown by virtue of colonial evolution right up to the period of independence or whether the foundation was imported and installed remains.
To this end, both Manley and Williams may have scored relevant points and we can certainly examine their perspectives. The prospect of constitutional evolution cannot be dismissed simply because the whole basis of British trusteeship in the West Indies was based on the philosophy of gradualism and graduation.
The New Representative system that was introduced in Jamaica in 1884 that permitted elected members to sit in the legislature on a minority basis alongside elected members eventually found its way into other West Indian legislatures after 1924 following the visit of Major EFL Wood to the British West Indies in 1921-22.
Major Wood (later to become Lord Halifax) laid out a policy of gradualism whereby he suggested that, with the passage of time, the elected members in the West Indian legislatures should eventually become the majority and the nominated members the minority. Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery revealed the deep suspicions of Williams about the bona fides of British trusteeship in the West Indies when it was first published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1944.
One of the mysteries of our constitutional evolution and the emergence of Eric Williams as a major player in the politics of this country from 1955 onwards was his obvious reverence for British institutions and British constitutional technique when juxtaposed against his views about British intentions in the region that he had expressed a decade before.
The constitutional foundations that we have inherited today had their roots in the political and constitutional negotiations that took place between Eric Williams and the Colonial Office in the late 1950s and the early 1960s.
His desire to embrace a bicameral parliamentary structure, his firm view on the retention of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council that he carried into the republican reforms of 1976, and his rejection of Washington-style presidentialism in favour of Westminster-style parliamentarism are critical to an understanding of his psyche and our constitutional structures.
At the same time, all of this must be contrasted with his desire to embrace republicanism between 1969 and 1976 at the expense of monarchy alongside the abolition of British awards in favour of our own system of national awards that was created in 1969.
His dominance of the political landscape during a period of fierce contestation with opposition forces that was resolved in his favour with Colonial Office preferential treatment in 1956, the gift of absentee opposition leadership which permitted a dominant PNM political dynamic to emerge in the 1960s and a divided opposition to his political thrust in the 1970s that permitted the continued dominance of the PNM, must be noted.
Our constitutional foundations were laid during those periods of preference, absenteeism and division. All of that started to change in the 1980s after the death of Eric Williams which saw the emergence of political forces opposed to the PNM seeking to settle their differences and providing a serious challenge in the post-Williams era.
Since that time, the most serious political challenges have faced the PNM and a different dialogue has emerged about constitutional reform. That dialogue has been willing to embrace more presidential techniques as a substitute for many of the parliamentary features of our constitutional structures.
This dialogue has not only been confined to forces opposed to the PNM, but has also emerged from within the PNM as well. In many respects, both Patrick Manning and Basdeo Panday commenced a dialogue about an executive presidency during the first decade of this millennium.
For some, this was alien to what may be termed the Westminster-Whitehall foundations of our system of government. For others, going all the way to a full presidential system was a bridge too far to cross. That opened the door to the possibility of hybridization of the two systems. That is where the dialogue is today.
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