Dealing with the Westminster-Whitehall model myth
Part 2 (b)
IN Part 1 of this series, the myth of the transplantation of the Westminster model was traced to show how and why it emerged in Britain and was received without question in former colonies. Its inadequacy for explaining Trinidad and Tobago’s constitutional development is now acknowledged within UWI, in its dismissal and replacement by the Westminster-Whitehall model, but, as argued in Part 2(a) (September 23), this concept is just as problematic.
What, then, are the dominant themes in Hamid Ghany’s supporting narrative of his Westminster-Whitehall model? An abiding theme is the assumption that, supposedly like other Caribbean scholars from British universities of the era, as opposed to those from UWI since, Dr Williams was particularly enthused about Westminster’s institutions and anxious to see them replicated in the region.
This, as will be seen in Part 3, is not borne out by the peculiar path to bicameralism in T&T, under his leadership.
Another recurring theme has long since been incubated in a sectarian view of the emergence of the PNM as our first party government in 1956 and subsequent constitution reforms. This is that these developments were engineered by the Colonial Office, in cahoots with Dr Williams, while hoodwinking his opponents, so as to propel and entrench the PNM in office.
In this distorted scenario, Dr Williams’ sincere and determined efforts to help all T&T citizens escape colonialism are ignored and his role as the father of the nation disputed, if only tacitly and covertly. Implicit, therein, is an interpretation of Colonial Office reports—notorious for understatement and the presentation of official disposals in a favourable light for posterity—suggesting the frustration of his political opponents.
Thus, Governor Beetham’s conduct, following the PNM’s success in the 1956 elections, is resurrected, oddly, as his attempt to co-operate with Dr Williams. This is to disregard the crisis created then by the Governor’s adamant refusal of the PNM’s request to advise on his nominees, a denial which, if sustained, might have obliged the party to form a minority government, or, worse still, occupy the opposition benches of the Legislative Council and delay, if not repel, the anti-colonial onslaught.
Similarly, Selwyn Ryan’s more accurate view of the tensions between the Colonial Office and Dr Williams in negotiations for the Senate is rejected in the Westminster-Whitehall narrative. Instead, an assessment implying that the objections of his opponents were derailed by official misinformation and intrigue finds favour.
In fact, Dr Williams pulled no punches in describing his historic encounter in 1960 with the Colonial Secretary, who had flown to Trinidad to try and resolve their deep differences about the Senate and Chaguaramas. The mountain, he recalled caustically, had come to Mahomet, a verdict unchallenged.
Admittedly, under his leadership the PNM held office until his death in 1981 and beyond. This was due as much, however, to their own efforts as to the proclivity for exclusion and self-defeating divisiveness among their opponents. It is indeed this unfortunate disposition and the anxiety of those involved to avoid its effects ordinarily, which has prompted the call, echoed within the Westminster-Whitehall narrative, for the replacement of the first-past-the-post electoral system by that of proportional representation.
To be blunt, the Westminster-Whitehall model is as misconceived as the Westminster model and, to paraphrase Kipling, it is time to treat these two impostors just the same, by dismissing them. Interestingly, they might never have been conceived, if a series of individual studies on colonial legislatures had been allowed to run its course.
It was inspired in World War II at Oxford by Margery Perham, as, in her retirement, she cheerfully imparted to me in a memorable meeting, helpfully arranged by Prof Madden, at her home. Her inspiration for the series had simply been the need to send her colleague, Martin Wight, a conscientious objector, out of harm’s way, outside the UK. Thus, the series kicked off in 1946 with Wight’s broad study of the diverse political development of British colonies.
Unfortunately, following the conclusion of the war, the project came to a premature end, as interest waned and funds dried up, with the onset of decolonisation. By sheer happenstance, the last study by Hewan Craig was published in 1952 on T&T. It was singularly instructive in laying bare the foundations of the second chamber proposed in 1955 by Dr Williams, an exceptional political student and visionary.
No constitution can be immune from reform, to retain its relevance to changes in society. But to succeed, reforms should only proceed on a clear understanding of the origins, nature and functions of what is to be reformed.
This, regrettably, is not assisted by the assumptions of the Westminster model nor the Westminster Whitehall model, classic examples of the insight in 1969 by Sir Arthur Lewis that “(p)olitical writing is full of stereotypes which have to be cleared from one’s thought…to make progress in studying particular cases.’’ A striking case in point is provided by the origins, nature and functions of, bicameralism in T&T, as will follow in Parts 3 and 4 of this series.
• Rawle Boland is a barrister
and political scientist
—This is the fourth in a 10-article series that appears in the Express on Mondays