Debunking the myth of Westminster Model
Part 1 (a)
Since 1978 elsewhere, and from 1989 in the local press, mine has been a siren voice, urging caution, without complacency, on constitution reform. This approach—inspired by unforgettable tutors, among them Profs Anthony Birch and Freddie Madden, also my supervisor ultimately —has been consistently sustained on the basis that Trinidad and Tobago’s political system, from 1961, is better explained by its domestic context and developments elsewhere, than by the received assumption of the transplantation of the so-called Westminster Model, or, as more recently, the Westminster-Whitehall Model, suitably modified.
The aim in this extensive exercise is to pursue that thesis, by considering, in Parts 1 and 2, how the assumptions of the transplantation of Westminster developed and whether its more recent offspring, the Westminster-Whitehall Model, suitably modified, is any more helpful for explaining political developments in Trinidad and Tobago from 1955. To illustrate the inadequacy of those concepts, this series will then focus, as in 1989, on the introduction of bicameralism locally, in Parts 3 and 4. It will be concluded in Part 5, with a personal glimpse of some of the constitutional reforms being flagged up, currently, in Trinbago.
The Task Ahead
What is the ambit of the persistent and pervasive myth that copies of the Westminster system were deliberately and liberally transplanted to British colonies before, or on, their transition to independence? In fact, this idea has been advanced by two camps, which have diverged, however, geographically and philosophically.
According to the first, crowded in the main by British observers of the immediate post-World War II era, the model was either transported by settlers as accompanying baggage, or transplanted because this was actually demanded in the colonies.
This, as I have argued elsewhere, and within the House of Commons itself to boot, may be described for convenience as the “benevolent” school of thought, because, in its view, the transplant was intended to confer positive benefits, if nurtured properly.
Echoing the unbridled chauvinistic sentiments of Thomas Carlyle, the discredited froudaciity of Oxford’s Professor Froude and even Major Wood (later Lord Halifax), the benevolent view was put in 1964 as follows by de Smith, a subsequent Downing Professor at Cambridge: “The last voice to incant the slogan ‘British is Best’ is likely to be that of a colonial nationalist on an obscure and remote island. In short, the Westminster model…has been adopted primarily because it has been persistently demanded.”
In due course, of course, the “Sandhurst” model erupted here and there. Stunned by these military implosions, Sir Alan Burns, with a wealth of experience in the British Colonial and Diplomatic Service, went so far as to suggest, not long before the cataclysmic events, incidentally, of 1970 and 1990 in Trinidad and Tobago, that the experimental model appeared to work well, only in cricket-playing countries! Fortunately, the field has been substantially vacated by those involved in such disgraceful pelting.
In the second camp are former colonials, who have accepted the transplantation thesis without question. In lambasting the post-colonial progress of their societies, however, their conclusion has been that copies of the model have not worked out as well as was hoped. Indeed, this is what they mean in describing the model as a myth, not, as here, that its transplantation, as an explanatory proposition, is merely the fiction of a fertile and colonially cultivated imagination.
Michael Manley and Basdeo Panday, former prime ministers of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, respectively, have certainly been among those who would have commended the findings of the prestigious Wooding Commission of 1974.
These were “that the Westminster model in its purest form…in our…Constitution is not suitable to the Trinidad and Tobago society”.
This inadequacy has been largely attributed to the connivance of: the Colonial Office. The imposition of the model, as an armchair critic at UWI volunteered, “was largely the result of the desire to control centres of power in colonial society”. Again, as I have long since maintained, because of its perception of skullduggery on the part of the Colonial Office, this camp may be dubbed the “malevolent” school of thought.
These assumptions, either way, do not explain the origins, nature and functions of bicameralism in Trinbago.
As will be seen, in Parts 3 and 4 of this series, the idea of a strong second chamber was first canvassed by Dr Williams in 1955, against the tide of public opinion, and in the event, a weak chamber, the Senate, was introduced in 1961, in the face of objections by the Colonial Office.
Neither the chamber, as proposed, nor the Senate, as established, can be described as second chambers in the Westminster tradition, other than in name. How then did the transplantation myth arise? This is the main question to be addressed in Part 1(b).
—Rawle Boland is a barrister and