Finishing off the Westminster Model myth
Part 1 (b)
In Part 1(a) on September 9, the two camps which have subscribed to the myth of the transplantation of the so-called Westminster model to British colonies before, or on, their transition to independence, were identified as originating in the metropolis and emerging, subsequently, in post-colonial societies. The first – the “benevolent school”, for convenience – claims that the transplanted model, an asset in their view, was either automatically adopted in settled colonies, or demanded in others.
The second – the “malevolent school” – received, without question, the assumption that the model was indeed transplanted, but tends to conclude, in retrospect, that its inadequacy stems from its imposition by Britain with the ulterior motive of perpetuating external control of former colonies. Neither view explains the approach to bicameralism in Trinidad and Tobago, to be reviewed in Parts 3 and 4.
How did the myth arise? Not surprisingly, the idea of Westminster as the mother of parliaments accelerated in metropolitan circles at a time when admiration for the British parliamentary system was boosted by its triumphal emergence intact from World War II.
The process was misinterpreted by metropolitan non-participants, eager to redefine the colonial experience in a favourable light as a moral mission, in which the provision of a political apprenticeship had been central.
The transmission of the myth was assisted by contemporary developments in the study of politics. These entailed a disproportionate shift from the seemingly arid study of political institutions (structures), like, say, second chambers, towards the study of phenomena, such as nation-building, political stability, or the measurement of political participation (functions), under the emerging structural-functionalist dictates of behaviouralism, or, in the lingo of political scientists, the science of political behaviour.
Indeed, aspiring academics in politics were hardly through the doors of UWI, when they were greeted with two papers, delivered orally, which conveyed the message that unless they embraced the new and promising scientific approach, they could hardly expect their work to be regarded as worthy contributions to science. (See, in Caribbean Quarterly, volume 8, no 1 of March 1962, the papers by T Marshall and by A Singham, respectively)
In the process, metropolitan assumptions about our political institutions were taken for granted, notwithstanding the absence of any comprehensive and undisputed definition of their putative parent, the so-called Westminster model.
Inevitably, attempts to provide a concrete definition which could stand scrutiny with the march of time, reveal the futility of the exercise. They quickly become overtaken, as hazy and dated snapshots, by the ongoing evolution at Westminster, under a constitution once described as unwritten and more recently as partly written. And so, which of its many models could have been identified, let alone transplanted?
Clearly, it is more meaningful to treat the system at Westminster, not as some static model at all, but a work in progress, or, as I have described it elsewhere, the Westminster novel! As such, it was never intended for export but for consumption only on the premises.
Undeniably, T&T’s and Britain’s political systems, by accident or design, display some similarities, as with others elsewhere. Their progression, for instance, to the first-past-the-post electoral system came naturally as in the US. In some respects, they diverge, an example being, as Dana Seetahal has indicated, in the roles of their attorneys general.
They have sought inspiration from different sources. It was eventually preferred by Dr Williams, in deference to the local Law Society and Chamber of Commerce.
In other respects they have effectively parted company. No longer a hereditary monarchy, albeit by remote, T&T now has as its head of state its President whose role is tailored to those of the US and India, as helpfully revealed by Selwyn Ryan, a member of the Wooding Commission from 1971.
And in T&T, there is certainly no Privy Council. I refer here, not to its Judicial Committee, the appeal court, but to its ancient parent body headed by the monarch, with its members all sworn to secrecy.
The political parameters of Westminster are certainly unique, expansive and opaque. Clearly, this amorphous system was never capable of replication anywhere and the myth of its transportation to T&T, piecemeal mind you, has without doubt hindered the proper understanding of its constitutional development.
In the circumstances, it should be reassuring to note a seemingly more enlightened view in T&T of late. According to this, “a closer investigation …would lead us to find that a pure Westminster system was not established, but rather a Westminster-Whitehall model”. It goes on, “to continually refer to the Commonwealth Caribbean systems of government as a manifestation of the Westminster model can be regarded as a misnomer”.
Leaving aside, momentarily, how this Pauline conversion may have come about, what exactly is meant here by Hamid Ghany’s Westminster-Whitehall model? And is it more helpful for understanding T&T’s constitutional development? These are the questions to be addressed in Part 2.
* Rawle Boland is a barrister and
—This is Part 2 of a ten-part series that appears in the Express on Mondays.