Reflections on our constitutional heritage
Part 4 (b)
The idea that Trinidad and Tobago’s political system reflects the Westminster model has been a constant theme in local discourse. This has mushroomed by frustration over its alleged failings, over time. Of late, it has been proclaimed, it was rather the Westminster-Whitehall model which was introduced.
As argued in this series, defining Westminster’s amorphous and evolving system, let alone transplanting it, is a no-no. And the features ascribed to the Westminster-Whitehall model are flawed and supported, moreover, by a narrative equally suspect.
Does this matter? If the submissions in this series are accepted, clearly the debates about constitution reform here have been misconceived, because of a delusional fixation with Westminster and a corresponding failure to appreciate how and why our Constitution developed as it did.
According to Westminster theorists, our institutions were either the parting gift of a generous colonial donor on the completion of our political apprenticeship, or a poisoned chalice dispensed for sinister motives. In fact, the story really began here in 1955, when an extraordinary visionary, Dr Eric Williams, entered the political stage, capturing the attention of admirers and sceptics alike, with an anti-colonial agenda.
For its implementation, the first goal was to secure, at long last, the emergence of a responsible government. With eyes on the prize, Dr Williams put his vast knowledge to work, charting a political course to excite the colonially conditioned imagination of disciples and calm the irrational fears of doubters, about his and his party’s aspirations.
Ignoring the conventional wisdom, he proposed, to popular acclaim, introducing a largely self-selecting second chamber for key interests. As such, it was strikingly similar to the formidable Maltese senate of 1921, which had caused so much bacchanal that it was not reinstated after World War II.
Responsible government was achieved under his astute and determined leadership in 1956. But its arrival was precarious and its survival uncertain. Thus, to guard against its collapse and sustain the anti-colonial drive, a different second chamber, the Senate, was established from 1961.
Based largely on the principle of party selection, it was virtually a carbon copy of the senates.rejected with dismissive steups in Malta and New Zealand after World War II. But here it served to galvanise Dr Williams’ support and seal the anti-colonial deal.
Of course, it is not unlikely that the usual suspects may seek to exploit this frank analysis, to continue to traduce the role of Dr Williams in our political development, citing, perhaps, its reliance on patronage. Others, justifiably in my view, will see in this more evidence of his intelligence, ingenuity, vision and pragmatism, without which T&T’s constitutional progress, languishing lamentably behind that of other colonies, might have remained the standing joke it had become by 1955.
Moreover, some patronage is a necessary evil in politics. As acknowledged by Hobsbawm, the renowned historian, notwithstanding his egalitarian instincts, it has been the indispensable lubricant for greasing the machinery of all governments to ensure their smooth operation, throughout the ages. Its dispensation, however, must be transparent and measured, as, say, in Washington, and uncontaminated, moreover, by nepotism and unbridled ethnic stocking, given the universal impulse for equal rights and justice.
Of course, no one can know for certain whether, in circumstances different to those which arose after the 1956 elections, the formidable second chamber of 1955 would have been abandoned as it was. Unquestionably, however, this was precisely the second chamber to be avoided by our first fledgling responsible government in the situation which did arise.
Equally indisputable is that all Trinbagonians and their governments have been the beneficiaries of the measures carefully crafted by Dr Williams, to secure their peaceful transition, as it transpired, to independence. And the democratic alternation of governments, since, is surely the legacy of his constitutional genius.
In our interdependent world, some countries, because of their might, are more sovereign than others as sovereignty is overtaken by human rights, backed by the International, or, some say, the Third World Criminal Court. Thus, T&T may not be as sovereign as imagined, but for now at least, it is governed, thanks to Dr Williawms, by its own constitution, which may be argued over and reformed right here, and no longer by any Order-in Council from Britain’s Privy Council.
Finally, it must be recalled that Dr Williams’ proposals in 1955 were presented on the basis that what was good for Britain was good for T&T, suitably modified. How is this proclamation, relied upon literally, unfortunately, in the Westminster-Whitehall narrative, to be interpreted, in the light of this series?
This, according to Prof Madden in his perceptive observations on colonial leaders, “was a natural expression of the frontier instinct: to deal with the local issues themselves; if possible, to allege metropolitan precedents …but, if need be, to act without reference to any external model or source of power”.
He might have added that pomp and ceremony may bamboozle, but do not make Westminster what it is, nor our system its offspring, even if delivered in the conference suites of Whitehall. As the Irish-born Duke of Wellington once protested, simply because a man was born in a stable, does not make him a horse.
This series will be concluded in Part 5, with a personal glimpse of some of the constitutional reforms being flagged up here.
• Rawle Boland is a barrister and
—This is the eighth in a 10-article series on constitutional reform that appears in the
Express on Mondays