The road to bicameralism
After its inception in 1831, the local legislature became the single chamber Legislative Council, whose members were the Governor, his nominees and senior colonial officers. In 1925, a minority of elected members were admitted and, by 1955, they had increased gradually, as non-elected membership was reduced and the Governor finally excluded. In 1961, the fully elected House of Representatives arrived with a nominated second chamber, the Senate.
What explains the developments in 1961? According to the prevailing theories (see the previous articles in this series from September 9 to 30), these were the final instalments in reproducing the bicameral Westminster model, or Westminster-Whitehall model, here. In fact, bicameralism had long been regarded as unsuitable for the society, as was stated authoritatively in 1950 in London, following his retirement, by Governor Shaw, at a public meeting chaired by the Colonial Secretary.
Bicameralism emerged here from proposals canvassed in a petition by Dr Williams on his first campaign trail in 1955. Foremost among its supporters would be his erstwhile deputy, Dr Solomon, who had previously been prominent among local activists firmly against a nominated second chamber. The petition proved to be exceptionally popular, among its signatories being Bhadase Maraj, a leading opponent otherwise of Dr Williams.
At the helm of Trinbago’s first responsible government from 1956, Dr Williams would become the father of the nation in 1962. In 1955, however, he had just appeared suddenly on the political stage to as much applause as consternation. His new and purportedly disciplined party unusually, would be formed just in time to contest their first elections, postponed from 1955 to 1956.
Notwithstanding the surprising popularity of the proposals in 1955, the second chamber envisaged has largely faded from the society’s collective memory. In the process, an appreciation of its contemporary significance and that of the Senate, subsequently, has been overwhelmed by the fixation with Westminster.
The 1955 second chamber and the Senate of 1961 struck, metaphorically, two goals, one in each of the two halves of a critical political contest to secure, firstly, the emergence of responsible government in Trinidad and Tobago and, secondly, its survival, for a final showdown with colonialism. It is essential, therefore, to revisit Dr Williams’ 1955 proposals.
Arguing shrewdly to his colonially conditioned audience that what was good for Britain was good for T&T, Dr Williams urged, among other things, that the Legislative Council should become fully elected. This was hardly revolutionary, as it was already approaching that holy grail. Dramatically new, however, was the second chamber and the kind in mind.
This was to be comprised of six representatives of special economic interests, namely oil; sugar; commerce; cocoa; shipping; and local industries. Significantly, they were to be selected by the interests themselves.
Its religious representatives were to be the Archbishop of Trinidad; (Catholic); the Lord Bishop of Trinidad (Anglican); the Head Pundit (unknown then) of the Hindu Faith; and the Moulvi of the Muslim Faith, all, as such, automatically self-selecting. Another representative was to be determined, optimistically perhaps, by other denominations.
In addition, there were to be the Chief Justice, as the chamber’s President; the Colonial Secretary and the Attorney General. Traditionally, incidentally, Chief Justices had given Governors, Dr Williams’ intended foes, a hard time in the colonies; and the two senior officers were still members of the Legislative Council in 1955.
Finally, two individuals of public distinction were to be appointed by the Governor on the recommendation of the Chief Minister-to-be. Trade union representatives, notorious players in local politics, were expressly excluded.
As it happened, the PNM achieved unprecedented success in the 1956 elections, but its path to becoming our first responsible government thereafter was not straightforward. There were 24 elected members in the Legislative Council, but it still had two officers and the Governor’s 5 nominees. Thus, Dr Williams’ 13 elected seats fell short of a majority, dashing his hopes of emulating Puerto Rico’s Muñoz Marin, by leading a party comprehensively rooted in the society.
Nonetheless, biting the dreaded anti-colonial bullet for the PNM to form the government, though without a clear majority, the Governor, Sir Edward Beetham, offered the support of the two remaining colonial officers. But mindful, perhaps, of the frustration by Governor Rance of the aspirations of Butler, following his success in the 1950 elections, Beetham blocked the highway to the PNM’s advice on his five nominees, to secure a majority. He would only promise a curious detour: that individuals unsympathetic to the party would not be chosen.
During the standoff, however, relying on developments in other colonies, Dr Williams stridently harangued the Colonial Office, which eventually overruled the Governor by allowing the PNM to name two of his nominees and to be consulted on the other three. Thus, the PNM ascended to office, prompting a stampede, with implacable opponents hastening to form an unholy alliance in opposition, while new recruits increased the hopefuls in the PNM’s ranks.
Thus from 1956, Dr Williams was well placed to ask the Colonial Office for his formidable second chamber of 1955. It was the more docile Senate, however, which came in 1961, notwithstanding the objections of the Colonial Office.
Quite apart from the circumstances of the PNM’s ascendance to office, what dictated the need for the weak Senate instead of the strong second chamber advocated in 1955? This is the question to be addressed in Part 3 (b).
* Rawle Boland is a barrister
and political scientist
* This is the fifth of a 10-part series on constitutional reform that appears in
the Express on Mondays