History This Week

“Constitutional Developments in colonial British Guiana: From Dutch inherited system to Crown Colony Government” (Part 2)

By TOTA C. MANGAR

In this article I shall continue to focus attention on constitutional developments in colonial British Guiana leading to Crown Colony Government in 1928.

MAJOR WOOD’S REPORT
There was a major review of the constitutional system of British Guiana when Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, Major E.F.L. Wood visited the colony in 1922 as part of his extensive investigation of Government of the British West Indies. Elected members of the Combined Court in particular highlighted a number of issues including the Governor’s casting vote, the filling of vacancies among elected members of the Court of Policy, the exclusion of elected members from the Executive Council and the right of unofficial members to initiate agenda.

In spite of these calls Major Wood did not see an immediate need to overhaul the existing constitution. In his report he explained:-

`The Constitution of British Guiana is unique in the Empire. It provides for a bare official majority in matters of legislation, but in questions involving finance there is an elective majority of fourteen elected members against eight officials. This constitution is founded upon the articles of capitulation when Britain took over the country from the Dutch and any attempt to change it now without adequate cause would excite no little hostility.

There seemed to be some apprehension when we arrived in the colony that I was anxious to recommend some change forthwith. I do not think that at present there is any ground for suggesting any material changes.’

The constitution was the subject of further discussion in the 1920s. There was a great deal of friction especially on financial matters between elected members of the legislature on the one hand and, the Colonial Government and the Executive Council on the other. The elected members of the Legislature were predominantly “professionals and businessmen of African, Indian, Portuguese, Chinese and Mixed descent while the Executive Council was dominated by planters of European descent.”

In October 1926 Secretary of State for the Colonies, Mr. L.S. Amery appointed a Parliamentary Commission to visit British Guiana and “to consider and report on the economic position of the colony, the causes which have hitherto retarded and the measures which could be taken to promote development and any facts which they may consider to have a bearing on the above matters.”

The eventual Snell-Wilson Report offered a critique of the general constitutional issue and made some important suggestions on reform. It contended “Under the new order the practical difficulty of working the old constitution is increased. The Government of British Guiana has never been able to govern…… It is a moral and necessary feature of the political system that power, in the last resort, should reside in the Governor under the control and direction of the Secretary of State“.

Of added significance is the fact that the Report criticized the division of the legislature into the Court of Policy and the Combined Court thus: “This peculiar constitution is the result of the accident of history and not of logic or sound theory. There seemed nothing to be gained by the existence of two classes of elected members, one of which is precluded from dealing with all matters not relating to taxation and expenditure.

The mere existence of this distinction constitutes in itself a potential source of friction and there is much to be said for merging the functions of the two bodies into a single Legislative Council”. With these recent developments it was obviously clear that further constitutional change was in the making.

THE 1928 REFORM

A local Commission was subsequently appointed to examine the existing constitution. It made several recommendations which became the basis of the 1928 Constitution. In particular it recommended the abolition of the existing Court of Policy and Combined Court and the substitution of a single legislative body.

The British Parliament proceeded on March 28, 1928 to enact the British Guiana Act, 1928 “to create and constitute, in substitution for the existing Legislature, a legislature for the colony in such form and with such powers as His Majesty in Council may determine and from time to time to alter and amend the constitution of the legislature and any powers thereof….”. Under this Act the King in Council effected the British Guiana (Constitution) Order in Council on July 13, 1928. With effect from July 18, 1928 the Order in Council abolished the old, Dutch inherited Court of Policy and Combined Court after several decades of dominance and substituting for them the following:-

(a)    A Legislative Council consisting of the Governor plus twenty-nine members of whom the Colonial Secretary and the Attorney General were ex-officio members, eight nominated official members, five nominated unofficial members and fourteen elected members.

(b)    An Executive Council or policy-making body comprising the Governor as Chairman and eleven members of whom the Colonial Secretary and the Attorney General were ex-officio members, four nominated officials, along with three nominated and two elected from the Legislative Council.

It would seem that the 1928 Constitution achieved what it set out to do. It was “an advanced form of Crown Colony Government”. It transferred all power from the hands of elected members to the Governor and the Colonial Office. It reversed the trend of greater political democracy that had started with the 1891 reforms.

It tended towards the consolidation of Imperial Government as an effective instrument of stability and political control over its colony, British Guiana at that juncture of its history.

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