It was on October 9, 1953, 66 years ago last week, that the Conservative British Government of Winston Churchill suspended what was known as British Guiana’s Waddington Constitution. It did so by passing an Order in Council which it enforced by sending to British Guiana an invasion army of 700 British troops. The intention was not merely to ensure that the 133-day old Government left office. It was to smash the democratic opening that British Guiana had achieved by destroying the Peoples’ Progressive Party (PPP) which had spearheaded the campaign for universal adult suffrage with the ultimate objective of ending colonial rule. The PPP was democratic socialist, progressive, militant, impatient and intent on eliminating the intense poverty that gripped the majority of the Guianese people. The British Government had been persuaded by local reactionary forces that had travelled to London after the April elections in which the PPP won 18 of the 24 seats, that the PPP represented the forces represented the existential threat of ‘international communism.’
The Waddington Constitution that the British Government suspended had granted universal adult suffrage to British Guiana for the first time, eliminating property qualifications. It also allowed a modest measure of democratic rule by permitting an elected Legislative Council and a Cabinet comprising Ministers appointed by the party commanding the majority of votes. The PPP formed that Government, which had little authority, having to defer to the Executive Council of unelected officials headed by the British Governor. This did not stop the PPP Government from immediately setting about to alleviate the atrocious conditions of workers.
One large group, and the most exploited, was sugar workers. They were represented by a ‘company’ union, the Man Power Citizens’ Association, which made no effort to secure better wages and conditions. The sugar industry, like most major businesses, was owned by Bookers, a British company. It refused to allow a poll in the sugar industry to enable sugar workers to have a union of their choice to represent them, despite the clear evidence that the workers supported the PPP-influenced Guiana Industrial Workers Union.
This was critical to the poverty alleviation agenda of the Government because, without a trade union fighting for the sugar workers, Bookers would be able to fight off demands for better wages and conditions. The PPP, therefore, tabled the Labour Relations Bill, patterned after the US’s Wagner Act, giving workers to right to elect a union of their choice to represent them. This attempt by the PPP Government to democratize industrial relations in the sugar industry struck at the very core of colonial interests and of Bookers’ domination in British Guiana. Hence the suspension of the Constitution and the restriction and imprisonment of selected PPP leaders.
The crisis of 1953 provided the opportunity and the backdrop of the formal split of the PPP in 1955, the departing group eventually becoming the Peoples’ National Congress (PNC). The PPP’s explanation for the break-up was opportunism. It has argued that it was not a ‘racial’ split because prominent Indian leaders, such as Jainarine Singh and J. B. Singh, also left with Burnham while prominent African PPP leaders, such as Fred Bowman, Charles Cassato and George Robertson, remained with the PPP. The PPP described the split in ideological terms, with the ‘moderate’ wing going with Burnham and the ‘left’ wing refusing to follow him. The British played its own devious role by its representatives overtly encouraging the ‘moderates’ to leave the PPP and by the colonial authorities treating them lightly immediately after the invasion.
Whatever the views of the PPP might have been, then and now, about the split, the reality is that it turned out to be the decisive event which gave rise to the struggle for ethno-political domination in Guyana, which has been crying out for a political solution since then. The events of 1955 should have been a surprise to no one. The formal and explicit recognition of the necessity to forestall the politics of ethno-political domination took place in 1950 with the formation of the PPP. Its leadership was of mixed ethnicity and broad class background, united around the demands of universal adult suffrage, poverty alleviation and Independence. The PPP leaders understood the potential ethnic fissures in Guyanese society and acted in a deliberate manner to forestall it. That experiment was unsuccessful and 70 years later, during which untold harm has befallen Guyana, we are still desperately in need of a political solution based on an executive equally balanced between the main political parties, a constituency based electoral system with a mechanism to ensure proportionality and a representative legislature which excludes the executive.
Much time has been wasted or lost since 1955 in pursuing the goal of a political solution. Even though the PPP has much grounds to claim that it has been the main political victim in Guyana’s politics, it still has the major responsibility to fulfill the promise of 1950 because it won elections in 1957, 1961, 1964, 1992, 1997, 2001, 2006 and 2011. It has demonstrated no effort, even up to today, to implement its own proposals for a political solution, shared governance or winner-does-not-take-all politics. And the APNU+AFC has failed to live up to its 2015 Manifesto promise of constitutional reform.