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.
At the last two hearings of the cases before the CCJ, the clear preference was expressed by the Court for a political resolution of the NCM (no confidence motion) case. The Court, like everyone else, is fully cognizant of the political implications of any consequential order, especially having regard to the disputes over the voters’ list. At the last sitting of the Court, the President, Justice Adrian Saunders, expressed exasperation that the parties did not even meet, much less have discussions on the way forward. The Court is obviously anxious that what appears to be an explosively political matter should have a political solution which would satisfy all parties, rather than orders by the Court which may satisfy no one or only one. At the time of writing the President and Leader of the Opposition have not met.
The legal challenges by APNU+AFC initially appeared to be only a play for time. It was successful because the Government has obtained several additional months of life. More time is expected but even more is being demanded. A new voters’ list by house to house registration is demanded on the basis of vastly exaggerated and unproved claims about alleged defects in the list. These claims are that the list is bloated by 200,000 names and 18-year olds are not registered. This is the same list that was used for the recent local government (LGE) elections and there were no complaints. 18-year olds were extracted from the national register which registers persons from the age of 14 for the list used for the LGE. The same will apply for the voters list for new elections. Claims and Objections (C&O) will take care of any omissions. The latest play for time is that the list will not be ready until December 25. Both the 1990 and 1997 house to house registration took approximately eighteen months. On the evidence of the past, therefore, once house to house registration starts, there will be no elections until the end of 2020, if then.
In English law, fair comment on a matter of public interest is allowed. Generally, it guarantees the freedom of the press to make statements on matters of public interest, as long as the statements are not made with ill-will, spite, or with intent to harm the subject of the comment. For decades, English courts have placed a higher burden on public figures to prove defamation, which includes both libel and slander. This is based on the view that if a person chooses public activity, that person must expect a higher degree of public scrutiny. For example, it is hardly likely that an English court will countenance a defamatory intent against a public figure where an allegation of conflict of interest is made on facts which are essentially true but could be capable of a more generous interpretation.
Fair comment is an ancient common law (judge made law) defence. But it was replaced in the Unites States in 1964 by a defence created in the case of New York Times v Sullivan in which the US Supreme Court decided that actual malice has to be proved to establish defamation. Since it is very difficult to prove actual malice in a journalist or a politician in the cut and thrust of journalism or politics, public life in the US has been largely liberated from the fear of defamation. While the defence of fair comment remained in the U.K. it was increasingly found to be too restrictive for adequate scrutiny of public officials. The courts of the UK have never adopted New York Times v Sullivan but began to test a more liberal approach to criticisms of public officials.
President of the United States, Donald Trump, and First Lady Melania Trump, paid an official visit to the UK on Thursday and Friday last week. The initial invitation by Prime Minister Theresa May was for a state visit, which involved pomp and ceremony. But after it became clear that Trump would be greeted with widespread public hostility, the invitation was downgraded to an official visit. Still, President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump were honoured with military parades, a lavish dinner and tea with the Queen, and greeted with widespread protests all over the UK.
One form of protest was the raising of a gigantic balloon of a baby resembling Trump, in diapers. The theory of the protestors is that normal criticism does not bother Trump and he reacts to it with abuse and insults. But ridiculing him is said to jar his gargantuan ego and is believed to be highly effective. The video of the Trump Baby Blimp can be viewed here: https://www.theguardian.com/global/video/2018/jul/13/the-moment-trump-baby-blimp-lifts-off-video
Charles Ramson (Jr) recently announced that he would seek the PPP’s nomination to be its presidential candidate for the 2020 general elections. That’s not the way it’s done, admonished General Secretary Bharrat Jagdeo. At the appropriate time the party will have a discussion on the matter and the candidate will emerge, he explained.
Ramson’s announcement was made immediately after the CCJ ruled that the two-term presidential limit did not violate Guyana’s constitution, thereby ruling out former president Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo for a third term, for which the PPP would have nominated him. Mr. Ramson clearly wanted his name to be placed among those under consideration before an anointment is made. He joins (in alphabetical order), Irfaan Ali, Frank Anthony and Anil Nandlall who have been identified by observers as being the persons from whom a ‘choice’ will be made. While no one has yet emerged as a ‘front runner,’ it could well be that one among the three has already been identified. If this is so then Ramson’s may possibly have been seen as an intruder, prematurely disrupting what might have been a carefully orchestrated selection process.