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.
Divided societies like Guyana suffer from a phenomenon whereby historic events which, when they occurred, gave rise to allegations of ethnic bias, never seem to go away. The West Indies Federation, which lasted from 1958 to 1962, is one such. It is an historic event which is hardly relevant to contemporary Guyana today. Yet the debate on Jagan’a attitude to the Federation rages, as if the event occurred yesterday, and not more than 50 years ago. It is contextualized to the current ethnic controversies, one of which is to seek to continually paint Jagan as a racist, or at least to allege that he was motivated by ethnic considerations. His role in the establishment of the University of Guyana has become another. But that is for another time.
An editorial in the Stabroek News of December 19, 1986, on ‘Regional Integration’ stated that ‘…others, notably Eusi Kwayana (then Sydney King) attributed Jagan’s opposition [to the Federation] to his unwillingness to be swamped in a predominantly African grouping. C.L.R. James is also reported to have made a similar assertion. In response to the Stabroek News editorial, Jagan replied as follows:
Inspired by events that were occurring in the wider world and influenced by progressive views while he was a student in the United States, Dr. Cheddi Jagan returned to Guyana in 1943, then British Guiana, intent on becoming politically involved on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged. He chose the trade union movement as an entrance point. Ashton Chase and Jocelyn Hubbard, both trade unionists, were sought out to join with him and Janet Jagan to form the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) on November 6, 1946, as a study and discussion group. Branches emerged in various places including Kitty, Buxton and Enmore. My father, Boysie Ramkarran, joined the Kitty Group in 1947. Ashton Chase, at the 50th Anniversary celebrations of the PAC said that my father was the Secretary of that group. Eusi Kwayana was active in the Buxton group.
Amidst unrest and great and increasing poverty in the Caribbean in the 1930s and 1940s due to the Great Depression and drop in the price for sugar, the bauxite workers went on a long strike in 1947. In 1948 the successful Teare strike of transport workers took place followed by the Enmore strike of sugar workers. Having already won a seat in the Legislative Council in 1947, these events, and in particular the Enmore strike, motivated Cheddi Jagan to speed up the establishment of a political movement to struggle for universal adult suffrage, social justice and independence.