THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONFERENCE IN 1963
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The 1963 constitutional conference was called by the British government to work out plans on a date for the independence of Guyana. It was held at Lancaster House on 22 October 1963, under the chairmanship of Duncan Sandys, the Secretary of State for the Colonies.
Sandys opened the meeting by enquiring whether the three political parties had made any progress towards reaching an agreement. The leaders of the three delegations replied that they had had a number of meetings but were unable to resolve the pending issues, including the voting age, the electoral system and the date for independence.
Government and opposition proposals
In the discussions that followed, Dr. Jagan, as Premier and leader of the PPP, insisted that Guyana should have immediate independence; that in future elections, the voting age should be reduced to 18 years; and that the electoral system of separate constituencies, as existing then, must be retained.
However, Burnham and D'Aguiar, the PNC and UF leaders respectively, counter-proposed that there should not be immediate independence; there should be elections before independence; the voting age must not be reduced from 21 years; and the electoral system must be Proportional Representation (PR), by which the entire country would become one constituency, and seats in Parliament allocated on the proportion of votes obtained by each contesting political party.
It was clear from the outset that the opposition was not willing to compromise and was definitely not interested in pursuing independence for Guyana. Faced with this situation, Dr. Jagan called for mediation by a Commonwealth team, but Sandys said that would just prolong the issue and that there might not be a satisfactory solution. Jagan then proposed that the Trinidad constitution should be adopted but this was also rejected by the opposition. During informal discussions, the PPP delegation proposed a consultation machinery, or good offices commission, as existed in the United Kingdom, and a Senate with government-opposition parity. But these proposals, too, were not accepted.
Dr. Jagan then proposed the election of an upper house by proportional representation, but the opposition declared that it was no longer interested in an upper house. He then suggested that a unicameral legislature should be elected by a mixed first-past-the post and proportional representation system as existed in Suriname - a system which the PNC supported up to the eve of the conference. This would involve 24 seats elected in separate district constituencies by plurality, and 12 seats by proportional representation. Again, the opposition rejected this proposal and stuck to their demand for the Israeli list system of proportional representation. In discussions on the system of proportional representation, both the PNC and UF declared that a party securing less than 10 percent of the votes should not qualify to obtain seats under this system.
Burnham and D'Aguiar refused to budge from their hard-line position, and the conference was on the verge of collapse. The two opposition leaders were willing to sacrifice Guyana's independence than to shift from their position. Actually, this was one of their aims because their campaign slogan during the early 1960s was "No Independence under Jagan". They had already succeeded in delaying independence in 1962 and 1963 by inspiring violent disturbances in an effort to bring down the PPP Government.
Devious role of the British and American governments
The British government also played a devious role by showing a bias towards the opposition and thus eventually stacking the cards against the PPP at this conference. Two security reports (for June and September 1963) on "The PNC Terrorist Organisation" were never given to the Minister of Home Affairs or to Dr. Jagan, the Premier, and were kept secret by the British authorities. The first report named Burnham and 49 others for being responsible for violence and the second report called for the arrest of Burnham and 24 others. These reports were withheld from the PPP government since they would have been very damaging to the opposition at the 1963 constitutional conference. The people of Guyana did not know of the existence of these reports until early 1964.
Indeed, the entire plan to delay independence under the PPP government saw its genesis the year before - in May 1962 - when Burnham journeyed to Washington to meet with Kennedy's special assistant, Arthur Schlesinger. There a US-PNC deal was concocted. About the same time, US Secretary of State, Dean Rusk sent a strongly worded letter to the British to indicate that the US was backing Burnham and that it wanted Jagan out of the government.
The American government saw Jagan as a "communist threat", and proposed proportional representation as the electoral system which could fulfil that objective of ousting him and the PPP from the government.
Further, direct pressure from President Kennedy on the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, also resulted in the British government finally adopting a position to oust the PPP from power. On 30 June 1963, at a meeting at Birch Grove, Macmillan's country residence, Kennedy issued an ultimatum to the British Prime Minister that if Guyana achieved independence under Jagan it would become a major political issue in the United States, he (Kennedy) would be defeated at the presidential election, and there would be new fears of nuclear confrontation.
Faced with this ultimatum from its ally, the British were forced to cooperate. Finally, in September, Macmillan wrote Kennedy saying that the British would impose a political solution in Guyana to ensure Jagan's removal.
At the same time, British Colonial Secretary Duncan Sandys quietly encouraged Burnham not to make any compromise with Jagan at the constitutional conference.
Actually, the British government was planning for the failure of the conference. This was decided at a meeting held in the office of the Colonial Secretary on 7 October 1963. The notes of that meeting expressed the following:
"It was important to ensure that the conference and, in the meantime, that Dr. Jagan and Mr. Burnham fail to agree either on the terms of reference on the composition of any good offices commission. It was agreed when the conference ended in deadlock, the British government would announce the suspension of the constitution and the resumption of direct rule."
This document clearly showed that the British government was deliberately setting out to scuttle its own conference in the deliberate plan to delay independence under the PPP government.
The "Sandys Solution"
With the opposition parties, as expected, refusing to compromise on any of the issues, Sandys decided to postpone the plenary sessions for a few days, during which he held separate discussions with each of the leaders, who also had further private talks with each other.
With the conference reaching a deadlock, the three leaders finally agreed to ask the British Colonial Secretary, Duncan Sandys, as chairman of the conference, to arbitrate a solution based on the objective of the conference - i.e., the final independence of Guyana. The request was made in the following joint letter, originally drafted by Sandys:
"At your request we have made further efforts to resolve the differences between us on the constitutional issues which require to be settled before British Guiana secures independence, in particular, the electoral system, the voting age and the question whether fresh elections should be held before independence. We regret to have to report to you that we have reluctantly come to the conclusion that there is no prospect of an agreed solution. Another adjournment of the conference for further discussions between ourselves would therefore serve no useful purpose and would result only in further delaying British Guiana's independence and in continued uncertainty in the country. In these circumstances we agreed to ask the British government to settle on their authority all outstanding constitutional issues and we undertake to accept their decisions."
On the morning of 25 October, when the signature ceremony was due to be held, Sandys telephoned Jagan inviting him to his office alone to meet with him. Sandys was adamant that the PPP leader should not be accompanied by his advisers, and undoubtedly Jagan felt that he was being invited to private consultations with the Colonial Secretary.
But in a devious act, Sandys also invited Burnham and D'Aguiar, along with their advisers, to the same meeting. Thus, when Jagan arrived, without his advisers, Burnham and D'Aguiar with their full teams were already there. Nevertheless, he joined the two opposition leaders in examining the text of the draft joint letter and finally agreed with the two opposition leaders to sign it and was the first one to place his signature on the document. It was apparent that he felt that at least the British government would agree to granting independence which was the main aim of the conference as well as the main outstanding matter left over from the constitutional conference of the year before.
But this was not to be. After further meetings with the three leaders, Sandys, at a final plenary session on 31 October 1963, announced his decision by which he agreed to everything the opposition wanted, and nothing the democratically elected PPP government had requested. This decision was immediately condemned by democratic forces internationally.
Through this "Sandys solution", Guyana was not to obtain immediate independence; the voting age was not reduced and the list system of proportional representation was made the electoral system for elections to be held in December 1964, a full year before the PPP government's term was due to expire. Sandys also refused to fix an elimination percentage figure to disqualify a party from securing seats, a situation which deliberately allowed for the formation of splinter parties to contest the elections.
In his statement to the plenary meeting, he said that he was satisfied that the root cause of Guyana's troubles was the development of party politics along racial lines. He declared that the system of proportional representation should be introduced, since this would tend to encourage coalitions between parties and would make it easier for new political groupings to form on a multi-racial basis, thus insinuating that proportional representation would solve the racial problems in Guyana!
He added that preparations for elections under this system would begin without delay, after which the British government would convene a conference to fix a date for independence. He emphasised that his government did not want to delay Guyana's independence any longer than was absolutely necessary to enable power to be transferred in conditions of peace and stability.
Undoubtedly, the decision of the British government to give total backing to the opposition was by no means a compromise since it took no consideration of the demands of the PPP. By deciding not to be an honest broker in supporting all the opposition demands, the British government showed that it was willing to betray democratic principles in order to remove a freely elected democratic government in Guyana.
Without a doubt, the British decision was also based on the agreement worked out between the British and the American governments to remove the PPP from power.
In the aftermath of the conference, Dr. Jagan was sharply criticised by Indian racists and by some of his own supporters for signing the joint letter to Sandys. However, it was apparent that the British government had already decided on its course of action and had already worked out its "solution" for Guyana even before the conference convened. The Colonial Office was also already privy to information that the PNC and UF would ensure a deadlock to the conference, and it knew that it would be in the right position to impose its "solution" in the way the two opposition parties wanted it.
The British government was highly elated over the results of the conference. This was revealed in the minutes of a meeting on 26 November 1963 between the new Prime Minister Douglas Hume and US Secretary of State Dean Rusk which stated: "The Prime Minister said that the conference had gone on better than as hoped. It was even slightly awkward that Dr. Jagan had given us so little trouble."
There were joyous celebrations among PNC and UF supporters in Guyana when they learned of the British decision. They openly expressed delight that independence was not granted to Guyana, even though Burnham had joined Dr. Jagan at the end of the conference to condemn Sandys for not fixing a date for independence.
The PPP government strongly condemned the British decision, and the government formally rejected it in a White Paper issued a few days after the conference ended. The government stated that the British formula was a "breach of faith" and violated agreements already reached and that it would serve to multiply the problems in the country. It added:
"By introducing the conditions for parties to appeal for communal rather than inter-racial support, they will accentuate sectional differences, and by rewarding, or appearing to reward, looting, violence and irresponsibility, Her Majesty's Government has implicitly accepted the thesis that violent disagreement with the measures proposed to be enacted by an elected government must over-ride the constitutional authority of that government."