Delayed Freedom & Realpolitik: The People and the Independence Constitution – Part IV (Conclusions)

By Dylan Vernon, (REAL #4, 13 October 2023)

So, were the people of Belize consulted on the first full draft or any other draft of their own Independence Constitution? Some certainly advocated to be consulted. Given that there were no public consultations on the preparation of the White Paper and given the rushed Joint Select Committee (JSC) consultations, there were reasoned requests in Belize for the people to be consulted on the draft Constitution.  In addition to examining the role of thev people in the final stage of making Belize’s Constitution, I also offer my concluding perspectives on why it was not more of the people, by the people and for the people.

Let Us See the Draft!

During the two-week public consultations across Belize on the White Paper in February and March 1981, several individuals and organisations argued for public consultations on the draft Constitution. And this was apart from the Opposition United Democratic Party (UDP). Prominent among the national organisations that advocated for the public to be consulted on the draft Constitution were the Bar Association and the Chamber of Commerce. In its second written submission to the JSC of 2 March 1981 (signed by G. Brown), to the JSC, the BAR petitioned:

[T]he Association request that Government ensures a draft constitution, as opposed to a White Paper only, be made available well in advance of the crucial date, for distribution to members of the public, in good time to enable thorough study and the receipt by government of as many reasoned viewpoints as possible.

Representing the Islamic Mission, Nuri Muhammad had made an even stronger appeal in the Eighth Session of the JSC consultations on 25 February in Belize City:

We recognize that this White Paper does not constitute a legal document, but rather a statement of principles, which will eventually be incorporated into our Constitution. We would hope, therefore, that this same principle of consultation with the people, will be repeated when the proposed Constitution is drafted or presented. We would underline this request because of the important nature of the draft Constitution which we would say is important to us to observe before this is ratified.

V.H. Courtenay was in the chair of the JSC that day and although his reply to Muhammad could be construed as ‘passing the buck’, it was realistically telling:

Gentlemen, before you pass on, might as well I clear up your minds about this. The Constitution of Belize is going to be an Act of the British Parliament. We have absolutely no control over the British Parliament; what they choose to do, they will do in their own good time…Please understand that by colonialism we are still in the position where the Constitution of Belize is an Act of the British Parliament…The Government of this country cannot control the British Parliament. We don’t want to pretend we can.

While musing mischievously that he hoped the government itself would get a chance to review the draft, Courtenay made two crucial things perfectly clear that day. First, that there would be no more consultations with the people after the JSC process ended. There were no more. Second, even with self-government, the British colonial masters still held the critical trump card of withholding approval of Belize’s independence constitution – and, by extension, continued to hold significant potential sway over its contents and timing.

The Queen ‘Orders’ Independence

And so it was the British Parliament that enacted the Belize [Independence] Act on 28 July 1981, to which Queen Elizabeth II granted Royal Assent. And so it was that on 31 July 1981 the Queen, on the advice of her Privy Council, issued an Order in Council (the Belize Independence Order), ordering that Belize become independent on 21 September 1981. Attached to the Queen’s Order was the Independence Constitution of Belize. Without these antiquated imperialist actions by the British, Belize could only have achieved independence by unilateral declaration, by people’s revolution or coup d’état. There were clearly security risks with all these options.

On 28 August 1981, one month after the Queen’s Order, the Belize Independence Constitution Bill was passed in one sitting by the House of Representatives. There were no House Committee meetings with the public on the Bill. In another illustration of the errors (or comedy) that can accompany haste, the PUP members of the Senate themselves proposed that the Bill be sent back to the House with two new ‘overlooked’ chapters on ‘transitionary provisions’ and ‘repeal and commencement’.

On Wednesday 2 September 1981 the Bill was enacted, as amended by the Senate, becoming the most important document in Belize’s modern political history. It became so without the support of the Opposition UDP, which did not have the numbers in the House of Representatives to prevent passage of the Bill.

Although not technically required for legal political independence, the fact that Belize insisted on enacting its Independence Constitution in its own National Assembly had symbolic, political and substantive value. Several Caribbean nations that got independence earlier did not demand this. Intrinsically, it was a proud moment in Belize’s political history.

Not a People’s Constitution

Historical facts are stubborn things, and those I have presented in this four-part series point to an inevitable conclusion: Even as the hurried consultations on the White Paper did positively reform a few sections of the 1981 Constitution of Belize, the Constitution was not a product of the Belizean people. It was constructed, in large part, by a small number of local and British political elites and cannot truly be called a people’s Constitution. It was not the result of sufficient nor meaningful consultations. The people were not consulted on the preparation of the White Paper. The people were not consulted on the drafting of the actual Constitution. The people were not consulted on the final Constitution.

The weak imprint of the Belize people on their Independence Constitution can be traced back to both lapses in political leadership, on the one hand, and an untimely clash of colonial legacy with political reality, on the other.

PUP: Wasted Opportunities

In terms of political leadership, the People’s United Party (PUP) governments since self-government in 1964 had ample time to better educate and engage the people with popular approaches to ‘think out’ what kind of constitution an independent Belize should have. Not doing so was a failure of leadership. It is partly because some in the traditionalist camp (mentioned in Part I of this series) are ultra-sensitive to any criticism of George Price and the PUP leadership in the challenging lead-up to the victory of independence that they find critiques of the constitutional process unpalatable – even if based on facts.

Although unwanted, Belize’s delayed freedom day also presented opportunities to seriously study and learn from other constitutional experiences and be more ready whenever the time came. As has been argued elsewhere, in contrast to the progressive aspirations of the 1950’s nationalist movement, the national political leadership became cautious and accommodating as colonialism dragged on for another 18 years. This accommodation carried over too into dampening constitutional aspirations.

To those who may argue that PUP representatives had a 1979 mandate from the people for an independence constitution, only the independence part is right. There were no PUP promises or proposals in its 1979 manifesto on elements for a new Constitution.

UDP: Missed Opportunities

And it is also undeniable that the United Democratic Party (UDP) too has blame for the failures of national political leadership in the modern constitutional history of Belize. As the Opposition National Independence Party had done with the 1963 Belize Joint Select Committee and the 1963 Constitutional Conference in London before self-government, the Opposition UDP boycotted both history-making processes in 1981.

And the UDP exhibited leadership confusion when it presented proposals to the JSC and then to the British, through the Governor, despite its boycott. It’s hard to exercise national influence and represent ‘your people’ if you are not at the big table. Even for those who may agree with the then UDP positions on delaying the timing of independence, there was always the option of participating in the process of constitution making, however rushed, while arguing for its delayed implementation. Indeed, after the fact of having an Independence Constitution Bill before the House of Representatives on 30 August 1981, the UDP did propose that there be a six-month delay before it came into effect. In hindsight, not serving on the JSC and not being in London as the official Opposition in 1981 was a historical political mistake.

Real Politik

The long and accommodating slog to 1981 had dullened the decolonisation aspirations that the Belizean people held so strongly in the 1950s and 1960s. For sure, the lead up to the independence Constitution transpired in hard times built on the legacy of some 200 years of exploitative and divisive imperialist rule. The imperialist mentality was still evident in 1981. For example, in correspondence from Governor Hennessy to the FCO he wrote: “It is of course, unfortunately, for Belizeans to decide what they want in their Constitution.” What was unforgivingly unfortunate was not only did Belizeans have limited political authority and financial ability to address the worsening societal needs, but the British had failed miserably to resolve the long-standing Guatemala claim in a manner acceptable to Belizeans.

In a real sense, meaningful constitutional reform before independence was, in part, just one other victim of ‘the Claim’. For its part, the United Kingdom believed that any public talk of an independence constitution would push Guatemala from the negotiating table. It was not until the British became convinced that Belize’s internationalization push would succeed in an early independence, that they suddenly began to push again for constitutional preparations. Additionally, not only did ‘the Claim’ disproportionately devour the time, treasure, leadership resources and unity of the Belizean people, but it also gave the British an additional trump card on the timing of Belize’s independence: the defence guarantee.

So distracted were the PUP leadership by trying to resolve the Guatemalan claim or get a defence guarantee before independence, constitutional matters did not get near the level of priority deserved. And because of the very late start to create a new Constitution, the unexpected political and partisan drama over the Heads of Agreement in the very year of independence sucked even more air from constitutional building efforts. Startlingly, Price, Musa, Marin, Shoman and the UDP were all missing from one of Belize’s biggest dates with political destiny in London.

Notwithstanding my conclusions on political leadership, one of the best decisions of the Father of the Nation, George Price was to select V.H. Courtenay (seen in photo) to lead the preparation of the Belize Independence Constitution. In the pressurized and limiting context of 1981, V.H. Courtenay performed skilfully and does deserve to be called ‘The Father of the Constitution’. He was the brains and the strategic driver for Belize throughout the short constitution making process. It is a pity that he too did not have more time.

What if?

In the rightful pursuit of a long-delayed and secure independence, there were casualities along the way – some preventable, some not. Not doing more consultations with the people was preventable. The ‘what ifs’ are many. What if there were more time? What if there were no Heads of Agreement protests? Would the process and the resulting Constitution have been any different? Or would path dependency have landed us basically the same Constitution? We will never know.

What I do know is that as Belizeans we must identify and use the lessons of the making of the 1981 Constitution to help ensure that the People’s Constitution Commission does not become another lost opportunity for the people of Belize. There is unfinished constitutional business as part of the project of making a new Belize and of living up to the promise of 21 September 1981. Time come!

Note on sources: Apart from sources named or in the hyperlinks, this article drew on original sources in the Parliamentary Archives of the Belize National Assembly, in the holdings on Belize’s independence at the Belize National Archives, and in the UK National Archives, and on newspapers and news magazines of the time.

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