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The People and the Belize Independence Constitution (The Real Story): Part I – The Making of the White Paper

Posted: Thursday, October 5, 2023. 9:39 pm CST.

Contributed by Dylan Vernon: This post is the first part of my four-part series on the Real Story of the making of the Independence Constitution of Belize and on the question of what role the people of Belize had in it. In this first part, I examine the making of the White Paper. Part II is in on the public consultations on it. In Part III I focus on the Constitutional Conference in London, and in Part IV I share conclusions. I advise that the parts be read in sequence.

Divergent Opinions

By the time I chaired the Political Reform Commission in 1999, I was well aware of the divide in political opinion on to what extent, if any, the 1981 Constitution of Belize was ‘of the people’. In broad terms, there are two identifiable camps. A larger traditionalist camp holds that key Belizean nationalist leaders prepared the Constitution with considerable input from the Belizean people. This camp takes offence to any deviation from this narrative – often at the price of ignoring history. On the other side, a revisionist camp argues that the Constitution was inherited from imperialist Britain with only a few tweaks made by the local political elite, and that hurried consultations prevented the people from having any meaningful say. This camp, too, is not immune to glossing over some of the historical facts. What do the historical records actually show? Here is Part I of the Real Story.

‘The Courtenay’ White Paper

In the annals of Belize’s post-1950 constitutional history, the Courtenay surname dominates for good reason. With a difficult hand from a deck stacked by colonialism, the Honourable V.H. Courtenay skilfully commanded the drafting of the 1981 White Paper on the Constitution for an Independent Belize and guided it through Cabinet. His father, W.H. Courtenay, had substantial influence on a key foundation stone for that White Paper – the 1963 self-government Constitution. (His son, Senator E.H. Courtenay, Belize’s current Foreign Minister, would later play a prominent role in the Political Reform Commission in 1999). The salient point is that the basic structure of the 1981 Constitution, as proposed in the White Paper, was based on the monarchical parliamentary model introduced in the 1963 Constitution – which had the fingerprints of the British all over it. (A Real Story on the 1963 process is in the works).

As Premier George C. Price himself stated on introducing the White Paper in the House of Representatives on 30 January 1981, “Government has…selected the Monarchical system of government” and will retain “those institutions that have served us well…no fundamental change in the Legislature, the Judiciary and the Financial System.” What was new in the White Paper was, largely, what could not yet be fully stated in the colonial Constitution of 1963: the Preamble, Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, Citizenship, the Head of State, and a few aspects of Executive. Indeed, no noteworthy departures from the Westminster parliamentary model, but yet elements essential to any modern Constitution of an independent country.

In the House debate on the White Paper resolution, Member for Albert, Philip S.W. Goldson of the Opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) called out Price on this: “But from what the Premier has explained in the statement he made this morning, what the Government proposed is hardly any different from what we have right now…it seems…there is hardly going to be any change.” It was likely this that prompted Goldson to joke that “there is no big deal concerning producing the Constitution. I suppose any of us with some experience can sit down and, in a few hours time, knock up a constitution.”

Not the People’s Proposals

But, while not intrinsically remarkable, where did the ‘new’ proposed elements in the White Paper come from? In anticipation of an early independence after self-government in 1964, some text on what could be in an independence constitution was drafted between 1966 and 1968, mostly by the British side and with likely input from W.H. Courtenay. But that initiative languished as self-government dragged on due to the Guatemalan claim. It did not re-start until November 1980 when Price, who was not prone to delegating big undertakings, finally appointed V.H. Courtenay to lead the monumental task of drafting, in very short order, the proposals for an Independence Constitution.

In a 10 November 1980 memo to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Governor J.P.I. Hennessy wrote that he had given Price “a number of model constitutions” and that Said Musa had told him (Hennessy) that Price had already made decisions on the kind of constitution he wanted. During the 1981 public consultations on the White Paper and at the April 1981 Constitutional Conference in London, V.H. Courtenay informed that his government also reviewed over 20 constitutions of Commonwealth nations, mostly of similar small states in the Caribbean such as Jamaica and St. Lucia.

In short, the White Paper was clearly a product of the local political elite, with V.H. Courtenay firmly at the helm. It included elements and contributions from the 1963 Constitution, the Governor’s office, some Caribbean constitutions, Price himself and his Cabinet. The Belizean public was not consulted in its preparation. Perhaps anticipating criticism on this top-down process, Price made a preemptive statement in the House when the White Paper was tabled on 30 January 1981:

“There were many approaches available to Government. It could have awaited proposals from the people and used those to form the basis of the Constitution without any guidance from Government. This, however, would have been tantamount to the abdication of Government’s responsibility and duty to lead the people. Government therefore elected to but forward its views to the people.”

It was a clever political attempt to sweep the issue of ‘no public input’ under the rug of benevolent leadership. But the government’s approach begs an obvious question. Why was the PUP government so late to begin the process of engaging the people to prepare a constitution for a Belize that clearly was soon to be politically free? Technically, the government had some 6,205 days (seventeen long years) from self-government in 1964 to 1980 to do this. And at the very least, the process could have started just after the PUP received the mandate for independence in the general elections of November 1979. In short, there was ample time to educate and consult the people on the preparation of a White Paper before February 1981 and the year of independence.

Price Delays

The relevant archives show that Price himself held off from pulling the trigger. Even in late 1980, he was resisting the urging of a few senior Cabinet ministers, and then even Governor Hennessy, to launch the process. My own assessment is that Price, in addition to his strong instinct to keep consequential matters very close to his chest, also did not want to give the Opposition UDP and its allies an early and additional public mobilizing opportunity.

And of course, there was always the bogeyman of Guatemala hanging over everything. Any public talk of an independence Constitution for Belize made Guatemala nervous and so less likely to sit at the table and try one more time to negotiate a settlement before independence.

Partisan-skip

After both chambers of the National Assembly passed the government’s resolution on a joint select committee approach to consult the public on the White Paper, the Speaker of the House (30 January 1981) and the President of the Senate (3 February 1981) appointed a nine-member Joint Select Committee (JSC). Appointed for the PUP side were six members: the co-chairs, Senator C.L.B Rogers and Representative V.H. Courtenay, along with Representatives S. Musa, F. Marin, and F.S. Hunter and Senator G. Ramos. The heads of the two chambers of the National Assembly nominated Representatives Dr T. Aranda and C. Thompson, and Senator M. Esquivel to represent the Opposition UDP, but all three did not accept. As official party policy, the UDP boycotted the JSC. Yet, the names of their three appointees continued to be listed on all official correspondence as members.

The UDP had demanded that is seats on the JSC be increased from three to four to reflect that it had received 46.8% of the vote in 1979. The PUP side did not agree. The UDP side also conditioned its participation in the JSC on agreement by the House to amend the resolution to establish a separate Joint Select Committee to simultaneously consider several priority UDP party positions. Chief among these were resolving the Guatemala claim before independence, securing a defence guarantee, and having independence only if approved by referendum.

Predictably, the PUP majority also said no – arguing correctly in this instance that, in effect, aspects of the UDP position was tantamount to giving Guatemala a veto on independence. As such, the Opposition absented itself from the JSC proceedings. While a handful of senior members of the UDP, including Philip Goldson, did (puzzlingly) present proposals to the JSC, the undeniable fact is that the party’s official position meant that some people stayed away from the public sessions for partisan reasons.

The Tightest of Tight Timetables

So it was that on 3 February 1981, when the Senate approved the White Paper and the Joint Select Committee of the National Assembly was established, only 229 tense days were left before 21 September to consult Belizeans on the government’s proposals, go back to the National Assembly, have a Constitutional Conference with the British, draft a new Constitution, have it consented to by the Queen, and go back to the National Assembly.

And unforeseen events would further complicate the tight schedule. Would the people fare any better in the rest of the process? Find out in my next REAL STORY post on the public consultations on the White Paper in 1981.

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.

Article can also be read on this Blog by the author Dylan Vernon: The People and the Belize Independence Constitution: Part I – The Making of the White Paper

 

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