Orders of the Day — British Guiana (Suspension of Constitution)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th December 1953.

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Photo of Miss Jennie Lee Miss Jennie Lee , Cannock 12:00 am, 7th December 1953

The Minister shakes his head, but Dr. Jagan had difficulty in getting a visa and had ultimately to come through Dutch territory. Then, when he came to this country, I should have thought that we would have been meticulously careful to see that his side of the case should also be put. Some of us on this side of the House have met Dr. Jagan and have heard him state his case. We have also met Mr. Buraham, the ex-Minister of Education, and we have heard him state his case. But there has been no complete, written statement in the hands of all hon. Members of this House and of members of the British public putting forward their view of these events.

I should have thought that the more certain the Government were that they had taken the correct line, the more they would have been anxious to see that the young Colonial Ministers they were setting aside should have their side of the case put forward. I consider that, when we had our earlier debate on British Guiana, or even before it took place, there should have been a substantial all-party delegation from this House going out to British Guiana and that we should have had information coming to us from much wider and much more acceptable sources than has been the case.

When a Governor is appointed to a Colony he must have respect and authority, but the case put by my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield, that whatever the Governor says must be taken practically on trust, is doctrine fit for a one-party State. It is doctrine fit for a society in which all the basic economic conflicts have been resolved. It is most certainly not doctrine for a country or for any situation in which there is not so much a wrong and a right as a conflict between two people, each of whom think they are right.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield that the argument he put tonight in relation to British Guiana is the argument that was put by hon. Members opposite at the time of the "red letter" scare that brought down one inexperienced Government on our side. It is precisely the argument that was put in 1931 when the Government of the late Ramsay MacDonald collapsed, and I would remind my hon. Friend that it was put by some very nice people—important governors, leaders of churches, and so on. We are not disputing their moral belief in what they said, but the fact is that they were on the other side of the profound economic conflict, namely, who is to own the basic resources of society, and how can those resources be more fairly distributed.

I am in the same position as other hon. Members of this House, I have to make largely tendentious statements and judgments. More and more, as the information comes to me from British Guiana I see a parallel in what is happening there today with what happened in this country in 1924 and in 1931 and, indeed, with some of the circumstances that brought down the last Labour Government. We had a balance of payments crisis then which was made much worse than it should have been because the fact that the majority of the British Press exerted its utmost influence to undermine confidence in that Labour Government and a great many British businessmen, with less than maximum patriotism, exaggerated the crisis by making inroads on our dollar resources which this country could not stand.

So I see in British Guiana a community in which the Press and the radio were against the P.P.P. and the employers were against it. I do not wonder therefore that at least some in that young party should have had doubts as to whether democracy could work or not, and I say that it should have been our duty to help strengthen their confidence in democracy and constitutional measures instead of adding to their cynicism. My hon. Friend the Member for Northfield quoted from Dr. Rita Hinden, who said she had been shocked because the P.P.P. said it was not satisfied with the instalment of democratic government which was offered by the Commission and that it wanted "power complete and unchecked." I should like even that phrase examined.

I know that the P.P.P. objected to the limited amount of power given. I know that its members say that the employers are against them, that fundamentally this is a problem of the sugar plantations. It is not ultimately a constitutional point. The P.P.P. members say, "It is a question of how we develop our country, what wages will be paid to us and what kind of houses we shall live in." They say, "You are offering us a small instalment of constitutional government in circumstances where there are such powerful forces against us that we do not think we shall be able to do anything with that power." I do not ask the House to accept or reject that argument, but it is an argument.

When we talk about "power complete and unchecked" is not that what we want when we become a Government? Do not we want to have a real Labour or a real Tory Government? Were we not intrigued by the suggestion made by one of my colleagues that we could give proportional representation to British Guiana? We wanted to know at what point British Guiana would become sufficiently mature to set aside proportional representation and have one party as the Government. One colleague intervened and said that if there was proportional representation in this country we might never have another Labour Government. We believe that it is good to have one party in power. Did some members of P.P.P. use a phrase of that kind in that sense? I do not know. There is far too much that I do not know. There are far too many questions left unanswered. There is far too much that all of us do not know in this debate today.

I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) could quite easily have found the answer to some of the questions he put. I have never known Liberalism used for a worse cause than that for which the right hon. and learned Gentleman used it today. At one point he said that perhaps we ought to send someone out to British Guiana to find out what conditions were really like there. One cannot find out the main ground work of wages and living conditions in British Guiana by sending somebody out there for a week or two. We could help to clear up part of the constitutional problem in that way, but the Library of the House of Commons is stocked with books which give a great deal of the information that the right hon. and learned Gentleman wanted.

Much of that information makes me uneasy in this debate. I find, for instance, that in the year 1950 exports from British Guiana to America and Canada were valued at 31,500,000 dollars but imports were valued at 14,500,000 dollars. I found that in British Guiana, with a population of half a million, there were 67 doctors and 33 dentists a year or two ago, and I suppose that is pretty much the position now. I found that in 1945 an official survey of housing conditions made in Georgetown examined 7,944 houses. They found 2,309 unfit for human habitation and 5,303 beyond repair. They found only 382 of those houses structurally sound and many instances in which people were living 12 to a room.

We had Mr. Burnham, the former Minister of Education, in this country. We have serious enough problems in this island, but his situation was one in which only one in five of the teachers in the primary schools had any real training to justify being called teachers. A class of 50 or 60 is regarded as a rather small class; sometimes the numbers were 80 or 90. It was a travesty of education. Secondary education was something which soared beyond the hopes and expectations of the coloured people of British Guiana because it had to be paid for.

Against that background of basic poverty and people who had only known what it was to live under the dictatorship of big business, I was deeply concerned that some of my own friends should have taken the line -they have over the trade union issue interlocked with constitutional issues in that part of the world. I should like someone on the Government Front Bench, or my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly—if he would be good enough, because I am sure he knows all the facts—to tell me if it is or is not true that the Citizens Manpower Association received money from the employers in British Guiana? My information is that this union did receive company money and in that sense was a company union to which it was safe to belong, whilst it was dangerous to belong to the Industrial Workers Union.

One hon. Member has spoken of victimisation as if it were the People's Progressive Party, the newcomers, who had power over the Press and everyone else, who were doing the victimising. We know how the Labour and trade union movement have been built up in this country, and we know where victimisation cuts in most sharply. It is when earning one's daily bread—