Federating the British West Indies
By Mellissa Ifill

Stabroek News
February 14, 2002

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While the majority of proposals that sought to create some form of political unity among the territories in the British West Indies emanated from the metropolis, a notable departure from the prevailing practice occurred in 1926, with what was said to be the first well-thought out local proposal for political unity in the West Indies. This proposal was crafted by the regional labour movement initially led by Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow and the British Guiana Labour Union and articulated convincing arguments for federation and regional political and economic unity.

Regional labour leaders crafted this proposal at a labour conference held in British Guiana in January 1926. A number of resolutions related to labour and political reform were passed. One of the more important resolutions appealed for a federation of the West Indies with self-government and dominion status. These labour leaders, including Arthur Cipriani from Trinidad, W.J. Lesperan of Suriname, H.N. Critchlow and A.K. Dinally from British Guiana were not solely concerned with the immediate material improvement in the lives of the working class, but also believed that ultimately, improving of the lives of the working class depended on legislation and self government and they therefore called for a federal government in addition to a federal labour union organisation.

Although the regional organisation created at this 1926 conference, the Guianese and West Indian Federation of Trade Unions and Labour Parties (GWIFTULP) was unsuccessful in achieving its aims, the ideas articulated by this organisation persisted until the 1940s when the Caribbean Labour Congress (CLC) was established. The main objective of the CLC was to create a strong labour movement by linking existing trade unions and labour parties in order to provide widespread support for a strong federal government. This strategy was perceived to be one that would allow West Indians to enhance their living and working conditions not only through labour and welfare reforms but also by promoting economic development.

Initially, the CLC had a very strong voice and convincingly expressed the need for a united regional labour movement as a precursor to independence and democracy within the context of a socialist Caribbean federation. At the CLC conference, the delegates agreed, "that the West Indies must unite with the mainland territories of British Honduras and British Guiana, under one flag, for one Caribbean commonwealth". It was also agreed that each colony be given a similar constitution, complete with universal adult suffrage and internal self-government. Further, that a federation be established, which would have a prime minister and cabinet accountable to the federal Parliament and which would have authority over "regional planning and economic development."

Even while the CLC's council and affiliates were considering the federal proposal in 1947, yet another federal proposal was being considered at a conference in Montego Bay, Jamaica that was organised by the British Colonial Office. Representatives of trade unions and political parties from the various territories attended the Montego Bay Conference to primarily consider the political and constitutional development of the West Indies. Some key CLC delegates used the opportunity to present their resolutions to the Colonial Office.

However, the proposals from the CLC were not given much attention because according to the Secretary of State for the colonies Arthur Creech Jones, the topic of a self-governing federation was "rather outside the immediate terms of reference of this conference". In essence, the Colonial Office's model for federation "meant merely a loose confederal association", while the CLC perceived it as "a strong federal state...a vehicle for democratic social growth". Not surprisingly therefore, the Colonial Office rejected the CLC proposal for federation as "precipitate and unfeasible"

According to the CLC Secretary Richard Hart, the major differences between the proposals from the Colonial Office and the CLC were

1. The constitution would not provide for independence simultaneously with the inauguration of the federation, but instead would provide for a federal government enjoying less self-governing powers than the constitution already obtained by Jamaica.

2. The federal constitution was to be a loose structure and the federal government was not to enjoy strong centralised powers such as would have enabled it to plan industrialisation of the whole area according to a unified plan and control customs duties in a manner which would have facilitated implementation of a common trading policy.

The differences between the two proposals are not surprising in view of the different aims/agendas of the their proponents. The policies of the Colonial Office were essentially determined by Britain's economic crisis and it therefore attempted to devise measures to encourage the productivity of the colonies to satisfy the UK's urgent needs. On the other hand, the CLC wanted to develop the colonial economies so that they could become self-sufficient and meet the needs of the West Indian people.

All the participating territories in the Montego Bay Conference with the exception of British Guiana, accepted the principle of federation. The Guianese Legislative Council rejected the report of the Standing Closer Association Committee even though there were some members who supported federation. In the council debates, some members contended that British Guiana had a continental rather than a Caribbean destiny. They argued that Guiana was located on the South American continent and was therefore separated from the West Indies from a geographical perspective. Other members viewed the issue through ethnic lens and pointed to the potential political gains/disadvantages that federation would pose to an ethnic group. Others, in particular those who represented the business interests in the colony viewed the loose federal idea proposed by the colonial office as potentially beneficial while they viewed with suspicion the socialist oriented federalist idea proposed by the CLC.

The federal concept held by the CLC did not secure widespread support. Several reasons were responsible for this including a poorly run public relations campaign and division among some CLC leaders. Divisions surfaced among the CLC leaders partially because of divide and rule tactics employed by Britain. Some leaders were promised constitutional reforms in their own colonies and they were therefore reluctant to offend the colonial office by encouraging public protest for more extensive reforms. With the rejection of the CLC's federal proposal, some political leaders in the CLC including Adams of Barbados and Manley of Jamaica agreed to accept a gradual, reductive method whereby each colony was responsible for securing whatever constitutional advance it could. This acceptance of the Colonial Office prescription was sharply criticised by a number of their fellow CLC colleagues and other regional and international labour leaders, including African labour leaders and the Pan African Federation in London. CLC Secretary Hart accused Adams and Manley of betraying the West Indian people for personal gain. The CLC's agenda was further undermined because the middle class CLC leaders' absorption with constitutional reform in the West Indies resulted in the organisation neglecting the regional labour movement and its local associates.

The labour/working class leaders in British Guiana supported the strong federalist idea, which was increasingly being championed by Hart. They supported a strong federal body, dominion status and each territory having internal self-government. These leaders, including Cheddi and Janet Jagan, Jocelyn Hubbard, Ashton Chase and Nathaniel Critchlow collaborated with Hart and worked to sensitise the Guianese people and to press for self-government. Cheddi Jagan argued that the Colonial Office Federal proposal was "nothing more than a glorified Crown Colony, the amalgamation of several units which will carry us no further to self government". He further declared that since the desire of the Guianese people was self-government, it was incumbent upon their elected representatives to unreservedly reject the Colonial Office proposal.