With elections in the air, talk of Constitutions and constitutional change are flying fast and furious, especially after the PNC’s flouting of the present Constitution in the NCM fiasco. It should help, then, if citizens are more aware about what Constitutions are all about. Essentially, Constitutions describe the allocation of State powers amongst its various branches as defined by the Constitution itself; prescribe the rules by which those powers would be conferred and also include procedures by which the Constitution may be altered.
In a fundamental sense, therefore, a Constitution should be the embodiment of the social contract crafted by the people of a country for their governance. In a divided society such as Guyana, it is most important that the institutions created by the social contract – Government, Police, civil service etc are seen as just: “justice is the first virtue of social institutions as truth is of systems of thoughts”.
It is ironic that the British, who have done so much to entrench the idea modern of Constitutions as written rules that all citizens of a state have to be governed by – the rule of law – themselves do not have a written Constitution. The anomaly, however, should remind us that rules, in and of themselves, may be necessary but are not sufficient, to ensure the consent of the governed and the governors. We need to foster the wider network of informal traditions, accommodations, informal pro quid quos that makes the British unwritten constitutional rules function.
And this is where we have sorely lapsed in Guyana. Some people, especially those in the new parties, seem to believe that just by crafting a new Constitution, all our problems will be solved. That is not even the beginning: it is a truism that changes in cultural and moral behaviour must precede changes in political behaviour. But very few are willing to work in the trenches to achieve those changes.
Western constitutionalism arose out of the struggle for personal freedom, and escape from arbitrary political will by the emerging European bourgeoisie. Guyanese, descended from slaves and indentured servants, should certainly resonate to this struggle. Constitutionalism is a foundation stone of Liberalism and defines a political scheme in which law, rather than men, is supreme. Political authority is exercised according to law, which is to be obeyed by all including the governors, who cannot depart from it by whim as President Granger did regularly. By definition then, a constitutional government is a limited government.
James Madison (1751-1836), one of the framers of the American Constitution, sums up the essence of constitutionalism, in his Federalist 51:
“But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed: and in the next place oblige it to control itself”.
Madison thus recognised, as we Guyanese should after our recent history, that the fundamental problem of organised society is of the use and abuse of power – how men may best prevent its abuse and direct it to good ends. This notion is rooted in the fallibility of man… the belief that no man, or group of men, is good enough to be entrusted with absolute power over other men. This tendency is exacerbated when a country has groups that are racially or ethnically different, as Guyana, since it becomes so much easier to demonise the “other” and resort to extreme measures to assert one’s position.
The Constitution, as asserted earlier, is a social contract, agreed to by the government and which defines its legitimate political actions as for instance, the PNC presently using state assets to campaign. This implies that all state power emanates from the people, and that sovereignty and all reserved powers remain with the people. Constitutionalism, then, views men as inalienably free and right-bearing individuals who need and establish governments that they can, may, and should control. Through protests or ultimately the ballot box.
In Guyana, where we cannot pretend that our values were shaped by some commonality looming out of a hoary past, as in Britain, we need to imbibe common values and only then craft a new social contract. That is, a new Constitution.