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Britain’s Westminster model in the Caribbean

The majority of Britain’s Caribbean colonies gained independence between 1962 and 1983.

Yet while the colonial power had formally departed, it left in place political institutions and norms based on Britain’s Westminster model of government.

Scholarship on the Westminster model in the Caribbean conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s focused primarily on the formal dimensions of democracy and drew mainly positive conclusions about the model’s effectiveness in producing stable democratic states in the region.

Yet since then the Caribbean has undergone radical changes which bring into question the more optimistic assessments of the early scholarship.

Globalisation, the international drugs trade, rising crime levels and the economic downturn are undermining the power of the state in the region.

Liberal democracy, which the Westminster model was assumed to produce, is now under existential threat, in the words of Caribbean scholar Norman Girvan.

The Westminster in the Caribbean network seeks to address the urgent need for an expanded and updated analysis of the experience of Westminster in the Caribbean.

The network will consider how the political model inherited from Britain was adapted to the conditions of the Caribbean, its impact on Caribbean democracy and the challenges the model has faced over the period of independence.

The network encourages dialogue across a number of borders – disciplinary, geographical and institutional – to bring new insights to critical debates about the evolution and perceived decline of democracy in the region as it prepares to mark 50 years of independence.

The network will develop several research strands broadly grouped under the following headings: adaptations; critiques; and regeneration of the Westminster model.

Adaptations: the Westminster model was transplanted to 12 countries of the Caribbean, each with different histories of colonisation, dates of independence, size, populations and ethnic demographics.

How have these factors influenced the nature and impact of the Westminster model in the different countries? Why, for example, has the model been seen as fomenting ethnic divisions in Guyana and Trinidad when it has not produced the same divisions in multi-ethnic Belize? How has the model been Caribbeanised?

Here we address recent criticisms of the limits of the Westminster model in the Caribbean context. These include divisive ‘‘winner takes all’’ politics; long periods of one-party domination; rubber-stamp parliaments; and the entrenchment of patronage systems. What role has the Westminster model played in these distortions of democracy?

Critiques: the 1979 Grenada revolution’s rejection of “Westminster hypocrisy” represents one of the most radical challenges to the Westminster system in the post-independence period.

Others include Guyana’s period of ‘‘co-operative socialism,’’ the region-wide Black Power movement and Trinidad’s 1990 radical Islamist coup.

Influential Caribbean intellectual movements such as the New World Group and the region’s rich body of post-independence literature also questioned the prevailing political system.

This strand examines political theories, movements and practices in the Caribbean that directly challenged its Westminster system of government. What alternatives did they offer? Does the failure of these alternatives testify to the legitimacy and robustness of the Westminster system in the Caribbean?

Regeneration: contemporary anxieties about democratic decay in the region have re-opened debates about reforming the Westminster system, including radical proposals for a regional federal state.

What substantive political reforms are being proposed and what is the future of Westminster in the Caribbean? In the light of serious concerns about “existential threats” to the state, can the Westminster system withstand these new pressures and survive? Is the region moving to a post-Westminster era?

This international research network engages both academic and non-academic sectors to examine a key problematic in post-independence Caribbean history and how it has shaped the present.

The network will both reflect on and contribute to critical debate in the region at a time of renewed discussion of the achievements and failures of Caribbean independence. For further information, contact kate.quinn@sas.ac.uk.

* Kate Quinn, Peter Clegg, Dylan Vernon belong to the UK Steering Group working to establish The Westminster in the Caribbean network network through a funding bid to the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) International Research Networks Grant. 

A lecturer in modern history and head of the Caribbean programme at the UK’s Institute for the Study of the Americas since 2005, Quinn studied English and Spanish Literature at Oxford University and holds an MA and PhD in modern history for the University College London. Her research focus is on the impact of Black Power in the Caribbean, particularly Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, Cuba and the Eastern Caribbean.

Peter Clegg is a senior lecturer at the University of the West of England who holds BA, MSc, PhD from the UK University of Southampton who has just completed a visiting research fellow at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES) at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica where he taught two MSc courses on Caribbean politics. He is also on the editorial board of the journal The Round Table, The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.

A Commonwealth UK scholarship in 2009 helped Dylan Vernon of Belize pursue PhD studies in political science at the Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of London in the UK. Vernon has worked as a lecturer, and governance/social policy consultant.