The Governor’s Powers in A Colony

Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago

By Peter Ibbotson

The two types of colonial government in the British Commonwealth are Indirect Rule (in protectorates), and Direct Rule in the Crown Colonies of which Mauritius is of course one. The system of direct rule is carried on through parliamentary institutions — the Executive and Legislative Councils.

Wherever there is direct rule, there is colonialism, and it is colonialism which people in the colonies want to see abolished. Aspects of colonialism occur in several ways in the Legislative and Executive Councils; for example in the types of members of the Legislative Council. In Mauritius there are the official members (3), the nominated unofficial members (12) and the elected unofficials (19). The officials have no opinions of their own but are compelled to support all Government-sponsored motions and bills. Their voices can be used to defeat motions which might otherwise be carried against the Government, e.g. the recent motions on the Police and Constitutional Reform. Says Sir Anton Bertram in ‘The Colonial Service’ at pages 175-6, “The sight on a long row of officials… moves the resentment of politically minded spectators… Everywhere, whenever political consciousness has developed, it is challenged and required to justify its existence.” However, despite this criticism, Sir Anton says that official members are necessary to the Colonial Office to be able to govern the colonies.

Also undemocratic are the nominated unofficials. They are usually nominated from among reactionary or foreign business and/or professional men, and usually represent vested interests. They are expected to support official policy; they do support such policy because it nearly always works in their own social or economic interest. Another distinguished colonial administrator, Sir George Maxwell, wrote in the Crown Colonist for May 1945, at page 303, “The bane of the nomination system is that… the Governor is not likely to nominate a man, however capable he may be…, if the man is known to be out of sympathy with the Government policy in certain matters.” That is, of course, the complete reply to Miss Lakeman’s letter in the Mauritius Times of February 1; it is dishonest nonsense for her to assert that an elected anti-Labour majority would be redressed by the nomination of Labour supporters. (It has not happened with the town councils). The presence of nominees means that the popular will can be frustrated, often by people whom the electorate have rejected.

In a colony, the position of the Governor is totally undemocratic. The real instrument of government is the Executive Council, over which the Governor presides. The Executive normally formulates all draft legislation which subsequently goes before the Legislative Council. Its members advise the Governor, but the Governor is not bound to take their advice and can act in opposition thereto. Paragraph 14 of the Royal Sign Manual and Signet to the Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Mauritius, dated 19 Dec 1947, expressly states “The Governor may act in opposition to the advice given to him by the Members of the Executive Council, if he shall in any case consider it right to do so” as long as he informs the Secretary of State at the earliest opportunity.

Thus although legally the island is governed by a Governor-in-Council, in reality “Governor-in-Council is defined as meaning acting with the advice of the Council but not necessarily in accordance with this advice” (I quote a standard constitutional work, The Development of the Legislative Council 1606-1945, by Martin Wight; page 150).

Colonial Regulations define the position of the Governor of any colony: “The Governor is the single and supreme authority responsible to and representative of His Majesty”. He exercises, in Mauritius, the royal prerogative of clemency for condemned criminals (paragraph 14 of the Letters Patent providing for the government of Mauritius); he acts as a sort of Prime Minister by presiding over the Executive Council (paragraph 11 of the Royal Sign Manual); and until recently he was Speaker of the Legislative Council.

As far as ordinances are concerned, the Governor need not asset to Bills passed by the Legislative Council: in paragraph 28 of the Mauritius Legislative Council Order, no. 1242 of 1947, we read:

“(1) No Bill shall become law until either the Governor shall have given his assent”… (2) when a Bill is presented to the Governor for his assent, he shall, according to his discretion…, declare that he assents, or refuses to assent, thereto…”

In other words, the Governor is the real supreme law-making body in the colony; and the Legislative Council is, in essence, little else but a debating chamber. Since its powers are so circumscribed by the powers afforded to the Governor in the Royal Sign Manual, the Letters Patent and the Order-in-Council, is there any wonder that members sometimes fail to show any sense of responsibility? And be it noted, that according to the Legislative Council Order, no. 1242 of 1947, the Governor not only has the power to refuse his assent to a Bill passed by the Legislative Council, but he is also given the power, in paragraph 27 (1), to declare that a Bill or motion shall have effect as if it had passed if he thinks that any Bill or motion which has been proposed or introduced in Council ought to have effect but has not been passed in such time and in such form as he thinks reasonable and expedient. In other words, if the Council debates a Bill at length but the Governor wants it passed quickly, he can cut short the debate by declaring the Bill to be law.

The powers given to colonial Governors, even where is a Legislative Council with an elected majority (as in Mauritius), make the system of direct rule an undemocratic sham. Apparently a democratic set-up, with pseudo-parliamentary institutions, the system is little short of an autocracy; a benevolent autocracy usually, it is true; but benevolent autocracy is no argument for autocracy in general. It is all these traces of anti-democracy which anti-colonialists want to see removed; yet the nominees and the reactionary elected members want to see them retained. The nominees, and particularly the reactionaries, support colonialism and all its trappings, and deny the possibility of real advancement to the people. They are more interested in their own petty power than in the people’s advancement. As the distinguished American journalist A.T. Steele wrote of reactionary local colonial politicians in the New York Herald Tribune in 1948. “They give lip service to everything progressive, including education, but few really favour it, for the strength of their position lies in the ignorance of the people.”

I hope, however, that this brief exposition of the real power that the Governor retains under a colonial constitution (and it is still a typically colonial constitution which is proposed to be retained for Mauritius) will dispel some of that ignorance. For when that ignorance is dispelled, the people will see how the Parti Mauricien (bolstered up by thousands of rupees) is determined to keep the people shackled to colonialism. The Labour Party, however, wants to set the people free.

And the people know which — Freedom or Colonialism — they would prefer.

Friday 22nd February 1957


* Published in print edition on 6 November 2019

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