He traveled to England in 1945 on a Guyana scholarship, received his LL.B. degree in 1947, and was called to the bar in 1948.
While in Great Britain he served as president of the West Indian Students Union, a leading member of the League of Coloured Peoples comprising students from the West Indies, Africa and Asia, and became a socialist.
Burnham returned to British Guiana in 1949, throwing himself into law practice and politics, and trade union activities. In 1952 he was elected president of the British Guiana Labor Union (BGLU), one of the country’s most powerful unions, a post he held until his death. He also became involved in the Political Affairs Committee (PAC), headed by a Marxist dentist, Cheddi Jagan. By 1950 Jagan and Burnham turned the PAC into the Peoples Progressive Party—the first nonethnic political party in the country. Burnham became the party’s first chairman, and Jagan became party leader.
From its inception, the PPP’s stated aim was to win a free and independent British Guiana and the achieve the socialist reorganization of the society. In 1953, in elections under a new constitution that provided for universal adult suffrage for the first time, the PPP won 18 of the 24 seats. Forbes Burnham became minister of education.
As leader of the opposition and head of one of the country’s major trade unions, with support from the bulk of the electorate in the capital city, Burnham resisted any effort to grant the colony independence before substantial electoral reform. In a two-year period of political conflict that took on both racial and ideological characteristics, Burnham’s predominantly black urban-based sup¬porters became pitted against Jagan’s predominantly East Indian rural supporters. Civil strife forced Jagan to accept a political formula, worked out largely by Burnham, which almost guaranteed political victory to Burnham. Elections were held in 1964 with the clear understanding by Britain that independence would be granted during the tenure of the next government. Burnham’s Peoples National Congress and the conservative United Force, winning 40.8 percent and 12.5 percent of the votes, respectively, formed a coalition government under the new system of proportional representation. Burnham became prime minister. When Britain granted independence to British Guiana in 1966, Forbes Burnham continued as prime minister.
By encouraging members of the opposition to cross party lines, Burnham managed to gain full control of the government in 1967.
Under Burnham’s increasingly authoritarian leadership the government embarked on revision of the constitution in the late 1970s. Under the new constitution, in 1980 Burnham became executive president, a position he retained until his death.
Burnham died unexpectedly in a local hospital from a complication of maladies.
Burnham’s Fabian Socialism conflicted sharply with the Marxism-Leninism of a faction of the PPP led by Cheddi Jagan and his wife Janet Jagan. The radicals had clearly gained the upper hand, not only in the party, but also in the new government. In response the Conservative British government of Winston Churchill suspended the new constitution 133 days after it was initiated. Burnham and Jagan immediately went to Great Britain to protest the decision, and then to India to drum up support there. Restrictions were placed on the movement and political activities of the leaders of the PPP. When he returned home, Burnham chose to abide by these restrictions, going against most of the leadership of the party, and was thus spared the prison sentence that was the lot of most of the party’s top leaders.
Ideological differences and the different power bases of Jagan and Burnham soon precipitated a split in the PPP. The Burnham faction’s base was the urban black working-class population. When elections were held in 1957, after a partial restoration of the 1953 constitution, the Bumhamites managed to capture only 25.5 percent of the popular vote, winning 3 of 14 seats, to the Jaganites’ 9 seats and 47.5 percent of the vote. In 1958 Burnham joined forces with a party representing the black urban middle class to form the Peoples National Congress (PNC). The new party again lost to Jagan’s PPP in 1961 elections but got 41 percent of the votes and 11 seats. The PPP, with 42.6 percent of the vote, won 20 seats.