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'Forgotten prime minister' thrust into spotlight

Ken Chaplin

Tuesday, August 28, 2012    

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Hartley Neita's biography of Sir Donald Sangster, a former prime minister and JLP leader, Jamaica's "Forgotten Prime Minister", Donald Sangster, thrust the work and personality of the man into the spotlight to the extent that he should be well remembered. The book was launched recently at the Institute of Jamaica.

The first thing one observes about the book is the simple language in which it is written. The first lesson in journalism is to write in simple language, so that the least educated person can understand what you are writing about. Hartley, of course, was an outstanding journalist. We worked together for 30 years in the government information apparatus, including the Jamaica Information Service where he was executive director. He later became press officer and press secretary to five heads of government for both major political parties in Jamaica between 1958 and 1992: Premier Norman Manley and prime ministers Alexander Bustamante, Donald Sangster, Hugh Shearer and Michael Manley. Neita reveals the little known fact that all these heads were related.

Neita was in a unique position to write Sangster's biography, as he was in the case of Hugh Shearer's biography: Hugh Shearer - A Voice for the People and Jamaica's. He was exposed to important information on their political ideology, governance and indeed their lives. But I should point out that he did not discuss their private lives to any extent. That would probably require another book.

A rich man through inheritance

After tracing Sangster's family lineage, his time at Munro College in St Elizabeth where he was an all-round sportsman, Neita followed Sangster's career as a lawyer and how he became a rich man mainly through inheritance.

Edited by Neita's daughter Michelle, herself a journalist, the biography shows that it was in politics and government that Sangster excelled and left an indelible mark. Neita deals with his political career and the intrigue for leadership of the JLP on the death of Bustamante. Neita writes that Sangster's uncle, Peter Sangster, a politician himself, tried to dissuade Sangster from going into politics, but determined he was on every political platform throughout St Elizabeth campaigning in the 1930 general elections. "Warnings about politics did not deter the young man. Politics was his choice," writes Neita.

Earnings from his property could more than sustain him while he indulged in politics and other community and social welfare programmes. In addition, Sangster decided to seek a profession, one which would provide him with the "skills to assist the poor and needy".

PNP meeting

Few people know that Sangster once presided over a meeting of the People's Natonal Party at Brompton, St Elizabeth. Neita spells this out in the book. Sangster lost interest in the PNP, later joined the Jamaica Labour Party and ran as an independent candidate in the 1944 general elections. He came third.

The biography relates Sangster's political journey from chairman of the St Elizabeth Parish Council to national politics, his victory in the 1949 general election, and his appointment as minister.

The book recalls how Sangster visited the Press Club of Jamaica frequently and enjoyed the debates with some of Jamaica's leading journalists. I remember the unwritten rule of the club: that what is said by anyone should remain within the walls of the club. No one, as far as I know, ever breached that rule. That rule made the discussions robust. Governor Sir Hugh Foot and Lord Hailes, governor general of the West Indies Federation, were also guests of the club from time to time.

Neita also recalls when Sangster, in a debate on the economy in the House of Representatives, took a balloon from his pocket, blew it up, took a pin from his pocket and pricked it. There was a loud pop. This was done to illustrate where the economy was going. The Daily Gleaner photographer, Astley Chin, captured it all. The Speaker ordered his camera seized. Chin dashed from the chamber and down Duke Street. On his way, he took out the film. When the police caught up with him and took away the camera, they didn't know the film had been removed! The photograph and story were later published in The Daily Gleaner. This made the Speaker angry. Incidentally, while the author mentioned articles by Ulric Simmonds, The Daily Gleaner's powerful political reporter, he failed to mention that Simmonds was a confidant of Sangster.

Dynamic role in federation

The author described Sangster's dynamic role in the West Indies Federation from which Jamaica withdrew following a referendum in 1961, and revealed that Sangster was personally pro-Federal on the side while wedded to the JLP's policy in favour of secession.

Inevitably, Sangster's characteristic shrugging of his shoulders had to be mentioned. I myself was exposed to this shrugging. While I was his press officer, there was a meeting at Gordon House - the seat of Parliament - which was covered by television. Sangster was not satisfied with the way the meeting was being covered and asked me to speak to the cameraman. I told him that that would have been inappropriate. He shrugged and moved away.

Neita wrote extensively about Sangster's death when he was hospitalised in Canada and his funeral in Mountainside, St Elizabeth. I travelled with the funeral procession by train and road, and the crowd at every stop was large and solemn.

Jamaica's "Forgotten Prime Minister", Donald Sangster is an important contribution to the written history of politics and government in Jamaica. Sangster and Neita are dead but their spirits live on in the book.

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