Andrew Holness and Donald Sangster

Andrew Holness and Donald Sangster

Michael Burke

Thursday, October 27, 2011

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I would like to extend my congratulations to Andrew Holness on being appointed prime minister. His first speech as prime minister, even if a bit long, covered a large range of areas and showed that at least he understands the issues. But having a grasp of the issues is not enough.

Holness’s mettle will be tested in holding the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) parliamentary group together, as the JLP's reason for unity is always about who is leader. The People's National Party (PNP), currently in Opposition, has traditionally united around their original programmes or at least the memory of them, which makes internal unity in that party easier to achieve than in the JLP.

The second prime minister during Independence, Sir Donald Burns Sangster, died after 48 days in office at the age of 55 1/2. Yesterday was the centenary of his birth – he was born on October 26, 1911. One would have expected that his centenary would have been a time of celebration for all of us in Jamaica.

Sangster acted as prime minister for three years while Sir Alexander Bustamante was ailing and became prime minister when the JLP won the general election of 1967. If Andrew Holness plans to call an election soon, one would think that the ruling Jamaica Labour Party would want to make a lot of campaign mileage out of the centenary of Donald Sangster who was a JLP prime minister as Holness is today. But at the time of writing nothing has been heard of any centenary celebrations.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness, after being sworn in last Sunday, spoke about the national debt. Where he was not quite correct was when he said that Jamaica has been borrowing for about the last 40 years (roughly 1972 when the PNP came to power). He would have been absolutely correct had he said that we have been borrowing for the 49 years of Independence. Throughout my student years at Jamaica College (1964-71), adult conversation was about getting Jamaica out of debt.

During the 1967 election campaign, the JLP had full-page advertisements in the Gleaner that were headlined, "The JLP has done more for you since 1962." The PNP countered that by turning it around to "Since 1962, the JLP has done more for whom?" In one of the PNP’s full-page advertisements in the Gleaner during the 1967 election campaign the party stated, "Since 1962, the JLP government has borrowed £60 million" (a considerable sum at the time).

So borrowing did not start 40 years ago but started at political Independence. However, Holness is correct; we cannot continue to borrow more than we produce and borrow money to pay back borrowed money. Donald Sangster was the first minister of finance after we gained political Independence, and the second since universal adult suffrage (second only to Sir Harold Allan who died in 1953).

Sangster helped to pioneer Jamaica’s pattern of borrowing and it is to his credit that he negotiated some of those early loans. Indeed, it is to the credit of all who have negotiated loans for Jamaica. It cannot be an easy task to go into one of those international financial institutions and convince the bankers that we need a loan to finance the physical development of Jamaica.

Did political corruption start in the 1970s as implied by Holness last Sunday at King’s House? No it did not. Corruption in this country goes back to piracy, which in the last 67 years of universal adult suffrage our politicians have taken to further levels. Between 1949 and 1955 there were ministers of government who went to prison for corruption and they were members of the JLP.

As some readers might be aware, Sir Donald Sangster was a lawyer who hailed from St Elizabeth. Early in his life he was parish councillor. He represented South St Elizabeth from 1949 to 1955 and returned to the House in a by-election later in 1955, representing Northern Clarendon. He was a very popular person and was indeed known for his humility. And he was Bustamante's lieutenant who advised him in the intricacies of governance. By the way, Sangster never represented Western Kingston in Parliament.

Although three of Sangster's relatives became MPs in 1980, and other members of the Sangster family have run for office as recently as 2007, the attitude of many in the JLP is the least said of Donald Sangster the better. We were told Sangster died from a brain haemorrhage, but not everyone in 1967 believed that.

I find it hard to believe that not having centenary celebrations for Sangster was simply an oversight because in recent decades the JLP has paid rapt attention to history, even with regard to the swearing-in of the finance and security ministers before the rest as happened in 1976 and 1989. Prime Minister Andrew Holness was born five years after Sangster's death. Has he ever asked his older colleagues why they are not so eager to remember Donald Sangster, let alone celebrate his centenary?

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