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Jamaica yes, Federation no — 1961

LANCE NEITA

Sunday, August 03, 2014    

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This is Part 2 of an article based on reflections on the 1961 referendum.

"I never liked this damn Federation anyway," Sir Alexander Bustamante is reported to have said after long contemplation of the issues and in discussion with his colleagues on May 30, 1960. "I am going to pull Jamaica out of it."

All this occurred the night before nomination day for a Federal candidate to contest a by-election for the St Thomas seat left vacant by the resignation of Robert Lightbourne from the Federal Parliament of the West Indies.

Edwin Allen had been chosen by the JLP to contest on behalf of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP), the regional party led by Bustamante. But, in a dramatic move that night, Busta announced after a Standing Committee meeting that the JLP was officially withdrawing from the Federation.

Shockwaves were all around as Premier Norman Manley announced the next morning that he would call a referendum to let the people decide on whether Jamaica should remain in the Federation or secede.

But Busta's decision should not have taken anyone by surprise. Ever since losing Jamaica's general election to the PNP in 1959, he had heated up his campaign against Federation — and consequently against his archrival Manley — firing from all fronts, and at one stage inviting Premier Manley to join the JLP to overthrow the West Indies Government led by Barbados's Grantley Adams.

And, as Edward Seaga points out in his biography, sentiments had been building up for secession as early as 1958, from Adams' threat of retroactive taxation on all the islands, to Trinidad's Dr Eric Williams' statement that the richer islands, Jamaica in particular, should subsidise the poorer islands. This was in 1958 when we were considered "the richer island".

Well, it wasn't until August 3, 1961, that Manley announced that fateful date of September 19 for the referendum.

The campaign was hot.

The old warhorse Bustamante, 73 years old and in opposition for six years, jumped at the leash and took on the PNP all over the island in a whirlwind campaign.

The JLP had actually started campaigning from March, and not even the other West Indian leaders were spared.

At one stage Busta earned the wrath of the Eastern Caribbean when he aimed his guns at Eric Williams, asking in the House: "If I or Norman should die, there would be no one to lead the West Indies but that contemptible Eric Williams; and what Jamaican would want Williams to rule over us?"

That did not go down well, but Busta brooked no friendships with his Caribbean neighbours whom he regarded as "eggheads".

He, at one time, referred to Williams as "that little deaf-ears man" — a feisty reference to the hearing aid permanently attached to the good doctor's ears.

Meanwhile, the PNP was getting more than they bargained for in the campaign as, following the uproar over Busta's statement, the JLP's L G Newland moved a historic motion requesting Her Majesty's Government to "take immediate steps to introduce legislation to grant Jamaica's Independence on May 23, 1962, and to seek admission for Jamaica in the British Commonwealth as a dominion".

The motion threatened to take the initiative towards Independence out of Manley's hands.

As, if passed, it would have awarded the JLP the credit for being the first to make an official call for Jamaican Independence. This would have been agonising to Manley and the PNP frontiersmen who had long declared their objective of full self-government from the stormy days of 1938 and the founding of the party.

Needless to say, it went no further than a suggestion at the time.

Now, like all major national issues in Jamaica, the campaign was politically divided, "Jamaica yes, Federation yes" for the PNP, "Jamaica yes, Federation no" for the JLP.

And like all national events, the referendum excitement was celebrated in song, poetry and dance, with calypsonian Lord Larue enjoying hit parade status with his immortal "No no, no, Federation, no, but when ah listen Norman Manley say it not so".

When the votes were counted, the people had voted by a majority of 40,000 to say no. The Caribbean had followed the results around the basin by radio.

Dr Eric Williams summed up the disappointment with his famous statement, "One from 10 is nought".

The Federation was dead, and Jamaica would go it alone.

This was one referendum that Norman Manley had not wanted to lose.

True statesman that he was, he conceded defeat that night, commenting sadly in an interview: "The consequences of this fatal decision are too great for comment. The people have settled the matter. So be it."

The referendum was undoubtedly the defining moment in the sequence of events that were unfolding in Jamaica's march to Independence.

As premier, Manley immediately began laying plans for the next obvious step, and two days after the referendum he announced he would be leading a delegation to London to officially inform the Colonial Office of the results and to set a date for Independence.

But not so fast, said the opposition leader, throwing down the gauntlet with a terse telegram to Manley: "In matters regarding dominion status for Jamaica, let it be understood that no delegation should proceed to London without representation from my party, because in those matters you don't speak for Jamaica, I do."

The premier, nonetheless, proceeded with his visit, but returned without fixing a date; while reporting that the Colonial Office favoured a date in March 1962. This led to wide public expectation that Jamaica should prepare for its Independence Day in March 1962.

It then surfaced that Manley preferred August 1, Emancipation Day, while Busta wanted May 23, the anniversary of his arrest and detention at Up Park Camp in 1938.

The premier then formed a joint committee "to work on Independence".

Members of that historic committee were Manley, Florizel Glasspole, Vernon Arnett, Iris King, Claude Stewart, Bustamante, Donald Sangster, Clem Tavares, Robert Lightbourne, and John Gyles.

During the hot debates that ensued, Manley gave as good as he got from the Opposition, and at one stage threatened to withdraw any cooperation on major matters.

"You wouldn't dare," shot back Bustamante. "You can't cooperate with people who won't behave themselves," fumed Manley.

Events continued to move at a fast pace.

The two leaders led a joint delegation to London in February 1962 to discuss a new constitution and to set the date, August 6. The PNP and JLP worked together in unison, prompting Busta to quip in his final speech: "I am happy that Mr Manley and myself were able to work together as if there was one party in Jamaica — the Jamaica Labour Party." Much laughter all around.

An election date, April 10, was set immediately after the conference.

The campaign was formally launched on the tarmac of the Montego Bay airport when the two leaders returned to Jamaica on separate BOAC flights. Manley took off from the airport to Charles Square and then through all the major towns ending up in a monster meeting at Kingston's Race Course that evening.

The JLP wound up a similar motorcade with a giant meeting at Coronation Market the following day. Jamaica was once again plunged into election frenzy, this making an astonishing fifth time in eight years that we were going to the polls.

The parties put everything they had into the eight-week campaign. The PNP urged Jamaica to vote for "the man with the plan", in reference to the successful development programmes Manley had introduced since attaining power in 1955. The party also campaigned on its record of championing self-government since the early days of the political movement.

The JLP countered with the slogan "the party with the programme", presenting Busta as the man who had pulled Jamaica out of an unpopular union. Night after night the JLP crowds would chant: "Let the eye water fall on the man with the plan, Busta come back again."

By April 8, the election seemed headed for a dead heat. The parties were wrapping up their campaign. Busta was being serenaded that night in Spanish Town as the comeback kid, while Manley was dancing to the singing of party songs in Highgate.

On the morning of April 10 Bustamante voted quietly at 208 Mountain View Avenue before heading out to his Clarendon constituency accompanied by his private secretary, Gladys Longbridge.

The Manleys, Norman and Edna, voted at 21 Washington Drive. "Who yuh vote for?" asked an enthusiastic supporter. Manley smiled and replied: "A man's vote is his secret."

The secret was out that night, as the JLP river came down bank to bank. The party won 26 seats to the PNP's 18. Bells rang out and champagne flowed at Busta's Tucker Avenue residence. Bustamante was invited by the governor, Sir Kenneth Blackburne, to form the Independence government.

And Manley's fateful referendum had spoken. It still rings a bell today.

Lance Neita is a communications and public relations specialist. Comments to the Observer or to lanceneita@hotmail.com.

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