The forgotten prime minister died 46 years ago

Michael Burke

Thursday, April 11, 2013

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Donald Sangster was prime minister for 48 days. He succeeded Jamaica's first prime minister in political independence, Sir Alexander Bustamante. Sangster was born on October 26, 1911 and died on April 11, 1967 at 55 years and six months old. There was no celebration of the centenary of his birth in 2011, unfortunately, despite the fact that his own party, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), was then in office.

Last week I wrote on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr's assassination. It was, in fact, the 45th and not the 46th anniversary of King's death. It was not so much a mathematical error as it was typographical. Sorry about that!

Now back to Sangster: The late Hartley Neita wrote a biography of Sangster entitled The Forgotten Prime Minister, but Neita did not live to see the launch. In this book Neita pointed out the sterling contribution made by Sangster, a lawyer by profession, who first entered politics at the age of 21 as a member of the St Elizabeth Parochial Board (now called parish councils). He lived a very full life as a sportsman from his days at Munro, and had a healthy love for drama.

In 1944, Sangster ran as an independent candidate for the old South St Elizabeth seat and lost, placing third. But it was still a narrow loss, with less than 300 votes separating him from the winner, Burnett Birthright Coke, who had won for the JLP. In 1949 Donald Sangster ran as the JLP candidate while Coke was an independent. This time Sangster won, but by only 48 votes.

He was appointed minister of social services between 1949 and 1953, minister of finance from 1953-55, and again from 1962 to 1967. He was his own minister of finance.

By 1955, B B Coke had joined the People's National Party (PNP) and defeated Sangster by a few thousand votes. It was upon the disqualification of George Perrier — the member of the House of Representatives for the old North Clarendon constituency — on the grounds of defamation of character of another candidate that Sangster won a by-election in December 1995. Incidentally, the late Rose Leon was also disqualified for same reason. Sangster was re-elected every election thereafter until his death in 1967.

His greatest contribution took place during his years as the deputy prime minister of Jamaica. Bustamante was ill for roughly three years before he finally left politics, during which time he was practically bedridden. So it was Sangster who 'ruled' the country during those years.

As Jamaica was new to political independence, the framework had to be set. That lot fell on Donald Sangster. As finance minister, he introduced legislation for industrial expansion, with a stated emphasis on local production, in continuation of all the efforts done by previous governments. It is so unfortunate that in the 1990s Jamaica was forced by globalisation to take foreign goods, and that has killed so much of this initiative.

The preface to Neita's book declares: "The reader might be surprised to discover that, while quiet Sangster played second fiddle to the powerful Bustamante, he was in fact the real driver of Jamaica's economy long before his untimely death."

It was left to the new Government, headed by the 78-year-old Bustamante, to reassure the regional territories that Jamaica would co-operate with the region because of the decision by referendum to secede from the West Indies Federation in September 1961. This reassurance was done by Donald Sangster.

The decision to keep the University of the West Indies as a regional entity and to remain part of the West Indies Cricket team was due, in large part, to both Sangster and Norman Manley. These were very important issues at the time of our political independence in 1962. Sir Alexander Bustamante was not a conceptualiser, so it was left to Sangster to do such things. Sangster accompanied Bustamante to the United Nations and also to see US President John F Kennedy.

According to an anecdotal, Kennedy asked Bustamante what was his foreign policy and apparently Sir Alexander only heard the word "policy". The story is that Bustamante told Kennedy "British American and Mutual Life". Is there any truth to that story — which is now 50 years old — or was it just a created tale? If true, did Sangster then have to effect diplomatic damage control? Hartley Neita omitted the story. Fable or not, it is true that Bustamante relied heavily on Sangster.

Yet Bustamante was not in favour of Sangster succeeding him, although he was of the view that Sangster made a very good deputy. As far back as 1960, there was a serious ruckus at the JLP conference. Bustamante had organised a slate of deputy leaders and some young Turks organised otherwise.

Bustamante had wanted Robert Lightbourne to be first deputy leader — in those days the deputy leaders or vice presidents of both major political parties were ranked — but this was resisted by the conference. Bustamante unilaterally declared the elections null and void, but allowed Sangster to remain first deputy leader.

Neita wrote in his book about the swearing-in of Sangster. On the night of February 21, 1967 — when the JLP won the general election — in a state of jubilation, Sangster visited Bustamante at Jamaica House, but was greeted coldly. Sangster therefore arranged to be sworn in as quickly as possible in case Bustamante, who remained JLP leader, used his great influence to get the MPs to choose Hugh Shearer instead.

No one knew that Sangster had been sworn in as prime minister -- not even the top rank of the victorious JLP, and certainly not Bustamante — until there was an official announcement. Nevertheless, Bustamante eventually got his way. Only 48 days after being sworn in, Sangster died, and Hugh Shearer was sworn in as prime minister. Read more about Donald Sangster in The Forgotten Prime Minister by Hartley Neita.

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