Thoughts on Jamaica's 50th anniversary

Thoughts on Jamaica's 50th anniversary


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

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The approach of the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence provides an appropriate time to review and perhaps revise the way Jamaica is governed. Thinking about the structure of government does not require the approach of a significant year, but anniversaries are always an opportune moment for assessment. How has the country done in the past 50 years since it took control of its own affairs? What institutions are not working at all? What is working well? What could be made better?

One place to start is with the constitution hastily written in 1961 to respond to the self-made emergency following the unexpected collapse of the West Indian Federation that was carefully designed to shepherd a number of Caribbean units into an awkward form of independence. But the principal goal of the federation was to relieve Great Britain of the administrative costs of empire. British Caribbean independence was not designed to secure the future happiness and well-being of the citizens of the Caribbean. To guarantee their goal, the British promised that any territory that felt it could make it on its own was free to do so. With the premature collapse of the federation, Jamaica, along with Trinidad and Tobago, opted for independence and needed constitutions to legalise the process.

In 1776 the British North American colonies initiated the idea of a written constitution as a prelude to political independence. It was a rationale for change that tried to do two things. The first was to synthesise some core values and guiding principles of just government. The second was to lay out the guidelines for structuring and regulating the good society. Since then every group of citizens wishing to construct a modern state has outlined its history, culture, hopes and expectations in a form of written constitution. That is what Jamaica did in 1961.

The Jamaica constitution quite properly tried to capture what it felt were the basic values and principles of the country at the time. In that it did a good job. It recognised that Jamaica was a demographically diverse country with roots in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. It had a culture that was an eclectic and creolised blend of the various peoples who made the island their home over centuries or who had recently arrived. Jamaican culture was not like a pizza with a choice of exotic toppings. Rather, it was like a delicately constructed cake with discernible ingredients all delightfully melded together. That conviction is reflected in the island's motto, "Out of many One people" as well as in the symbolic colours of the national flag. That intrinsic diversity is still exalted as a desirable virtue.

Jamaicans also hold a deep respect for popular democracy, deriving from its curious history. Jamaica was not always a democracy. Indeed, the original British representative legislature was neither representative nor democratic. But neither was the British Parliament before the Great Reform Act of 1832. Fortunately for Jamaica, the English residents who structured the government of the colony after its capture from the Spanish in 1655 were not the viable critical mass needed to develop and retain the sort of bourgeois proclivities of the white property holders in British North America. The Jamaican legislature accepted free non-whites and Jews as bona fide members as long as they met the eligibility requirements. They were not happy with the result but they had no choice.

Then in 1865 the Jamaica Assembly did a remarkable thing. Rather than expand its representation it abolished itself. That was a lesson in self-preservation that was not lost on the masses. Political control, it learned, was the most important instrument in ensuring social cohesion and common justice. By the time that Jamaica began universal adult suffrage in 1944 a popular democracy was being practised widely by hundreds of organisations across the island. Teachers, small farmers, dockworkers and various other groups of workers formed mutual aid associations hoping to improve their common condition.

Jamaican democracy is founded on the unswerving conviction that the legitimacy of any government rests on the overt approval of the people expressed in free, fair, and open elections. The government is not only responsible to the people; it is also the principal protector of those people. It is benefactor and surrogate parent. This conviction crosses all social and economic divisions and ties the elites to the masses, unlike many other countries where governments are divorced from the people. When governments work well it results in genuine accountability. Governments that fail to meet the expectations of the people are usually rejected at the polls.

The weakness in this apparently sound principle of government resides in the written constitutional form that privileges the two founding political parties, the PNP and the JLP, which have controlled the political process since 1944. As constitutionally structured, especially in a first-past-the-post electoral system, parties other than the PNP and the JLP do not have a fair chance of winning sufficient representation to form a government. These parties have been monumental failures since 1962. Yet a good constitution should cater to a wider representation of views than just those of the PNP and the JLP.

As Jamaica approaches its 50th anniversary, now is as good a time as any to rethink the constitution. What Jamaica needs is a responsive procedure that results in the greatest good for the greatest number of its citizens. Because democracy is not a perfect form of government - there is no perfect form of democracy - then from time to time it needs to be modified and re-calibrated to serve the majority of the people. Nothing could serve the people of Jamaica better than a major discussion in the next year about the constitutional basis of its government and how it may be improved. As the poet Tennyson wrote: "The old order changes yielding place to new; and God fulfils himself in many ways lest one good custom should corrupt the world." Change is inevitable. Jamaica's present and future depend on periodically reconciling its political institutions to its new realities.

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