History in the House

History in the House

BY Duane Harris

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

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Sixty years ago, on October 26, 1960, Jamaica's legislature was transferred from Headquarters House to the newly built George William Gordon Houses of Parliament. Beyond a doubt Jamaica's democracy has grown tremendously within Gordon House over the last 60 years with many important milestones and much to celebrate.

Not many countries in the region, and indeed the world, have 60 years of unbroken democratically elected governments and the smooth transfer of political power from one administration to the next. Although our democracy is far from perfect, it certainly has been better than many others.

While much can be said about Jamaica's politics over the last 60 years, much is not known of the politics of the years before 1960 when Headquarters House, the cradle of Jamaica's democracy, was the epicentre of politics, since 1872. All the important features and components of our politics have their origins at Headquarters House. Some of these include:

* Holding of elections: Following the Morant Bay Rebellion (1865), elections were suspended until 1884. Since then, elections and by-elections, have been held with regularity, except for short periods during World Wars I and II. Initially, the right to vote was restricted to males who owned property or paid a certain amount of taxes. Some women were given the vote in 1919, and in 1944, the advent of universal adult suffrage, all adults over 21 were allowed the right to vote — the first in the British Empire.

* Blacks in politics: The first-elected black politician in Jamaica was Edward Vickars, for St Catherine, in 1847; however, the first black man to be elected to the legislature at Headquarters House was Alexander Dixon, for St Elizabeth, in 1899. Since then many others have followed, and by 1925 blacks became the majority for the first time in the legislature. It now commonplace for black Jamaicans to be in the majority.

* Women in politics: In 1919, elite women were given the right to vote. Women, however, had a higher qualification to vote than men, and women were not allowed to enter representational politics. The first woman to be elected to Headquarters House was Iris Collins for St James North Western for the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in 1944, followed by Rose Leon (JLP) in 1949, and 1955 and Iris King (PNP) in 1959. Other women appointed to the upper chamber of the legislature include Edith Clarke, Edith Dalton James, Uno Jacobs, and Isobel Seaton. The first woman to be elected to a public office in Jamaica was Mary Morris Knibb in the Kingston and St Andrew Parish Council election in 1925.

* Two-party system. Prior to the formation of the People's National Party (PNP) in 1938, and the JLP in 1943, there were no effective political parties. The spirit of the times dictated that politicians should be independents, without biases, and only form alliances within the legislature in order to get the business of government done. However, the formation of the political parties led to the demise of the independent legislators. Only a handful survived the 1944 election, while some of them joined the JLP and PNP and remained politically relevant. Since then the two-party system, though imperfect, has aided orderly, predictable and stable government.

* Constitutionalism: Between 1872-1960 Jamaica had four different constitutions. Constitutional changes were made in 1872, 1884, 1944, and 1953. Except for the changes in 1872, the other constitutions were geared towards the expansion of political powers to a wider cross section of the population as well as to grant more powers to the legislature, thus preparing it for eventual self-government and political independence. These many constitutional changes served to provide guidelines for the scope of government and to tutor the population and lawmakers of the workings of government in maintaining democratic traditions and stability.

Other important developments before 1960 include representative government, responsible government, and self-government by 1953.

Two points of interest of Jamaican politics prior to 1960 are the seating arrangement and salaries. Before 1944 legislators were unpaid. Their roles and functions were viewed as public service and duty. Despite this, electoral campaigns were vigorous and many people sought to be elected. In addition, prior to 1944, legislators sat and were ranked and listed in order of seniority of membership in the House, rather than on party lines.

Since the 1660s, Jamaica's legislature operated from several places, including Port Royal, various locations in Spanish Town, Headquarters House on Duke Street in Kingston, and then just next door, Gordon House. As Jamaica's legislature goes boldly to the future, history will show that 1872 to 1960 were the most crucial years in the development of Jamaica's democratic politics.

Norman Manley, premier of Jamaica, during the last ceremony at Headquarters House, on October 26, 1960, declared: “Here, in this Chamber, was shaped the whole course of our modern history.… We have… built up a sound parliamentary system of which we can truly be proud. It has not always been easy, nor did it come about without our having many lessons to learn... So, we move into our new House across the way carrying with us the traditions which already firmly established and united in our devotion to those traditions and in our determination to preserve and enrich them as the years roll by. Here in this old House we have been richly blessed with progress, by right decisions wisely made.”

Duane Harris is public education officer at Jamaica National Heritage Trust.

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