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Fifty years on, who was our best prime minister?

Franklin Johnston
Friday, August 10, 2012

Let the record show our Usain "mash up" London and at £200 per minute to see him, good value. Then on Flag Day her Excellency Aloun spoke movingly, was feted by the diaspora at the 02 Arena - sport and state did us proud. But the British are sobering fast - so should we - as their economy is in a dark place. Since we are in a competition mood, have some fun with another one. Who was the best PM?

The Empire gave us the Victoria Jubilee Hospital (VJH) - Queen Victoria's - on her 50th; so Parliament's Independence Jubilee gift to us is what? Some say 50 years is nothing to a nation. Not true! Today 50 years is long. In 50 Germany went from shambles to superpower. Iceland, Ireland, Greece rose and fell and we saw Botswana rise and rise. Trinidad retooled its industry in 10. Singapore prospered in 20. What's our excuse? We left Federation the rich nation going places but by the 70s, despite bauxite and tourism, we were in trouble. A prime minister's mission is peace and prosperity for his people - no prosperity, no peace - as we know so well. We had better prime ministers than our peers but the best is who did best. We had no unusual resource or people problems so it must be our leaders.

Jamaica has been a brand since Columbus. Wars were fought over us as archives of Portugal, Spain and France show, and entertainers and athletes keep the brand alive. We had PMs with charisma: finance wizards, orators, and in Europe, Africa and Arabia we watched Michael expound his theories on TV. No other PM made global TV in his own right. We saw no Barbados PM on foreign TV, yet they prospered their nation. Portia is now our hope; she can, she has to do it; she is woman; let's keep her feet to the fire! So who was the best? Let's agree on a few things.

First, we separate the work of our Independence fathers from the work of prime ministers after. Black people replaced white people in banks as Manley's and Bustamante's legacy. What is the legacy of post-1962 PMs? Barbados' leaders gave them free education and prosperity. We got what? We fiddled with 70/30, Common Entrance, GSAT, student loan and make lists of achievements which mean squat. Should the PNP and JLP apologise for our sub-par 50 years?

Second, we eliminate those of short tenure or whose tenure was flawed. Donald Sangster was a good man; he served and died in office. Hugh Shearer handled power well. Bruce Golding lost his way. Andrew Holness started badly, but is a better man than he has shown us so far - he has time. Portia Simpson Miller is all heart and hard work. We need her brand of activism to get us motivated and on track. She is a work in progress and her judgement is in the future.

Third, what does the job of a PM require? If you are a typist, at a minimum you should type well. OK? What's basic for a sitting PM? At a minimum, he should ensure food, health care, education, safety for all. Agree? Don't include human rights, as some nations had laws against assembly and anti-social acts to propel people to work or restrict unions and build prosperity. In Singapore or Turkey (a sleeping giant which we should embrace and explore), crops are in fields yet no thief dare touch them - so great is the force of community opprobrium and law; no windshield washer or vagrant survives and property is safe. Should we too?

Fourth, we need some positive criteria to rate a PM. So let's use these: (a) Timeless contribution (b) Growth-social, economic, psychic (c) Major infrastructure gains (d) Innovation (e) An exemplary life. So which if any of our prime ministers fit these criteria?

One caveat is be wary of PMs who are alive as they can spin the past in their writings or speeches and condition us to revisionist views of their past acts and omissions. A living PM has influence and an unfair advantage. So who was the best prime minister in the class of 1962 to 2012?

PJ Patterson was our most understated and natural leader - not an exhibitionist. Michael's drama was a hard act to follow and so some misread him, but he was formidable in his own right, professional, easy of address and a consummate political strategist. On his watch, all communications - roads to telecoms - leaped into the 21st century and a seed called education transformation was sown and grows apace.

Edward Philip George Seaga was an astute, able PM. He knew you had to break eggs to make an omelette and God knows he tried. He had the tough love to build our nation, but the politics defeated him. On his watch many development institutions were imported, installed and brought us level with other nations.

Michael Manley was passionate and beloved. He rekindled the social democrat ethos of the original PNP with a vengeance. But the policies which worked in Britain in the 40s as payback to the masses who gave their lives in war had little traction. Michael got no buy-in from capital and the masses were not as conscious, so he was not as viable as Lord Beveridge or Castro. Still, he proved our masses respond to leaders who inspire them. Portia can and we say "Go for it" and "May the force be with you, Madam!"

Alexander Bustamante was our action hero; well-travelled and intuitive. A high brown man who exposed his chest to a group of black policemen under a white inspector in colonial times was in no danger of being shot. No governor would dare, given the legal fallout of GW Gordon's killing for Governor Eyre. But it was a bold tactic and good theatre - love it! He knew the psyche of the masses - impeccable politics. Still, he should have embedded good practice post-independence - he did not. He belittled the islands; he did not copy Trinidad or Barbados' free education or their prudent currency policies. His gaze was to the North, "We are with the West" was his mantra and to this day we are behind our regional peers.

Norman Manley was a modest intellectual giant, a man of and for the people, thoughtful not populist. He died poorer than when he started - an accolade for a politician! Politics was his service, not his job. He formed a party to oppose colonial overlords, not to win elections, and he articulated the aspirations of all our people. His mantras are current to this day and they can take us into a prosperous future.

As we start another 50 years we need inspiration. NW Manley can provide it. The PNP should be big enough to free him for national service and the JLP generous enough to embrace him without equivocation. Manley, as his cousin Bustamante, fought for Independence as nationalists. Manley is our Maceo, our Marti, our Ataturk and our Jefferson. Their factions gave them up to be national icons; their quotes and pictures adorn public spaces and inspire all citizens. Parliament should empower Sir Patrick to convene an elite committee - Portia, Andrew, Bruce, PJ, Eddie and install NW Manley - visionary, framer of Independence and decent man as "Father of the Nation". He is the one who articulated a philosophy which may unite us to make our nation prosperous by 2025. Stay conscious, my friend!

Dr Franklin Johnston is a strategist, project manager and advises the minister of education.


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