House wars in the House

...and the shaping up of another hot parliamentary debate

Lance Neita

Sunday, January 06, 2019

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The political season started off with some cass-cass on the first day of the year when we saw darts being thrown at each side by Government and Opposition regarding the proposed meeting between Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Leader of the Opposition Dr Peter Phillips over crime and national security issues.

As it turned out, those who were hoping for a classic standpipe argument were disappointed, as both men displayed admirable maturity and decency by meeting in private for a one-on-one discussion.

The media reported that the prime minister and Opposition leader held full, frank and confidential talks on the issues of the day, according to a joint statement coming from both sides. That was a refreshing turnaround and gives the naysayers something to think about, ie, possibilities, rather than doom and disaster, as our lot in life.

Going through my columns written over the past 10 years and more I was reminded of a similar sort of contretemps that faced the nation in December 1962 when a debate erupted in the House during a late-in-the-year parliamentary session as the House winded down for the Christmas holidays.

The chilly winds now blowing across the island are similar to the cold front conditions that Jamaicans were experiencing in December 1962.

It had been a nippy month and it kept most people indoors, including our parliamentarians, who spent an inordinately long time wrapping up the final session of the year.

Remember 1962 had witnessed a change of government, and both sides were testing each other with neither willing to give any quarter after tasting victory, or suffering defeat, over arguably the most important election ever held at any time in our history.

Leading from the front were those two giants Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley — the fighting cousins who knew each other's strengths and weaknesses, had grown together as young adults in the Manley family house at Belmont in St Catherine, had sparred inside and outside of the House on equal footing since 1944, and who were to become the founding fathers of Jamaica's Independence.

The motion which drew tempers on December 11 was one moved by Opposition Leader Norman Manley, who sought to censure the Government for refusing to accept the recently renovated Vale Royal as the officially approved residence for prime ministers.

Bear in mind that it was the People's National Party (PNP), while in office 1955 to 1962, that had restored the handsome building at a cost of some 58,000.

It was said that Manley himself had a deep-seated attachment out of historic sentiment to the house which was first known as Prospect Pen and was built in 1694 by an estate owner, Simon Taylor, who also operated Holland Estate in the east of the island.

In 1928 the British Colonial Office bought the property located on Montrose Road and made it the official residence of colonial secretaries who were second in the island administration to the governor.

Around 1957, with Chief Minister Manley as the chief visionary for planned nationhood for Jamaica, discussions were held at State level for an official residence for the incoming prime minister of Jamaica. It was proposed that the Mona Great House be purchased for that purpose, but that proposal was not pursued.

Vale Royal was identified by the Government as an appropriate residence and was refurbished for that purpose in early 1962 (before the Independence elections).

But during the campaign hustings of that year Bustamante had declared that as prime minister he would never live at Vale Royal, and would instead convert it into a maternity home. This set the tone for a hot public debate and much speculation as to the future of Vale Royal depending on who won the election.

To add fuel to the fire, Millard Johnson, leader of the Marcus Garvey-based People's Political Party (PPP) that campaigned as a third party in the election, castigated Manley for spending money on Vale Royal, that “reminder of our colonial masters and colonial days”.

“Garvey duppy goin' tek him,” he cannoned from the platform, “as the house has been furnished for three months now, but Manley can't go there because we will take him out and put him where he belongs after April 10,” he mocked and threatened to the delight of his largely Western Kingston crowds.

Johnson ran a colourful campaign, dressed in a white robe and always carrying a white rod. He would arrive at meetings surrounded by crowds burning starlights, announcing “Let this starlight burn, let it burn like the stars in the sky so that the people may be free and equal.”

Well, Garvey's duppy (another duppy story?) must have taken both Manley and Johnson, for neither won the power, and the starlights were decisively extinguished and laid to rest as Bustamante romped home to victory on the night of April 10.

The stage was now set for a new round of speculation as Jamaica now watched to see whether, as prime minister, Bustamante would stick to his word, or would he indeed move into Vale Royal. But Bustamante was quite comfortable in his private home on Tucker Avenue, and put one rumour to bed when he installed his Finance Minister Donald Sangster in the Montrose Road residence — much to the disgust and annoyance of Manley.

Meanwhile, back in the House, Bustamante was teasing his cousin Manley, repeating that he would never live at Vale Royal as the expensive renovation had only produced one bedroom and “two coops that cannot even hold my 12 pigeons”.

“I will turn it into a maternity home,” insisted Busta.

“Then why did you put poor Sangster there?” shot back Manley.

“Because I want him to deliver,” came the quick reply.

The tale took on a new twist when the prime minister took as his bride his former private secretary, Gladys Longbridge, on September 7, 1962, and continued to live with “Lady B” at Tucker Avenue. Whispers abounded, however, that with Bustamante now a married man (for the second time), we would soon see him moving into King's House, as indeed he had threatened to do a long time ago during one of his epic battles with then Governor Sir Arthur Richards, who you will recall had him arrested and detained in the struggles of the 1930s. Bustamante's wit and mischievous sense of humour had made many a Governor the butt of his jokes during those tempestuous times.

When the newly appointed governor general of the ill-fated West Indies Federation, Lord Hailes, arrived in Jamaica for an official tour in 1958, Bustamante, while addressing a crowd that same night told them, “Would you believe that when the gentleman stepped off the BOAC plane at the airport, one foot of his trousers was longer than the other? Now, how, I ask you, can such a man be expected to lead this so-called big, big Federation of the West Indies?”

But back to that stormy debate on a cold December night when Manley moved his censure motion to force the prime minister into Vale Royal. According to the Opposition, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) had agreed, while they were in Opposition, that Vale Royal would be the official residence of future prime ministers and they were not going to let Bustamante off the hook with all his talk about fowl coop and other.

The two leaders joshed at each other in the early stages, with Manley suggesting that, “Perhaps the PM thinks himself too big to occupy the house, but the residence is admirably suited for an ordinary prime minister.”

“I take the strongest objection to being called an ordinary prime minister”, interjected Bustamante. “I am not ordinary. I am an outstanding prime minister.”

The debate was long and acrimonious, with the Opposition maintaining that the Vale Royal residence had been an approved parliamentary stipulation, and the Government claiming that they had not been informed of such, or agreed to any such conditionality, while in Opposition.

The debate even took a naughty turn when Iris King, of the Opposition, asked newly married Bustamante, at 78 years old, where these babies were going to come from.

When she was shouted down by the Government members, she got in a quick shot at her old rival and friend, “Oh well, we all know that it is never too late for a shower of rain.”

But while the prime minister laughed at that shot, he nevertheless stuck to his guns and a new residence, the present Jamaica House, was officially opened on September 9, 1964.

During the construction the argument was again taken up with Wills Isaacs dramatising an appeal to the prime minister to stop the project and “spend the money on the working class”.

Isaacs went below the belt when he said further that it was being built for a prime minister who didn't read much and would not need room for six secretaries.

Well, Bustamante had the last laugh when he moved in, while Vale Royal became the official residence of finance ministers up to and during Michael Manley's first tenure as prime minister. Then, in 1980, Edward Seaga moved in as prime minister, and since then the home reverted to Manley's dream of a residence suitable for a prime minister, in spite of the threat that “Garvey duppy going take the resident”.

The Vale Royal debate eventually took its place in history. And so will the current debate shaping up between Government and Opposition regarding the fate of the states of public emergency. The only thing is that this one will have a much more lasting impact and significance than the storm in the teacup over where our prime ministers should live.

Lance Neita is a public relations consultant, writer and historian. Send comments to the Observer or

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