Is the PNP afraid of the referendum jinx?
Mark Golding (left) and Andrew Holness

Sixty-one years ago this January, the ill-fated West Indies Federation collapsed leaving egg on the face of one of its main protagonists the then People's National Party's (PNP) president and premier of Jamaica Norman Washington Manley.

His arch-rival, then leader of the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Alexander Bustamante, who had previously capitulated and welcomed the proposition that the 10 British Caribbean nations should federate, did an about-turn in his desperate bid to find an issue of substance with which to fight the PNP in the general election that was only months away.

In his seminal work Alexander Bustamante and Modern Jamaica, the late professor Dr George Eaton noted that, "Federation had only recently become an issue of mass concern in Jamaica, and fears and uncertainty as to the real import of Jamaica's participation in regional government were widespread, cutting across party lines." The backdrop at the time was that Sir Grantley Adams of Barbados, who led the federation, had ended up in a conundrum with respect to the vexing issue of taxes and how these should be levied against the various territories in the group as well as matters relating to customs, among other insular concerns. In any event, from day one, Bustamante did not particularly like Adams and was also not comfortable with the fact that Jamaica, in some instances, would have to subjugate itself to the wishes of the smaller states in the union.

Professor Eaton dramatically outlines in his book how a wily and crafty Bustamante set about baiting a seemingly unsuspecting Manley, who, in an idealistic mode, had overwhelmingly embraced regionalism as the best way forward for the 10 British colonies rather than each one having to go it alone. However, notwithstanding the JLP leader's many political shenanigans and deft moves, the PNP was able to hold on to power in the 1959 General Election convincingly, taking 29 seats to the JLP's 16. But in the ensuing years, Bustamante would relentlessly pursue his anti-federation stance, which eventually led to an exasperated Manley making a snap decision to go the route of a referendum, which the PNP president felt they could win, but, instead, suffered a shock defeat.

In all of this, the quest for political independence emerged in tandem with the PNP's declared objective of full self-government but would ultimately clash with the notion of a Jamaica being in a federal government structure. This placed the PNP between a rock and a hard place as it had to vote against a motion specifically setting a date for Jamaica's Independence. Here, again, Professor Eaton stated that this scenario gave Bustamante the upper hand as it allowed him and the JLP to set themselves up as the true repositories of the spirit of Jamaican nationalism, fighting to achieve and safeguard the country's freedom.

Furthermore, according to Eaton, "The JLP appeal to the electorate rested quite unashamedly on isolationism," a tendency that has remained with the political organisation to this day, in terms of its ambivalent and lukewarm attitude towards Caricom and the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), which are two regionalist organisations that the PNP supports wholeheartedly. Fast-forward to today's situation in which we see the Andrew Holness-led JLP on the verge of calling a referendum to allow Jamaicans to decide on whether to shed the British monarchy and become a full-fledged republic. But, again, Bustamante's party is at loggerheads with the PNP on certain critical issues, chief of which has to do with fully embracing the CCJ as against retaining the British Privy Council.

To date, the Mark Golding-led PNP has been hesitant to sit with the Holness team to discuss constitutional reform, which would hopefully lead to a national consensus and clear the way for the country to attain republican status. Golding's detractors, particularly aficionados of the JLP's stance on such issues, have been positing the view that the PNP is being wary because of the experience it had way back then when Bustamante outsmarted his cousin Manley, which led to the PNP's crushing, humiliating defeat in 1961, denying Manley the honour of becoming the first prime minister of an independent Jamaica, given that Manley and the PNP had been the main champions for such a cause from as way back as 1938, during the country's social revolution.

In this vein, Golding has been insisting that he and his team should be brought up to date, in advance, on the various topics on the agenda, especially as these may relate to the proposed referendum, which is slated for next year. Bearing in mind that local government elections are due this year as well, it becomes more than obvious that the PNP president is being overly cautious, not wanting to be outmanoeuvred or hoodwinked as might have happened way back then.

As to whether the referendum jinx is hovering over the PNP, it behoves the party leader to dispel that rumour by forcefully bringing to the fore his party's comprehensive agenda with respect to constitutional reform and begin a process of public education to avoid any political hanky-panky.

In the meantime, the Holness Administration must be more open with Opposition Leader Golding and not subject him to a kind of smoke-and-mirrors approach in a bid to confuse and maintain the upper hand.

This issue of Jamaica moving towards becoming a republic must not become another proverbial political football, but pursued on a nationalistic front with all major stakeholders on board. In this regard, the PNP must exorcise the referendum jinx and man up to the situation because much is at stake for Jamaica, land we love.

Lloyd B Smith has been involved in Jamaican media for the past 47 years. He has also served as a Member of Parliament and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives. He hails from western Jamaica where he is popularly known as the Governor. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or lbsmith4@gmail.com.

Norman Manley (left) and Sir Alexander Bustamante Photo: AP
Lloyd B Smith
Lloyd B Smith

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