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Daniel Thwaites | Knowing when to quit

Published:Sunday | July 17, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Can anyone fail to be impressed by the frightful efficiency with which Britain has changed out its rulers? The process has been remarkable to witness. Note how the weight of custom and social expectation has been an invisible guide to the political process.

Just last year, following losses in the 2015 general election, Ed Miliband of the Labour Party, and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, tendered their resignations within hours of the count. Now comes the Brexit referendum result, which has caused David Cameron to 'tek weh himself'.

Of course, I could go back through the years and give an exhausting list of this practice.

It's what the constitutional lawyers call a 'convention': a standard and expected practice that you don't actually need to write down as a law, but that everyone knows ought to be done. And it's what's expected in the system of government we kinda sorta borrowed from the British. If you lose an election, you resign and give your party the opportunity to refresh.

But also note: Conventions that may have taken centuries to develop can be rubbished very quickly. They require maintenance. And, unfortunately, we've been doing a poor job of it. On this much we can all perhaps agree. Jamaica hasn't been doing very well in observing the convention of losing leaders making way.


Rarely release the grip


Few men (or women) relish moving from the centre of events to the periphery. That is why, absent the dictates of convention, politicians rarely release the grip. Absent the disciplining and controlling hand of practice, the strong destroy the weak, the incumbent clobbers the newcomer, and the old willingly devour the young.

Bustamante seems to have hung on till he could barely move. Sangster died. Shearer was ousted. The great Norman Manley died within months of releasing the helm. Seaga had to be forcibly removed after repeated attempts. Manley the Younger stayed the course until physical illness dictated it was time to depart. Bruce Golding was swept away by the moral outrage of the entire country.

Notably, Andrew didn't offer his resignation after the 2011 defeat, and even though it's more understandable (because he had barely warmed the chair), it continued a poor precedent.

Only P.J. seems to have set his own timetable and stuck with it. And since he never suffered a general election defeat, it wasn't tested whether he would use the weight of incumbency to protect his throne. But with that said, former PNP leaders (the Manleys) at least observed the outward form of the Westminster discipline by tendering their resignations after electoral losses, and I suspect P.J. would have, too.


Portia's resignation


In short, after the 2007 loss, Portia owed the PNP a resignation. And now, after a second loss, a timetable for departure shouldn't be a high-level secret reserved for the inner inner circle.

But given the mixed bag of precedent I've outlined above, it's not surprising that her team is gearing up to squash dissenters and re-establish that the reign of the Queen continues. It fits the general pattern, and comports with what is now our degraded standard, which is that a leader hangs on for as long as they are tolerated.

A key feature of the discussion surrounding Pexit is that nobody wants to disrespect Portia. But here's a serious question to ponder: Is there ANY way that the issue can be raised without it being considered disrespectful? Apparently not. So that tells you that this is about pure power and it's maintenance, not respect (or the lack of it).

All things considered, Portia was a very good leader of the country. She came to the plate with the reputation of being a caring and compassionate person, and, despite being dealt an extremely difficult economic hand, acquitted herself incredibly well.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that she displayed a willingness to use her natural popularity for the common good, and to even sacrifice popularity when difficult decisions had to be made.

But in the PNP, the steady hand wasn't always evident. For instance, the disastrous intra-party squabbles that absorbed time, personnel, and resources prior to the election seemed to have the blessings of everyone up the food chain. Comically, after so much fighting beforehand, all post-election ferment and 'disgrumplement' is being treated as treachery.


Decline and decadence


Fact is, the PNP is entering a period of decline and decadence, and it's spreading faster than ZIKV. The persistent and evident ideological 'lostness' has been made easier with the doubling down and doubling back to people and personalities who had their heyday in the 1970s, and the party is in danger of becoming fossilised, encased in amber, like a pre-Cambrian mosquito.

Consider Chairman Bobby Pickersgill, who, after nearly 25 years in the post, is set to continue. There are many voters alive who have never drawn a breath without the Great Helmsman in control.

My eldest son was born in the reign of Bobby P, was eligible to vote in the last election, and will be graduating university next year. That's birth, breast milk, formula, potty training, infant school, primary school, high school, and university, all under the chairman's watchful eye. It's a little much.

So the PNP's decline isn't merely a matter of half-hearted commitment to sclerotic and arthritic personnel. It is also ideological, where there's been a temptation to double down on the 'glorious past' without much intentional navigation towards the future. It's also that many won't say what they believe and often don't believe what they say.

This is the trouble when the Westminster system is adopted, but the culture attendant to its ordinary operation has been abandoned. Alas, there are many things that cannot be legislated that ought to be in the practice of a party and of a people. And the bottom line is that a democratic culture requires that leaders, whether by convention or by conscience, know when to quit.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to