Fri | Jan 19, 2018

Editorial | When Peter Phillips leads

Published:Sunday | March 26, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Partisans who believe the only worthy place political parties can be is in government will, perhaps, insist that Peter Phillips' only choice is to start his leadership of the People's National Party (PNP), which begins today, breathlessly and on steroids.

Such expectations are also likely to be exacerbated among people who have bound their personal advancement to Dr Phillips' leadership of the PNP, and perhaps of the ambitions of the man himself, who, at 67, may believe that he has little time and only one shot at becoming prime minister. The inclination, in the circumstances, might be to run an Opposition that is excessively noisy and unnecessarily disruptive, aimed at keeping the Government unbalanced and ineffective.

While such a strategy could be to the short-term advantage of the PNP, it would do little to advance Jamaica. For, it would be to misconstrue the PNP's place in, and its role as an institution of democracy, the crisis facing the party, and more generally, the state of politics.

The latter problem is paradoxically reflected in today's coronation of Dr Phillips, who has been in politics for more than three decades, most of which he has been a legislator and served in government, and is at an age when he might be in retreat from, rather than assuming the party's leadership. Yet, rather than being the PNP's past, Peter Phillips, intellectually, offers the PNP the best opportunity for a future from its recent moribund institutional past.


It is without question that in its last stint in government, with Portia Simpson Miller as prime minister and Dr Phillips carrying the finance portfolio, the PNP, under the tutelage of the International Monetary Fund, performed better than any recent administration in reforming the macroeconomy and establishing a path to sustainable growth. But on the deeper moral purpose of government and governance, the party has long lost its way.

It began life as a democratic socialist institution, driven by intellectual engagement and committed to building an egalitarian Jamaica. Perhaps four decades ago, its interpretation of that ideology led the PNP to an unquestioning embrace of the lowest common denominator, and, over the last quarter-century, an effective election-winning machinery.

In the process, as Dr Phillips conceded in an interview last September, the PNP had largely abandoned the "role of providing intellectual leadership for the country". We would also add its moral moorings. So, for instance, while the last PNP government was aggressive in fiscal accounts, it failed to launch a similar crusade on corruption.

While winning the government, as is the case with any party, is an existential aim of the PNP, control of the machinery of the State must bear a larger purpose than being an end in itself. It is this concept of renewal - at least the need for a rigorous discourse towards it - that Dr Phillips has articulated with clarity than others in his party.

For example, the PNP administration did a decent job in stabilising the Jamaican economy in the context of the Washington Consensus. Yet, the party, "given our historical commitment to building an egalitarian society", Dr Phillips said, failed to fully debate, explain and reconcile these economic imperatives unleashed by the forces of globalisation with its philosophy.

While we expect Dr Phillips to seek to win the next election, he will have done a great service for the PNP and Jamaica if he rebuilds his party into a broad alliance, tethered to moral principles and intellectual rigour.