Editorial | As Mrs Simpson Miller marches off
Portia Simpson Miller didn’t bring to her politics or leadership a deeply philosophical, intellectually transformative or moral authority that distinguishes a handful of those who are entrusted with power. She offered no large, compelling idea that will transcend herself or her time.
Mrs Simpson Miller, for better or for worse, was no Michael Manley, one of her early mentors, who she eventually followed as leader of the People’s National Party (PNP) and prime minister of Jamaica, as the first woman to hold that post. And while she was no haloed martyr as she sometimes attempted to paint herself – including in parts of her final address to Parliament on Tuesday – she was not the empty vessel as her critics often sought to portray her.
Indeed, she can claim, we believe, to be leaving the political stage with legacy of having placed Jamaica for its best opportunity for economic stability and sustained growth in more than two generations.
There may be far more than a modicum of truth in Mrs Simpson Miller’s clearly implied belief that her gender and social history – a poor girl from a deep rural community who didn’t attend one of Jamaica’s elite schools - engendered bias as she rose to the top of Jamaica’s politics. Yet, too frequently, she appeared to lack the disciple to command policy issues, exert authority in her party, or of being goaded by real or perceived sleights or insults into indecorous remarks. It was too easy to, in her words “draw my tongue”.
Mrs Simpson Miller, nonetheless, had significant political gifts, which, while not always appropriately leveraged, were deployed with great advantage for her marquis achievement.
Firstly, Mrs Simpson Miller is possessed of emotional intelligence. Her empathy with and commitment to improve the lives of poor people is unimpeachable. Indeed, that has been her political signature during 40 years in political life. Further, not since Michael Manley has Jamaica had a political leader, much less a prime minister, with the charismatic appeal of Mrs Simpson Miller.
This kind of leadership has often been compared unfavourably to the technocrat approach and has been cast as a bane to Jamaica’s development. For, the argument goes, it fostered a culture of economic populism and the eschewing of fiscal discipline, leaving a crisis of debt and anaemic growth.
HER POLITICAL EPITAPH
Mrs Simpson, though, in her second stint as prime minister, the four-year period from 2012 to 2016, with Peter Phillips as her finance minister, presided over a Washington Consensus-style reform of the Jamaican economic, belying what was previously assumed about her populist instincts. In the process Jamaica has been dragged back from the precipice of debt and now has the best prospect for sustained growth since the 1960s.
The argument has been advanced that it is Dr Phillips, rather than Mrs Simpson Miller, who owns the credit for this achievement. That, in some respects, may be true. But without the imprimatur of the prime minister, we would not have a mandate to pursue these policies. Moreover, with the country initially requiring operating with a primary surplus of 7.5 per cent of GDP, thus demanding great levels of austerity, Mrs Simpson Miller’s charisma was important in helping to prevent the morphing of frustrations into protests.
Mrs Simpson Miller, in framing her political epitaph, declared her career to have been “quite a journey”. “I have endured it all – the ridicule, the victories and defeats. But I have stood tall and remained focused,” she added.
Historians, ultimately, will offer their own verdict on Mrs Simpson Miller quality as politicians, a female political leader and prime minister. But we are agreed with Peter Phillips, her PNP successor, that she demonstrated grit and determination to succeed.