Orville Brown | Edward Seaga: a distinguished career
Out of a desire to praise great men when they are still with us, this and succeeding articles will examine the contribution of former Prime Minister Edward Seaga to the building of our nation. These articles will avoid the hackneyed subject of his economic management and will focus instead on the programmes he used to empower the working class, his defence of freedom in our country and the world, his beautiful 1992 tribute to Nelson Mandela, and end by testing the claim of his adversaries that he is the father of political violence.
Edward Seaga dedicated the best years of his life to the service of his country and is the last surviving member of the Cabinet of independent Jamaica. In his autobiography, My Life and Leadership, he expressed his vision in this way: “To have the people prosper in a reign of equal rights and justice has always been my dream.”
His commitment was to the despised, the downtrodden and the dispossessed who, to him, were not simply votes to be courted in the drive to power, but people who deserved to be loved, respected and empowered. He shared in their cultural expressions, opened doors of opportunity for them, and gave them the most precious gift a leader can give to his followers. He made them feel that they counted.
Each time his hands were placed on the levers of power, their social and economic circumstances improved, and in leaving political life, he gave them the Charter of Rights. This charter was embedded in the Constitution to keep the people’s freedoms safe from violation by the state or agents of the state. It also provided effective means of redress for any encroachment on their rights.
HAVES AND HAVE-NOTS
Edward Seaga’s journey began in 1953 when, as a social anthropologist, he immersed himself in the hardscrabble life of rural Jamaicans and then engaged in a study of life in west Kingston’s urban slums. In these studies, he became painfully aware of the social, political and economic gulf that separated the dwellers on Salt Lane from the dwellers on Long Lane, and he dedicated his life to closing what he called the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
This was the subject of his first major presentation as a member of the Legislative Council (MLC) in 1961, and it made him the political man of the year. In government after 1962, he effected the urban reform that transformed the slums of Back-O-Wall into a model working-class community equipped with all the services required for a healthy and happy life. His conversion of Back-O-Wall into Tivoli Gardens remains unmatched in the history of local urban development. But beyond the building of a community, he was building a nation.
It was Edward Seaga’s vision that shaped the amazing social and economic successes of the Independence administration. He, with Bustamante’s blessing, coordinated with Lightbourne, Tavares and Shearer, and brought his own innovations to the development plan for the Independence decade. There was an average six per cent economic growth over the decade and a 50 per cent improvement in the quality of life of working-class people judged by access to education, employment, health and other social services.
It was he who constructed the financial framework that made the growth possible and the social institutions that improved the quality of life. Aware of the role of culture in defining a people and inspiring them to excellence in their endeavours, he created Jamaica Festival as a showcase of national culture and a path to success for aspiring artistes.
In Opposition after 1972, Edward Seaga had to take on a new role, that of schoolmaster to an administration that undermined the successful private sector-led development model and tried to replace it with a government-controlled economy that led to dangerous devaluation and decline. Additionally, he had to defend the Constitution from forces bent on so corrupting the electoral system as to ensure repeated victories for the ruling party, a virtual coup by the ballot box, following the pattern established in Guyana.
Seaga’s landmark achievement in those years was the establishment of the Electoral Advisory Commission (EAC) in 1979, whereby the conduct of elections was transferred from the political directorate to an impartial commission in order to guarantee for the future, the free expression of the will of the people.
Returned to power in the brilliant deliverance campaign of 1980, his challenge was to restore an economy that had been savaged by corruption and mismanagement. The recovery was a painful process that only ended in 1985 because of the colossal damage done to the economy and the fallout in the world bauxite market in 1983. New social and economic institutions were again created, one of the most notable being the dynamic HEART programme that offered training for the growth areas of the economy to school graduates without good career prospects. This programme has now graduated more than 100,000 students.
In 1987, Seaga presented the $7.4-billion Social Well-being Programme designed to lift the quality of life of Jamaicans to that of a mid-level developing country, but he still lost the 1989 general election. With all that had been achieved and the great prospects for the future, the people could not forgive the painful adjustments of 1983 to 1985. In Opposition again, he saw with deep regret another period of imprudent government that erased the gains of the deliverance decade, created a financial meltdown in 1996, and reduced the value of the Jamaican dollar to more than J$100:US$1. His warnings, as in the ’70s, had gone unheeded, and the ordinary people again suffered social and economic trauma. Mr Seaga resigned from political life in 2005, leaving as his last legacy the Charter of Rights
In international affairs, Mr Seaga was vigilant in his defence of human rights and cooperated with the USA in the liberation of Grenada in 1983 when the socialist revolution turned on itself and the prime minister and his Cabinet were murdered. He notably rallied support for the continuance of sanctions against South Africa in 1987 when there was a move afoot to lift them, and he had the pleasure of paying tribute to Nelson Mandela in a memorable speech when the freedom fighter was honoured by the Parliament of Jamaica in 1992.
So what can be said about a leader who so empowered the working class and so successfully managed the economy in two different administrations and who created 70 nation-building institutions? Leading politicians and journalists were fulsome in their praise of Mr Seaga on the occasion of his 30th anniversary in 1992, and on the occasion of his retirement in 2004.
Journalist Ian Boyne was struck by the depth of his love of the ordinary people, and political scientist Carl Stone had this to say about his leadership: “I don’t think that there is another national leader in the postwar Caribbean who has built and left so many monuments for posterity, so many institutions, and so many new beginnings in the sphere of public management.”
But only from the pen of the artiste or the musician could come the words that truly express the ethos of this giant among political leaders. And there is a song that gives noble expression to Seaga’s ideal of service, the words penned by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice and put to music by Gustav Holst:
“I vow to the my country, all earthly things above
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love.”
- Orville Brown is a former JLP local government representative, and is now a teacher and writer living in New York and editor of a collection of speeches by Edward Seaga titled ‘The Service of My Love’. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.