Sat | Jul 20, 2019

Editorial | Brascoe Lee has a place in Jamaica’s history

Published:Monday | July 8, 2019 | 12:16 AM
Brascoe Lee

Events may have conspired to make Brascoe Lee only a minor figure, if not a mere footnote, in Jamaica’s history. But he might have been much more and, perhaps, deserves to be viewed as such.

Few Jamaicans under the age of 40 will have heard of, or remembered, Mr Lee, who died last Wednesday, aged 78. And those who know of him, the association is unlikely to be with politics.

His formal political activity ended more than two decades ago. Yet, he had a seminal involvement in the process that, at one point, appeared to be in a whisker of breaking Jamaica’s entrenched two-party system, with the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP) at its core.

Mr Lee was a member of the JLP’s Class of 1980, a slew of young politicians who rode Edward Seaga’s anti-communist bandwagon to the party’s rout of the PNP in the violent election of that year. He went on to win three other elections, under the JLP banner, for the South Trelawny parliamentary seat, included in the uncontested poll of 1983 that was boycotted by the PNP.

He was made a junior minister for agriculture in Mr Seaga’s administration and sailed through the 1980s seemingly content, at least publicly, with Mr Seaga’s leadership of the Government and the JLP. In Government, his name didn’t feature in any of the whispers about ministerial disaffection with Mr Seaga’s style of leadership.

Nor was Mr Lee’s name linked with the so-called Gang of Five – Douglas Vaz, Karl Samuda, Pearnel Charles, Errol Anderson and Edmund Bartlett – who had reportedly become so disenchanted with Mr Seaga’s autocratic leadership that they were plotting how to unseat him. Yet into the mid-1990s, Brascoe Lee had begun to have misgivings about Mr Seaga’s style, the JLP’s internal democracy, and, more critically, Jamaica’s governance and constitutional arrangements.

By 1995, he was among a group of JLP members and adherents from western Jamaica, soon dubbed the Western Eleven, who began to caucus about leadership issues in the JLP and broader reforms in Jamaica. The issue, for Mr Lee, had grown larger than Mr Seaga. He had concluded that the concerns he harboured couldn’t be resolved either within the JLP or the PNP. It demanded a new party.

Indeed, in mid-1995, Mr Lee, then a senator, in sympathy with five dissidents who were expelled from the party, left the JLP. In the Upper House, he sat as an independent. He was soon followed out of the party by Bruce Golding, Mr Seaga’s then heir apparent and, ironically, a future JLP prime minister.

Questioning party dynamic

Mr Golding, too, had begun to question the JLP’s internal dynamics and, influenced by a group called the New Beginning Movement, had begun to think about new governance structures for Jamaica, centred around separation of powers in a system similar to the United States’. Following a bout of disagreements with Mr Seaga, he resigned from the JLP in October 1995.

Mr Lee was already caucusing with former JLP colleagues Keith Russell and Bobby Marsh about forming a new party. Mr Golding’s entry into the fray and his espousal of similar ideals helped to crystallise Mr Lee’s thinking and gave added impetus to the initiative. With Mr Golding’s national profile, sharp intellect and articulateness, he was the natural leader for the new party, which was formally launched in December 1995 as the National Democratic Movement (NDM), which appeared to quickly capture the imagination of Jamaica’s middle class.

Leading up to the 1997 general election, opinion polls showed the NDM with support of upwards of 19 per cent of the electorate, and many people presumed it would hold the balance of power in a new Parliament. But none of the candidates it put up, including Mr Golding and Mr Lee, won their seats.

By 2002, Mr Golding was back in the JLP, taking with him several NDM colleagues. Some others followed after Mr Golding assumed the leadership of the party in 2006 after a group of Young Turks pressured Mr Seaga into resigning.

Mr Lee, significantly, never followed, and, over the next two decades, dedicated his attention to agriculture and manufacturing. He nonetheless was part of a ferment in Jamaica’s politics that continues to inform some of today’s debate.