Martin Henry | PNP: September to remember
Theatre packed at launching of People’s Party’, The Daily Gleaner reported on a crowded front page on Monday morning, September 19, 1938.
That was the Ward Theatre, in which the People's National Party (PNP) had been launched the day before. There were thousands outside the theatre in North Parade and Victoria Park (now St William Grant Park) listening to the meeting through a public address system.
Today, the National Arena, a product of Independence, will be corked with bussed-in supporters of the 80-year-old People's National Party. It would be a great study to compare the behaviour, intent, and expectations of the two crowds, separated by 80 years of political and social history, as one index of 'progress'.
'Mr N.W. Manley and Sir Stafford Cripps keep great audience enthralled for hours,' the Gleaner story was subheadlined. Sir Stafford was a British Labour Party MP who was on a visit to the colony for several weeks and invited by Norman Manley to address the launch of the party. 'Sir Stafford Cripps deals with Socialism as applied to England and the colonies and sets out disabilities suffered by colonies,' The Daily Gleaner further headlined.
Sir Stafford told the Ward Theatre gathering that the island must work for self-government. People must become nationally self-conscious and Britain cannot refuse their demand for self-determination, he said in "pungent, frank and dramatic statements" made in an interview with The Daily Gleaner prior to the meeting.
Proposing a free federation of West Indian islands, Cripps, in one of those pungent, frank, and dramatic statements, which would warm the hearts of today's reparationists, declared that England had taken much from Jamaica over the past century and should give big-scale help in return.
In a different media age, the newspaper reported Norman Manley's launch speech as founding president of the party extensively and with long verbatim stretches. Manley set out the "aims and ideas of the new party". That speech is captured as the first one in Rex Nettleford's compilation of Manley's speeches in Manley and the New Jamaica: Selected Speeches & Writings, 1938-1968.
The party would be "modelled on strictly democratic lines" and would welcome people and organisations willing "to abide by and be loyal and faithful to the aims and objects of this party". The party would educate "the people of this country to the true position they should occupy and to what they should expect of their democratic organisations. The people should be taught what the Constitution of this country is ("rotten" as Mr Manley felt the colonial constitution was) and what sort of Jamaica they should aim for for their children and their children's children.
Another aim of the party would be to "lead government" and be in "the vanguard of our own progress".
The name of the party encapsulated its aims, Manley told the launch audience: 'People's' - to serve the interests of the masses of the country; 'National' - to develop the idea of Jamaica as a national whole and develop a national spirit towards future self-government.
Unlike Sir Stafford Cripps, who boldly called for self-government, Mr Manley more tamely told the launch audience: "I do not say that I think that Jamaica is today ripe for self-government, but I claim that we must start a movement working which will help us to be ripe for it. The party was going to push for an expansion of suffrage from 60,000 voters in a population of one million, though not quite calling for universal suffrage, which would come in 1944.
Mr Manley closed his launch address on a high note to thunderous applause: "If we never desert our own principles, if we believe in what we are aiming at, if we appreciate those who regard the country as their home, those who believe that a real civilisation is possible for people of mixed origins, if we never allow people to deflect us from our goals, those who would like to continue to live in the feeling that Jamaica is the grandest little country to make their living in, and the nicest country in the world to have a holiday in - if we can do these things and be true to what we believe in ... then I believe we would have launched tonight a movement which is like nothing else started in Jamaica, and make of this country a real place that our children will be proud to say 'we come from Jamaica.'" Vision 2030 in 1938!
How have the People's National Party and the country fared in 80 years against these founding ideals? Just by way of background, the PNP has governed for 37 years of 74 years since the first election under universal adult suffrage in 1944 and for 30 years of 56 since Independence in 1962: 1955-1962, 1972-1980, 1989-2007, 2012-2016.Roughly half the time.
Perhaps we should ask the party to enumerate its 80 greatest achievements. And ask its opponents, primarily the younger Jamaica Labour Party, to enumerate its 80 greatest failures. For successes and failures, there have been. And the balancing is important.
Not without good reason, we curse our politics and our politicians, but, truthfully, the broad goals of the PNP at the party's founding have been broadly realised. Not by PNP doings alone, we have become fiercely proud as a people, shorn of colonial attachments and loyalties, that 'we come from Jamaica'. But many, perhaps the majority, would prefer to migrate, though. Although we never give up being Jamaicans abroad to the second and third generation!
We have built a solid world-class democracy, despite the problems of tribal politics, with a robust Constitution which has never been challenged by any kind of usurpation. One problem is that the population remains generally ignorant of the Constitution and constitutionalism despite the political education aims of the PNP. We have peacefully achieved universal adult suffrage, self-government, and Independence.
Very soon after the creation of the two-party system with the formation of the JLP in 1943, we descended into political tribalism, in all its ugly and violent manifestations, which is more contained now than in the worst days but still very much alive. By the 1949 elections, the same Daily Gleaner was editorialising that many politicians were behaving as if they could not win an election without the support of thugs. In the construction of garrison constituencies that followed, the PNP outclassed the JLP 5:1, creating 11 to the JLP's two, all incubators for crime and social disorder.
The hard economic data, read without orange or green spectacles, indicate that PNP socialist economic adventurism, 1972-1980, very nearly ran the Jamaican economy into the ground. But the party of the Common Entrance Examination (1958) has massively contributed to the expansion of educational opportunities for the masses. Although it busted the Budget, free education to university level in the 1970s benefited large numbers of young Jamaicans, including me. And I have always felt that P.J. Patterson's greatest legacy as the longest-serving prime minister is the unheralded massive expansion of access to tertiary education. And who can forget JAMAL and what it did for adult literacy in the 1970s?
Using Jamaica Welfare (which Norman Manley had founded in 1937 with money from the banana export companies) as the first vehicle, the PNP has been particularly good at social welfare. The creation of the land authorities after Hurricane Charlie in 1951 (I grew up in one), and the agricultural extension services did a great deal for rural development. The proposition of the fifth and current leader of the party, Dr Peter Phillips, for extensive land reform, if carried out, would fix a fundamental national problem dating back to Emancipation and obstructing a great deal of human and national development.
At 80 and a little tired, the PNP is in search of a new vision. If to land reform are added plans of action for improved social order and crime reduction, a return to concern for attitudes and values, and a return to the old vision of education for the role of citizen, they would be well on the way.
The party in Government has contributed significantly over the last 10 years, or so, to fixing the macroeconomic problems that it helped to create in the first place. A robust system of fiscal prudence is now in place, across governments. A revamping of the vision for broad-based, small-scale economic opportunities, especially if linked to education and training, would serve the party well as it sets its eyes on 100 - and on forming the next government.
- Martin Henry is a university administrator.