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Stabroek News

Political system and national crises
published: Sunday | July 27, 2008

Dr Peter Phillips has my strong support. No, I don't mean in his bid for the presidency of the People's National Party (PNP). On that matter, what I do support is the principle of regular competition for the leadership of the political parties. It is not for nothing that the constitutions of both major parties allot only a year of leadership to officers. One year may be a bit too brief to be sensible, but the point is that the possibility of regular challenge for leadership posts is built into the constitutions themselves, and wisely so.

The people who are prophesying political suicide for the challenger, the fractioning of the PNP, and its sure defeat in any early election are simply alarmist. If the 70-year-old PNP has grown so fragile, then it is perhaps time to euthanise it and lay it to rest in National Heroes Park beside its founding president who led the party without challenge for 31 years. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum and other parties will quickly arise.

power-driven people

The alarmists do not sufficiently understand the nature of politics and of career politicians like Peter Phillips and Portia Simpson Miller. Political parties, certainly the PNP from its very inception, are at best heterogeneous mixtures of power-driven people who agree to stick together around some common core as an election war machine to capture state power.

Anyone as close to the system as is Lambert Brown, the political suicide theorist, should be sharply aware of the daggers-drawn hostility between members and factions of the parties, who simply agree not to kill each other because there is a bigger enemy out there to be defeated: the other party.

The careerists in the parties and their lieutenants know that they need each other too much to achieve their own political ambitions, despite the hostilities, and will exercise political pragmatism in sticking together to face a common opponent after their own internal competition. And in this instance, the opponent is the weakest governing party in the history of Jamaica. It baffles me that those who think inter-party competition is good for democracy can also think that intra-party competition is undesirable.

But what I am strongly supporting Peter Phillips on is his frankly expressed view from inside the beast itself that the political system holds large responsibility for the crises facing the nation. I would go further than blaming an abstract 'political system' and specify by name the political parties which have held state power and their leaders, including Phillips himself.

And that failure is not merely a failure from omission, as Phillips intimates; it is also a failure from active, calculated commission. Absolutely, the largest contribution that the PNP and the Jamaica Labour Party have made to the crises facing the nation today is the fostering and entrenchment of violence in the society from the 1940s. Political violence, let the records speak, was not an accident; it was organised as an instrument of political competition.


Its feed into other forms of violence has led to the cancerous "normalisation of crime", to use criminologist Anthony Harriott's term. Organised political violence, including garrisonisation, is the fountainhead of the over 800 murders so far this year alone, despite the wash-hands stance of contemporary politicians. Government's current anti-crime strategy [the latest in a long list] can only yield good long-term results if it undertakes a denormalisation of crime and violence by paying close attention to its political roots - and branches.

The political tribal war, fought on many fronts, and which peaked in the Michael Manley-Seaga years, has had the most disastrous consequences on national development. And the tangibles of destruction may be the lesser of the damage when compared to the intangibles of negative attitudes and values fostered and of opportunities foregone. The political system is too violent, too confrontational, too steeped in tribalism, Phillips declares.

What the famous political sociologist Carl Stone calls 'clientilism' - the paternalistic deployment of scarce benefits in tribalistic fashion to manipulate support and create dependence - is perhaps the next-biggest evil actively imposed upon the country by Phillips' abstraction, 'the political system'. Clientelism has distorted and hobbled economic activity; it has entrenched both the bly and extortion; it has corrupted systems like the civil service and the tax system; and, ultimately, it has generated high-profile murders like Edward O'Gilvie's [1976] and Douglas Chambers' [2008].

Even the staunchest apologists must now acknowledge that the calculated political experiment in democratic socialism of the 1970s did not work, hence the politically pragmatic conversion of its proponents. Democratic socialism delivered major damage to the economy and damaged social relations. But, even more disastrously, it cultivated an attitude of entitlement, which will take longer than the rest of Phillips' normal lifespan to reverse.

The Cuban Revolution virtually eliminated illiteracy in its first five years. But, as Phillips points out in his list of political-system failures, we are still graduating 60 per cent of our children from secondary education without a single subject passed.

tough leadership

This squandering and then idling of our human resource is one of the great sins of the 'political system', which has never been able, in the 47 years of Independence, to bring employment down to single digits for even one year, but has managed to make the value of the dollar decline from J$1:US$1, to J$72:US$1, and falling.

It will take tough leadership with a sweeping grasp of the issues, honesty about how we have arrived where we are, and clear vision and iron will to take us where we want to be and can be. On the PNP side, there are many who feel that Peter Phillips is the best of the lot. We shall see how many at the 70th-anniversary conference in September.

Martin Henry is a communication consultant. Feedback may be sent to or

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