Sun | Jun 13, 2021

Politics of patronage unsustainable

Published:Thursday | October 8, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Slavery was abolished in Jamaica in 1834 because it was unsustainable. The financial damage caused by Sam Sharpe's Rebellion of 1831-1832 was great, and the system could not endure further costly slave revolts. Plus, the anti-slavery lobby in Britain could no longer be ignored.

In the wake of the Morant Bay Rebellion 150 years ago this month, it was clear that the political system of Jamaica, the colony, was unsustainable. The House of Assembly, dominated by plantation interests, which continued to fight against the interests of the former slaves, had outlived its usefulness, and it imploded. It was replaced by Crown colony government - direct rule from Whitehall - through the governor they appointed.

This led to the far-reaching reforms of Governor Sir John Peter Grant: He reduced the number of civil parishes from 22 to 14, replaced the parish vestries with parochial boards, put a legislative council in place made up solely of civil-service technocrats, created the Public Works Department and the Government Savings Bank, reformed the judicial system and the medical service, improved the schools, built the Rio Cobre Irrigation Scheme, established the Jamaica Constabulary Force, and disestablished the Anglican Church, among other things.




The plantocracy would not be disenfranchised for long. By 1884, the Legislative Council had nine elected members, which increased to 14 in 1895. But not everyone could vote; only people with money and property had the right to cast their ballots or to stand for election, while the poor were disenfranchised.

Pressure from below made this situation unsustainable. After the 1938 riots, the system crumbled, and in 1944, for the first time in our history - and fully 100 years after Emancipation - all Jamaicans of majority age gained the right to vote. This development led to political Independence in 1962.

Universal adult suffrage caused a shift in electoral power from the wealthy few (who were in direct control for over 300 years) to the largely illiterate and resource-deprived majority. What should have happened is that political leaders elected by the poor majority should have passed laws to provide good-quality education and training for the masses, leading to their social mobility.

This new emerging middle class would have stimulated the economy, producing economic growth. The majority would have been lifted out of poverty. Lee Kuan Yew would then have had a serious model to copy!

After 450 years, Jamaica would have shifted its focus away from plantation agriculture, for there would have been few available to cut cane, weed bananas, or pick coffee; but what actually happened was that plantation interests funded the politicians, and called the tune. Theirs was the invisible hand directing our political system, ensuring that a largely uneducated and unskilled labour force was preserved.

Few high schools were built in rural areas, and no high-school places for boys were provided in agricultural parishes like Trelawny, St Mary and St Thomas until the 1960s.

Jamaica's political system, characterised by strong patron-client linkages, was dubbed 'clientelism' by the late Professor Carl Stone more than 30 years ago. The system depends upon the poor majority being dependent on handouts from their patrons, and upon the private sector providing funding to their political clients in return for favours.




Garrison communities run by political dons are the patron-client system taken to its highest level, where welfare payments are readily given, and where the personal security of residents is guaranteed and enforced.

Jamaica's present patron-client political system is unsustainable. It cannot continue like this for much longer.

Both major political parties have built up a core of support from the citizenry who look forward to receiving their share of the scarce benefits and spoils. We saw it blatantly in the recent candidate-selection exercises.

Votes are offered for sale to the highest bidder, and are bought by party activists. Breaking news! People are now being paid not to vote! It is a more secure process than vote-buying, for after the bought person receives their payment the night before the election, their finger is dipped in ultraviolet ink, so they definitely cannot vote the next day.

Altruism is rare! People enter politics to benefit personally from political contributions, and kickbacks from contracts and waivers. The system is corrupt through and through.

More than half the electorate votes with their feet: by not registering to vote, or by staying away from the polls. This is not because of voter apathy, but to voter disenchantment with the present political system and the two political parties which dominate it.

The turnout at the next general election will be the lowest in Jamaica's history, which should be an international embarrassment. We cannot continue like this for much longer. Our present political system is unsustainable.

- Peter Espeut is sociologist, environmentalist and development scientist. Email feedback to