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Better or worse off?

Published:Friday | July 8, 2011 | 12:00 AM

On June 28, this newspaper published the results of a Bill Johnson opinion poll asking whether people believe Jamaica would have been better off today if it had remained a colony of Britain. Sixty per cent of Jamaicans held the view that the country would be better off today if we had remained under British rule; conversely, 17 per cent believed the country would be worse off had it remained a British colony, while 23 per cent said they did not know.

These results have produced a firestorm of both rational responses and emotional knee-jerk reactions, which reveal differences in what we Jamaicans believe 'better off' and 'worse off' mean.

If we are talking about economic development and well-being, possibly the respondents who feel we would be better off today under colonialism are comparing independent Jamaica with the remaining British colonies in the Caribbean. Sources vary, but Index Mundi quotes the following per capita gross domestic product (GDP) data for 2008 (purchasing power parity): Bermuda (US$69,900), Cayman Islands (US$43,800), British Virgin Islands (US$38,500), Jamaica (US$7,500).

Colonial advantage

These data would seem to make the point that things might have been much better for Jamaica under colonialism. The issue is much more complicated than this, of course. Post-1962, would oversight from Whitehall have led to better literacy results, or employment levels? Possibly not; those trends existed and persisted under the British. Would the British have stood by and allowed so many police killings? Would they have allowed Jamaican politicians to arm their supporters and create garrison constituencies? I doubt it!

At the same time, other Caribbean territories who have become independent have not done as poorly as Jamaica; per capita GDP data from the same source: Bahamas (US$29,600), Trinidad & Tobago (US$21,500), Barbados (US$18,500), Grenada (US$12,300), Dominica (US$9,600), St Vincent & Grenadines (US$9,400). Schools in these countries teach their children to read, and as flawed as their political parties may have been, they did not establish garrisons.

Both the poll results and history are an indictment on the quality of our political governance since Indepen-dence. It would be unfair to say that our leaders have done nothing since Independence; but it would be true to say that they have not brought us to where we could have - and should have - been by now.

Of course, there are others who interpret 'better off' in other terms: some feel that it is better to be an illiterate pauper in a crime-ridden and corrupt society led by one's own, rather than be wealthy and safe under the British Queen; the above data will mean nothing to them.

Johnson asked another question: Should Jamaica retain the current Westminster system, or should we become a republic? Some 44 per cent of those surveyed said the Westminster system should be retained, while 35 per cent said it should be replaced with a republican system; another 21 per cent answered 'don't know'.

The fact behind this question is that to become a republic means replacing the British monarch as head of state with someone else. The Gleaner sensationalised this poll finding with the headline 'Give us the Queen', which sparked widespread emotional response from persons who feel the respondents betrayed our national heroes. Some have even interpreted these poll results as a wish for Jamaica to return to colonial rule - and even to slavery! We should never let emotion get in the way of objective analysis.

Questionnaire flaws

In the science of questionnaire design, there is a phenomenon called 'question-loading', which we should always try to minimise. If in a survey you ask: 'Do you support gambling?' you will get a set of answers; but if you insert a question just before this one, asking whether the respondent is a Christian, this will 'load' the gambling question; people will be more inclined to answer 'no', since some forms of Christianity believe gambling is sinful.

Asking whether Jamaica would have been better off under British rule, and then asking whether we should retain the British monarch as our head of state is another good example of loading the question; since many believe we might have been better off under the British, maybe they were led to answer that we should retain the British monarch as our head of state.

I want Jamaica to paddle her own canoe as much as anyone, but that is not going to make me hug up corruption and garrison politics, or accept a Caribbean court of politically appointed judges, or judges appointed by persons appointed by politicians.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and social survey research practitioner. Email feedback to