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The Seaga UTech Anniversary Lecture - 50 years backward and forward?

Published:Sunday | March 18, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Martin Henry, Contributor

At midnight on August 5, 1962, the bundled-up Jamaican flag did not 'hitch'. The green, black and gold smoothly unfurled at the top of the flag pole at the National Stadium and caught the wind of expectancy as a new nation was born. The hope of the 32-year-old member of parliament for Western Kingston, minister of government and member of the Constitutional Committee which had brought home Independence, which was his most memorable reaction that night, that the tied-up flag would not hitch in the unfolding was realised.

There have been many hitches and glitches in the nation's fortunes over the next 50 years since that memorable night in the summer of '62.

Edward Seaga, chancellor, now bowed down with old age but as intellectually acute and defiantly courageous as ever, was asked to deliver the 25th lecture in the annual Anniversary Lecture Series of the University of Technology which coincides with the 50th year of the country's Independence. Mr Seaga was an obvious choice for opening and leading the university's contributions to national celebrations of Jamaica 50.

There is no other living Jamaican who has contributed more to the formation of independent Jamaica with all its strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, opportunities seized and opportunities lost. Mr Seaga is the only surviving member of the committee which negotiated the Jamaica Constitution with the British colonial government and, later, the most strident and consistent advocate for the incorporation of a Charter of Rights into the Constitution.

Seaga, as minister of development and welfare, led the preparation of that most promising Five-Year Independence Plan, 1963-1968, which I regularly refer to in this column, the promise of much of which is yet to be realised. Seaga served as minister of finance and prime minister and leader of the Opposition. He has been the longest-serving member of the Jamaica Labour Party, leading one of the two major political parties which have formed the Government of Jamaica since universal adult suffrage in 1944, for 31 years, compared to founding leader Bustamante's 24.

Mr Seaga has been the longest-serving member of the country's legislature, having being first appointed to the Legislative Council in 1959 at age 29, the youngest ever, and then serving as MP for Western Kingston, which he himself has said was regarded as the "rectum of the city", for an unbroken 43 years in Independence (1962-2005). Seaga has been the greatest builder of national institutions in the first 50 years of Independence. A list I have runs over 20, and it's not certain there was total capture.

still defending tivoli

But Edward Seaga also built Tivoli Gardens not only to be a model community but as a political stronghold which has come to be described as the 'mother of all garrisons'. Its last don was last Friday scheduled to be sentenced to prison following extradition to the United States following a stand-off between the armed forces of the Jamaican state and the armed forces of Tivoli Gardens which left more than 70 people dead, the largest number of casualties since the Morant Bay uprising of 1865. (The Dudus sentencing was again postponed). The first state of emergency in independent Jamaica had to be imposed in Western Kingston in 1966, just four years after Independence, in an attempt to quell political violence there between JLP and PNP street forces.

Mr Seaga made an interesting comment in the question-and-answer period following the lecture last Monday evening. Was he surprised that the latest killings involving the police had taken place in Western Kingston? No, the police have always directed their attacks upon Western Kingston first. The questioner clearly intended to demonstrate that Western Kingston was a place of violence. The unnuanced answer (which was a general weakness of the lecture) was clearly intended to defend Western Kingston as mere victims of police brutality. It displayed a shocking - but not inconsistent - disregard for the authority of the state and the authority of its security forces to enforce law and order everywhere.

The Seaga/JLP-Manley/PNP clashes when both men led their respective parties in the same period have been the single most important cause of Jamaica's failure to achieve more of the promise of Independence. Many Jamaicans fervently believe that Mr Seaga rescued the country from democratic socialism. But Mr Seaga's fractious leadership of the JLP made the party unelectable after its defeat in 1989, upsetting the balancing of the parties in power which the Jamaican electorate had been wisely using since 1944 for checks and balance in the political system.

clear understanding of jamaican culture

Mr Seaga has been the most prolific intellectual who has served in public life. His sociological work prior to politics, his copious writings in a few short old-age years after politics as distinguished fellow of the University of the West Indies, and the research depth of his speeches while in politics speak to the fact.

Seaga, a white patrician, has deep understanding of, and attachment to, Jamaican culture and social life at the base from choosing to live it while researching it. In Q&A, he identified his greatest achievement as the repatriation of the body of black nationalist Marcus Garvey, a great symbol of national pride, in the early days of Independence. Garvey was Jamaica's first appointed national hero.

So, who best to address 'Fifty Years Backward and Forward?' than the Most Honourable Edward Seaga?

In conceptualisation, the lecture was intended to be a sort of grand tour de force - political, economic, cultural, social - of the first 50 years of Independence, with a particular focus on education, for which Mr Seaga has all the right qualifications. In that regard, the lecture was on the thin side - 11 pages printed.

The presentation on the Independence period of Jamaican development began with "reviewing the different creeds adopted and implemented by the mainstream political leadership even before Independence ... ." Mr Seaga, beginning with the pre-Independence West Indies Federation, dissected the Independence period decade by decade, largely around the failures of politics and economics. The decade of the 1980s, naturally, shone most brightly.

Of the federation: "Any reality check in the early years would have realised that the grand federal design would have been politically workable because of the inevitable conflict of priorities among the member countries 

which, as all poor countries must do, put self-interest first. Recognising that these conflicts would have created insoluble problems would have saved more than a wasted decade of dreams."

While the current prime minister, who is MP for a garrison constituency adjacent to West Kingston, is calling for the swift implementation of recommendations for the strengthening of the CARICOM Secretariat's capacity to promote, monitor and evaluate the implementation of decisions, the former prime minister is saying, "A reality check, in this case where data were readily available, would have foretold that the CSME [CARICOM Single Market and Economy] would be a grand design of conflicting performance in which Jamaica, disappointingly, would become the supermarket, not the factory." Mr Seaga delightfully spun metaphors throughout the presentation.

"The decade of the 1990s and the first decade of the new century were lost, as was the decade of the 1970s, because of reckless and inappropriate policies, or misdirected leadership." The most calamitous event which befell the economy in Independence, in Mr Seaga's view, was the financial meltdown of the 1990s.

Defending his advocacy of a pegged exchange rate to the death, he wryly commented that, in that "economic cataclysm", "the exchange rate soared through the roof, interest rates and inflation zoomed through the window and economic growth plunged through the floor".

But he, having faced down the International Monetary Fund in 1986, "the resulting dramatic economic upturn after 15 years of downturn significantly helped to transform the struggling Jamaican economy to a restoration of fiscal surplus and meaningful growth by 1987 ... . By the last half of the 1980s the economy was right-sized ... ."

In bold in the text of the lecture: "The single message which dominates this period is that visions for future development must be subjected to thorough cost-benefit analysis lest they become nightmares. This has been the affliction of the last 50 years of leadership which believed it was pursuing glorious visions but woke up to nightmares."

Going back to his famous haves and have-nots analysis of the 1960s, Mr Seaga noted, "The gap in the interdigitated structure of the two Jamaicas is closing on all fronts, but too slowly." This was followed by a pairing of strengths and weaknesses, advances and retrogressions in a society he described as having too much indiscipline, too much corruption, too much selfishness, and too much greed.

Turning to the theme of education, Mr Seaga once again rolled out the data on poor performance and went to bat for early childhood education. "I would have preferred to see the educational system restructured to give every child the opportunity for a successful start than to have had more than $8 billion spent on Cricket World Cup, or unnecessarily renovating the Palisadoes Road!"

He and the current minister of education, Ronald Thwaites of the PNP, would be in one accord on this. But although sharply criticising the tearing down of past programmes by new administrations and the failure to pass the baton with smooth continuity in the country's interest, Mr Seaga's non-negotiating, non-dialogical stridency which was evident in the tenor of this lecture as in his past political life, and which is too much a part of the country's political culture in Independence, poses significant problems for collaboration.

So, yes, this too brief a review of the past and look into the future by the country's most distinguished and longest-serving leader and a founding father has its usefulness as a place to start, and certainly as something to react to. But there is a long way to go.

Martin Henry is a communications specialist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.