Wed | May 31, 2023

Let ex-PMs have their say

Published:Sunday | June 15, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Daniel Thwaites, Columnist

There are few things in life more satisfying than tracin' smaddy off. Releasing the dark emotions that are impossible to eliminate, but which civility ordinarily requires us to contain, can be oddly satisfying.

In fact, it is the natural birthright of every Jamaican to spend his breath telling someone else, particularly those with power or held in esteem, just exactly where to hop off and how dem cyaan't chubble yuh caz yuh nuh chat wid wata inna yuh mout! However, that approach is most often the handmaiden of anger and ignorance, not enlightenment.

This occurred to me after reading some thunderous and scorching responses in these pages and on cyberspace after two ex-prime ministers dared express views on some hot-button social and political issues. Martin Henry, among the most judicious and thoughtful of commentators, joined the chorus with 'Shall Patterson and Golding lecture us now?'

I don't like it. I don't think either man is 'lecturing' when he says what he thinks, and I don't think having been in politics is a disqualification for stating an opinion and drawing attention to issues one cares about. For starters, we cannot hold P.J. or Bruce accountable for everything that occurred while they were captain, not least of all because they didn't control everything. To say otherwise is to fly in the face of obvious reality.

But my focus is not on whether a man is hypocritical because, in power, he 'failed' to fix a problem that, out of power, still concerns him. I want to talk about how it's better if we listen carefully to the ex-prime ministers and figure out, along with them, why they sometimes failed.

His most ardent detractors will admit that Golding is an unusually intelligent man who has had a career of great highs and lows. His creation of the NDM was not without daring and his comfort with many areas of government policy was evident. Having been prime minister, his current thinking about solving some of Jamaica's problems is, at the least, interesting. I would go further and say that his experience is invaluable, if only as a cautionary tale of what hubris can do to intelligent politically talented men.

And although he will have another set of equally determined detractors, P.J. Patterson's case is easier to argue. P.J. understands the thinking and moods of the Jamaican public unlike anyone else alive. It isn't by accident that he's the most electorally successful politician in the history of the country. We can certainly debate whether or not he put those talents to good use, or good enough use given the skills and time he had, but his uniqueness isn't in doubt.

So I'm not here advancing an argument as to the relative merits of either man, or as to whether they are not deserving of severe criticism about choices they made when they were in the highest executive office. I am, though, utterly disagreeing with the reflexive "Shut up!" And I'm saying: "Please, talk!"

Small, vulnerable economy

Right now, we're standing at Point A, and we're supposedly working, working, working to get to Point B. Point A: a small, vulnerable economy, with diminishing geopolitical influence, slapdash infrastructure, depleted environment, limping health and education systems, crushing debt overhang, staggering amounts of crime and violence, and massive social problems. Few will quibble with that description, although most will immediately have begun to concoct their list of who is to blame.

Defining Point B, our supposed destination is a little trickier. There is some consensus to be found in things like Vision 2030, although it doesn't address how much weed we expect the population to be smoking and the prevalence of gay marriage. But I'm assuming we will accommodate these things on an ad hoc basis.

Then, to borrow Golding's metaphor, we're all on the same bus, of which he and P.J were drivers. But in our fledgling national tradition, we do not have nearly enough reflection on the realities of governance and the capabilities of that broken-down Jolly Bus.

We do have a lot of useless grandstanding about how it ought to be a shiny new turbocharged engine capable of scaling Blue Mountain if only our leaders would X, Y or Z (insert your favourite cliche). We have not developed a learning politics, only a blaming one.

By the way, I don't particularly want or expect the blame game to stop. After all, what would columnists do for work if that were to happen? Which itself raises an interesting difference between we commentators who can predict the future incorrectly and misdiagnose national problems without accountability for decades. We have no electorate to face and very few, if any, keeping score.

But take the energy problem as a showcase example of how our political system is failing. Despite consensus that urgent action is required to change the expensive and inefficient generation, multiple players over multiple administrations have been unable to deliver. For those unwilling to credit obeah or divine obstruction, it invites some hard questions.

Is the political process giving us people with the requisite executive skills to actually run the country? Could even P.J.'s political genius navigate the obstructions of this monstrous labyrinth of overlapping and competing interests between the OCG and the OUR?

There was a time when Mr Golding was proposing a more rigorous separation of powers as an antidote. Isn't the creation of ESET to handle the single most important national project a concession that Golding was essentially correct about the need to sometimes draft executive talent? Is it not also a concession that our leaden bureaucracy has proved useless?

I would say that if we want to stop witnessing the bus going over the cliff, we will want to pay very careful attention to experience of those who steered and tried to shift the gears.

Unfortunately, Bustamante left no memoirs. Unfortunately, neither Manley completed a biography or closing tome of reflections. Mr Seaga is the happy exception so far, though he leaves us wanting more. It is reported that P.J. is working, working, working on memoirs, and I'm waiting, waiting waiting. Mike Henry, though he didn't quite make it to PM, will undoubtedly cover a shelf before he is done. Who could unglue themselves from the book if Trevor practised some Transparency International or NIA on the WPJ?

Those of you still around, don't shut up. Please, talk and write. Honestly.

Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to