Thursday, January 5, 2012

John Maxwell speaks about PNP leader from beyond the grave

Portia faces life

Jamaica Observer | Thursday, January 05, 2012

The late veteran journalist John Maxwell wrote this column which was published on March 6, 2006 on the eve of her first selection as prime minister to succeed P J Patterson. Following are excerpts from that column which is as relevant today as it was then. It is as if John had written it from beyond the grave:

Most people who know me are aware that I have been a partisan of Portia Simpson's for a very long time.The reason is simple: I believe that she is the only leader in the People's National Party (PNP) who really understands what the PNP was founded to achieve and who realises that those original aims and objectives are not only unfulfilled, but in urgent need of fulfilment.

The PNP was always a small people's party despite the propaganda generated by Bustamante's 'dutty shu't" (Dirty shirt) rabble-rousing of the 1940s which allowed Ulric Simmonds and almost every other journalistic commentator in Jamaica to label the PNP 'the intellectuals party' or the 'middleclass party' or 'the school-teachers' party' or even the 'policemans' party'. If that were true, the PNP could never have won an election in Jamaica nor could it have become by the 1960s the natural majority party in the country.

The real point about the PNP is that it began to work to create out of the disinherited masses of Jamaica the 'labourers', the peasantry and the unemployed, a productive and relatively prosperous community of Jamaicans united to work together for 'the good and welfare' of all. What you might call, perhaps, a 'populist' movement towards a plural society with fair shares for all and no one left out.

Populism has become, a dirty word under the influence of American fundamentalist capitalists and the Washington Consensus of international financial institutions. The World Bank has even paid a West Indian scholar whose name escapes me at the moment, to write a learned disquisition about the evils of populism. I doubt, however, that any of those bandying the word about recently could provide a coherent definition of 'populism'.

Which is sad, since it is a reputedly fatal affliction from which Portia and so many others of us suffer.

Writing before last week's election, in my column published last Sunday, I referred to one of the priorities I believed our next PM would have to confront. I was confident enough to refer to that person as 'she' ? because I had no doubt that despite the scads of foreign and local money against her campaign, you could almost always trust the ordinary Jamaican people to do the right thing, or, as her adversaries might say, the 'Left' thing.

Fortunately for us, Portia is neither right nor left, not an ideologue except in the more barren wastelands of American journalism. But, realistically, anyone who champions the cause of the poor must be 'Left' in one way or another.

The fat ladies sing

It isn't all over, even if the fat ladies of the PNP have sung. It hasn't even started in real terms. Winning the leadership of the PNP was the easiest thing Mrs Simpson-Miller will have to do for a long time to come. Facing her are all kinds of expectations, not least from the most well-off in the society, who think the gravy train has got to keep running on their tracks. Realism should tell them different.

The major problems facing Portia are problems neglected by every government of Jamaica since 1980, including Michael Manley's third term. Our governments have chosen to fight irrelevant wars on battlegrounds chosen by their opponents and with everything stacked against them. We have bought into deregulation, privatisation, liberalisation, globalisation and the continuing devaluation of the Jamaican people (and their currency).

As the financiers, loan sharks and usurers,would say, we are 'not competitive' and we won't be competitive until the free market has reduced us to the condition and status of Haiti and the Central African Republic.

Portia has said she wants to "Make Jamaica Work" and I understand from this not only that she wants to get people back to gainful employment, but that she wants Jamaica to begin to function again as a civilised, safe and peaceful community of productive and happy people.

To do this she has proposed that she will work to get the people to plan and design their future themselves, to get them to be wholly invested in the making of the significant decisions which order their lives. She says she wants to end patronage politics, the Lady Bountiful politics in which members of a distant middle class are intermediaries between the people and the power.

What she appears to be suggesting is that the people should 'name' their own deputies, worker delegates or shop stewards and that local government should be where the action is. We are, of course, speaking of popular empowerment, a prospect which terrifies the haute bourgeoisie in its less rational moments. Yet, the paradox is that for all of us, and for the wealthy elite most of all, Jamaica cannot continue business as usual without an almighty explosion. Jamaica cannot continue the bleeding of its resources into foreign bank accounts and the starvation of the social services. Carl Stone, no leftist, projected a bloody explosion if Michael Manley's PNP had not won the 1972 election, I wonder what he would say now, after 17 years of 1960s laissez faire capitalism?

Children first

So Portia will need volunteers from every class if she is going to be able to listen to the ordinary Jamaican people and help them organise themselves out of penury, misery, disease dependency and crime. I believe she will need to set up a special secretariat to organise the sampling of Jamaican public opinion, to harvest the wisdom of the people. And I also believe that when she calls on Jamaicans to volunteer she will get an enthusiastic response from all classes.

It is my belief that the first thing that people will say is that they want safer, cleaner, more harmonious communities because without them, we cannot protect our children and nurture them so that they can fulfill their best selves, the most basic prerequisite of a civilised society.

We, the Jamaican community in Jamaica and abroad, have long understood that we must put children first. That is the reason so many of our brightest, most vigorous young people go abroad in search of a better life for their children, even more than themselves. What we need are the facilities to do this. We need nutrition programmes, so that mothers can be able to breastfeed their babies for at least six months, giving them a headstart on life. The World Bank, on Friday, published a report on Health, Nutrition and Population which says it is now provable that nations can add between 2 and 3 per cent to GDP simply by improving the nutrition of the poorest. "Children are irreversibly damaged by malnutrition by age 2, long before they begin primary school". Programmes begun after 2 can never reverse the stunting, physical and mental, that occurs in the first two years of childhood.

If mothers are going to be helped to nurture their children they will clearly need better organised, safer and healthier communities with more convenient schools and community and sports facilities. . Much of this work can be accomplished by the people themselves, although programmes of this sort (like the 'Crash programme' of the 70s) are regarded by some boobies as giveaways and handouts. If we expect people to work for nothing we should realise that they know that getting a firearm is easier and more cost-effective.

Which brings us to crime. Healthier communities means that we've got to stop burning garbage as well as to stop turning young people into garbage. I keep saying that there are Einsteins and Colin Powells cutting cane in Jamaican fields. There are Mozarts and Muhammad Alis on Death Row, as the Barnett Report on Jamaican prisons suggested 30 years ago...

We can help Jamaica to work again and in doing so, help the whole world to work better. We don't need cash so much as the inspiration and the will.

Which is why I believe Portia Simpson if she gets a fair chance, may transform our civilisation. She has what it takes.

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