#COVID19Chronicles-105: July 28, 2020-Looking back, not in anger: Historical lessons about political legacies

What follows is a piece I started about two weeks ago, when PM Andrew Holness decided (July 9) to unleash on the legacy of former-PM Michael Manley. I decided to take a different tack and wrote ‘An economy of truth? Some thoughts on the debate about the Manley legacy’. They say time heals all wounds. So, it’s interesting and instructive that PM Holness did a relatively significant walking back of his initial position about the “misadventure” of the Manley era; “So let me be clear to my friends and otherwise that I respect and love Michael Manley, and I value his work and his contribution to making us who we are. That can never be devalued, and I want to, therefore, put that to rest”

He also said he was “taken aback” by the “furore” over his comments. Well, that shock and awakening to what the public reactions were to what he had said was revealed on his 48th birthday when he addressed the launch of the Professor Orlando Patterson-chaired 14-member Education Transformation Commission at Jamaica House. The commission is tasked with carrying out a comprehensive review of the country’s education system and is to submit its report by March, 2021. A present to himself, but eyebrows singed from blowing out the candles?

Now, I could spend a long time explaining what I understand when politicians are ‘taken aback’ by public reactions to considered remarks. But, put simply, it’s their best effort at showing they misread the situation. We could spend all of our lives trying to figure out how or why that happened, but let’s just live with the fact. The PM is not a shoot-from-the-lip politician, so the crafting of his original position should have come from a good amount of personal deliberation.

The other point we cannot lose sight of is that the impact of the remarks and the reaction must be seen in the context of an ever-impending general election. Whatever tribal divisions exist in Jamaica, there is also a view about certain important developments in our history that can be laid firmly at the policy feet of former PMs, and many now are the beneficiaries and sufferers of those policies. So, it ought not to shock anyone that Manley’s legacy can raise many to their most emphatic state.

But, let me get back to where I was a couple of weeks ago.

I was scrolling around looking for something interesting to watch in mid-July when I stumbled across ‘Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain’; it was produced by the BBC in 2007. It’s a good look at how Britain was transformed from the ending of the Second World War (WW2), in 1945, into the mid-2000s. This is the sort of thing that’s not uncommon in the UK—taking a look back, with the aid of a guide who’s a respected expert in the field, in this case, the BBC’s then-political editor. That gives the story told a certain credibility. One can remember things differently and take issue with the images, quotations and representations of ideas and how policy was framed and what it meant. But, it’s a good primer for many people, who don’t want to read history books—if they exist—or watch a series of documentaries or probe many who lived through the periods.

As I wrote, a debate has been ranging about modern Jamaica, focused mainly on the impact of the Michael Manley regime of 1972-78. Now, whatever anyone wants to argue, if they think Jamaica has gone through turbulent times, they’ve obviously not paid any attention to how Great Britain had its course reversed from being the major world power and the largest imperialist (at one time controlling 1/4 of the world’s population) to being a laughing stock in many parts of the world since 1945.

As I worked my way through 5 episodes, each about an hour, it was hard to believe that Britain’s transformation could be pinned to a single administration.

I went to England in 1961 and left in 1990. Before the 1960s, Britain had come through on the winning side of WW2, the USA was exerting its new-found world power as being financially and militarily crucial to that victory. Russia was pressing its claim for world leadership, based on a radical counter-cultural view—communism, not capitalism. War broke out in Korea in 1950, communism facing off against capitalism, and Russia facing off with the USA. Egypt (supported by Russian arms and money) nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, through which Gulf oil flowed, and the challenge to end that brought the USA and Russia into direct conflict, again, with Israel thrown into the mix. Britain messed up negotiations with Egypt’s president, Nasser, and its PM, Anthony Eden, saw his position in wreckage. So, heading into the 1960s, the UK went to significant lows from the heady highs of war victory.

First, it dumped its war hero PM, Winston Churchill, in the 1945 general election, and in a shock landslide victory, ushered in a Labour Party determined to transform the nation with a policy of social reform, stressing housing and full employment, and the creation of a new ‘welfare state’, the symbol of which was to be the National Health Service (which began in 1948, with medical treatment free at point of delivery).

Through the 1960s and 1970s, Britain went through extraordinary political, social and economic change, to highlight a few:

  • Having opened its doors to the Commonwealth from 1948, the colour of Britain literally changed as immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the West Indies took the chance to try life in the ‘mother land’. The first race riots, in Notting Hill, had lasted several days in 1952.
  • Striking miners (1953, 1969, 1972, 1974) had shown who had political muscle and could hold the country at ransom.
  • The power of the pound sterling—the symbol of national status—was under immense threat, but was devalued by 14% in 1967, under the weight of immense international debt and ballooning balance of payments deficit, as the UK had faced a series of crises since Labour took power in 1964.
  • In 1968, the UK saw violent anti-Vietnam war demonstrations.
  • The Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombing campaign in the early-1970s, that brought paramilitary violence from Northern Ireland to the doorstep and streets of England, which had its origins in the separation of Ireland in 1920.
  • The Gulf oil crisis, after the Yom Kippur War in 1973; the end of cheap oil. Industrial collapse loomed and the need for a 3-day week as a national emergency took hold.
  • If we stopped the clock in the mid-1970s, at whose feet would we lay the blame for the state of the UK?

We haven’t even reached the Thatcher years (1979-90). Britain had not joined the EU (in 1973) and had barely tasted the new flavours of the Common Market.

What do we think now of the Thatcher ‘revolution’? Had she been assassinated in the 1984 attempt, then what?

Of course, for personal, political or other reasons, I could look back and point a finger at a political regime and say ‘That’s the villain!’, but the long arc of national progress doesn’t sit on a nice little time slice.

It’s easy to say that Jamaica and Britain are vastly different. But, history tells us that it’s extraordinary that one can pin national success or failure 50 years onto an administration of some half a decade. It just makes little sense. Whatever paths are taken are not just a single direction towards which we are impelled without change; the path can easily start in opposition to an impulse. Today’s doctors without jobs may look back with glee years from now that they were forced to take on different work. We meet obstacles and opportunities, actual and perceived, along the way that make us persist or change direction.

Maybe, the PM did see the world this way and thought that he could describe Jamaica as having taken a linear path straight down from the Manley years. If so, that doesn’t bode well for his appreciation of his country’s legacy or for that matter for a wider appreciation of his own legacy.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)