Last one standing

By F.S.J. Ledgister

Edward Seaga and the Challenges of Modern Jamaica,
by Patrick E. Bryan
(University of the West Indies Press, ISBN 978-976-640-222-8, 376 pp)

My Life and Leadership, by Edward Seaga. Volume I: Clash of Ideologies, 1930–1980; Volume II: Hard Road to Travel, 1980–2008
(Macmillan Caribbean; Vol. I: ISBN 978-023-002-163-1, 480 pp; Vol. II: ISBN 978-023-002-164-8, 480 pp)

Edward Seaga

Edward Seaga. Photograph courtesy UWI Press

The image of Jamaicans held by outsiders is, by and large, one of people of African origin, some perhaps lighter in colour than others. How, then, to explain the fact that the island’s longest-lasting elected politician, a man who served nine years as prime minister to boot (1980 to 1989), was to all appearances white? Harder, even, to explain that the parliamentary constituency he represented for over forty-two years was poor, black, and urban, while he was educated, suburban, and in every conceivable way different from those he represented.

These three volumes do something to make Edward Philip George Seaga less enigmatic, but not, in my judgement, enough. For that, we will have to wait for a different kind of biography from the one that Patrick Bryan provides us in Edward Seaga and the Challenges of Modern Jamaica. Bryan’s monograph is an excellent study which tells us not so much about the man as about his times. He has given us a thorough history of modern Jamaican politics hung upon the peg of Seaga’s life. This is an important achievement, even for a historian of Bryan’s stature.

Bryan succeeds in showing us the centrality of Seaga’s place in the political history of post-independence Jamaica, as well as how he came — through his interest in folk culture and popular music, and his role as a protégé of Sir Alexander Bustamante, founder of the Jamaica Labour Party — to have a leading place in shaping the life of the nation from its beginnings. It is instructive to see Seaga’s hand in the shaping of Jamaica’s consciousness of itself as a country of African origin, through his repatriation of the remains of Marcus Garvey; his enshrining of Paul Bogle and George William Gordon, along with Garvey, as National Heroes; and his role in bringing Haile Selassie to Jamaica in 1966 (neither Bryan nor Seaga himself mention the other state visit to Jamaica in the 1960s by an African head of state, that of President Tubman of Liberia).

Bryan takes note of Seaga’s mixed ancestry. Lebanese on his father’s side, on the maternal side Seaga’s ancestry is a more common Jamaican mix of Scottish, East Indian, and African. This is not obvious to the eye, and Seaga is commonly thought of in Jamaica as simply Lebanese (or “Syrian”). His ability, in the 1962 West Kingston constituency election, to overcome the challenges of Dudley Thompson (who had defended Jomo Kenyatta in court a decade earlier), Millard Johnson, and Ras Sam Brown — all of whom ran campaigns that emphasised Afrocentricity (and Johnson’s was explicitly Garveyite) — a constituency which Seaga then proceeded to hold for the JLP in eight succeeding elections, when no politician before him had been able to hold it for two successive terms — says something significant about both his political tenacity and the bond he was able to build with his constituents.

Bryan, however, does not tell us enough about this, interesting though it would be. He does provide us with a thorough, competent, and very well narrated account of political change in Jamaica over the course of Seaga’s life. His judgments about those changes and the successive policies of Jamaican governments appear well founded. Certainly, Bryan’s statement that Michael Manley’s People’s National Party administration “went beyond the consensus of a Creole Jamaica towards a policy of assertion of Jamaica’s African connection” is absolutely correct.

Bryan tells us something of Seaga’s early work as an anthropological researcher in rural Buxton Town and urban Salt Lane. He points out that this gave Seaga the basis on which his political career was built, and the connections essential to his success as a political leader. What’s missing here is the way in which ordinary black Jamaicans determined that this child of privilege was genuinely concerned for them.

Where Bryan succeeds is in presenting Seaga in proper context as a political leader, among his fellows (and rivals) Manley and P.J. Patterson of the PNP; and his narrative of Jamaican history is compelling. Seaga’s suspicions — of socialism and communism, of federation and regional integration — are made plain, as is his commitment to Jamaica’s ordinary people and to their culture. So too are his limitations and failings as a politician, including his well-known irascibility, though Bryan is gentler than some might be in describing it. Bryan’s summing up, that both Seaga and Manley “shared a passion for the Jamaican nation, the Jamaican people, the Jamaican poor, the African-originated masses of Jamaica and the culture of the country,” seems right to me, though it might astonish many who do not look beyond the appearance and class origins of either.

We do not get much about the inner life of Edward Seaga the man from his memoir, My Life and Leadership, either. In this two-volume work, the normally self-serving nature of the political autobiography is allied to a completely unnecessary prolixity caused by a habit of pasting in long quotations, most of which could either have been summarised or excised. Seaga would be better served, it seems to me, by an editor less in awe of his exalted status as a former prime minister. This said, there are passages in this book that are perfectly charming, including his account of his youth; his tale of captaining the Harvard cricket team against Yale, and roping the celebrated BBC correspondent Alistair Cooke in as umpire; how he persuaded the people of Buxton Town that he was not a black-heart man; and the day that a Mrs Jackson and her five children (Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael) dropped by unannounced for a visit to the Temple Mead home of opposition leader Seaga, having been turned away from Jamaica House by a busy Prime Minister Manley.

We could do with more on his career as a record producer and promoter also, as Seaga played an important role in the development of Jamaican popular music in the 1950s. This deserves to be better known. We do get some interesting revelations. For example: following the death of Prime Minister Donald Sangster in 1967, Seaga scuttled Governor-General Clifford Campbell’s apparent plan to ease Robert Lightbourne into the prime ministership. He also supported Clem Tavares for prime minister, but when Tavares did not get sufficient votes from the JLP parliamentary caucus, urged Tavares to accept Hugh Shearer as party leader. Seaga believed that Tavares’s death in 1968 was the result of disappointment at losing out to Shearer.

Seaga’s contributions to the JLP government of the 1960s are prominently mentioned — they include the creation of the Jamaica Independence Festival, the Urban Development Corporation, the Jamaicanisation of a number of foreign-owned enterprises, the repatriation of Garvey’s remains, the creation of the Order of National Hero, the founding of the Tivoli Gardens housing estate, and a number of other successful endeavours that promoted both the economy and culture. So too is the state of emergency of 1966 in western Kingston, though Seaga blames that entirely on the PNP, indicating that the conflict in his constituency which led to emergency powers being invoked was entirely the fault of the other side. He and his supporters were completely blameless in any episode of violence. This is a pattern to be repeated throughout. PNP acts of violence are mentioned in detail. Rarely are any committed by the JLP’s supporters.

Indeed, one of the themes that Seaga pursues through both volumes is the depth and malevolence of the electoral and other forms of corruption indulged in by the PNP and its supporters, and their use of easily corruptible agents of the state to keep themselves in power, while the JLP and its supporters have been victims of this corruption and violence, remaining stalwart in its despite. I might find this argument more compelling had it not been for the fact that one of the first conversations I had with a leading figure in Jamaican politics — in 1976 — involved explanations, to me, with facts and figures, of how the JLP and its supporters engaged in violence against the innocent supporters of the PNP. The Most Honourable Mr Seaga’s selected facts are true and horrific, and so are, sad to say, the selected facts that could be brought to bear against his argument. Jamaican electoral politics has for the past few decades been a game played to the rhythm of the M-16 and AK-47.

For that matter, Seaga’s critique of both Norman and Michael Manley’s socialism, and his contrasting of this with his (and Bustamante’s) more pragmatic populism, manages to omit some facts. The most of important of these is that, after Michael Manley’s proclamation of the PNP’s recommitment to democratic socialism, Seaga, briefly, declared himself a “social democrat.” (I can still recall Livingston McLaren’s satirical cartoon in the Jamaica Daily News of Seaga having cut up a banner originally saying “Democratic Socialism” in order to provide himself with a “Social Democrat” banner.) More to the point, though Seaga makes every effort to evaluate his rival fairly, he cannot conceal that he had little liking for either of the Manleys, particularly when he describes Michael Manley as “vindictive.”

It becomes tiresome to read the repeated assertions that socialism was an alien ideology, that Michael Manley sought to disguise it and water it down in order for Jamaicans to accept it, that Seaga’s electoral defeats were the result of PNP chicanery, and to see Seaga re-fight the Cold War in the pages of his memoir. Equally, when it comes to Caribbean policy, it is tiresome to see repeated, as it is several times, that Caribbean economic integration cannot work because Jamaica is simply the “supermarket” for the production of other Caricom countries, as if Jamaica is perennially incapable of producing for export to the region. Seaga’s version of Jamaican nationalism is suspicious of the rest of the Caribbean; he opposed the West Indies Federation, and he does not like the Caribbean Single Market. He opposed the Caribbean Court of Justice, on constitutional grounds, taking the argument all the way to the Privy Council and winning the case.

His account of the collapse of the Grenadian People’s Revolutionary Government in 1983 and Jamaica’s role in the American intervention that followed sheds no new light on events, though it does beat the Cold War drums. Interestingly, Seaga’s account of the role he played in the departure of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier from Haiti in 1986 omits the not-at-all hostile relationship between the Haitian dictator and Seaga that had existed for several years. (In 1981, for example, Duvalier’s wife Michèle paid a brief visit to Kingston and toured the Tivoli Gardens housing scheme in Seaga’s constituency — a Haitian newspaper at the time described it as an “oeuvre de bienfaisance de M Edward Seaga,” a charitable work of Seaga’s, because there was no public housing in Haiti and the Duvaliers weren’t about to create any — accompanied by Seaga’s wife Mitsy. When I called Seaga’s press secretary to enquire about this, I got the sputtering answer that Mme Duvalier had spent “a few minutes” with Mrs Seaga; ever since, I’ve been able to say that the first time I called a prime minister’s press secretary, I was lied to).

Just as tiresome is what amounts to the assertion that Seaga’s electoral drubbings at the hands of the PNP in 1976, 1993, 1997, and 2002 were due to chicanery, violence, and manipulation of the electoral rolls; even when, as in the case of 1997, he has to admit that the process was relatively clean, he still suggests that blame falls on the operation of the elections. That a majority of Jamaican voters might have not wanted him as prime minister, particularly after experiencing him in the job, does not seem to enter his mind. He accepts the turnover elections, such as that of 1989, when the JLP lost to the PNP, as legitimate (it would be hard to do otherwise, since he controlled the electoral machinery in 1989). There can be no doubt, however, that his efforts to ensure electoral fairness have been of immense value to Jamaican democracy. Nor can there be any doubt that, following the PNP’s boycott of the 1983 elections, it might have been possible to collapse the Jamaican democracy, but Seaga resisted the temptation to do so, earning the plaudits of his rivals that he reprints, in extenso, towards the end of the second volume.

Both volumes emphasise Seaga’s concern for detail, and for numbers. Whether in citing, as he does repeatedly, statistics on elections, on trade, on production, or on poverty, Seaga is eager to show us his mastery of numbers. His opponents, as he tells us more than once, lacked his ability to manage the Jamaican economy, and his constant marshalling of figures helps remind the reader of his reputation as a financial wizard. It is hard to reconcile this, then, with his account of the lack of success of his own business enterprise, and having to liquidate the resort he established on the north coast.

One area of detail that is missing is his family life. We are told that his public life led to the break-up of his first marriage, though not how he and the former Mitsy Constantine grew apart. We learn that he and his second wife, née Carla Vendryes, are soulmates, but nothing of their courtship and life together. Indeed, Seaga tells us very little of his family, once past the tale of his youth. Perhaps this is wise, but in the process we learn little of the inner man (what does he read? to what music does he listen in private? what art stirs his soul?), beyond his political likes and dislikes. Those we do learn about; in detail. What he says of himself is worth noting:

My reticence has led to an aura of ignorance about me, if not mystery, which surrounds me, because neither friends nor family truly know the inner feelings which I hold to myself rather than share. I have always believed that good works will speak for themselves. They did not. For that reason, critics and detractors have defined “who I am”.

Seaga says this because he argues that what others see as a confrontational, brutal, harsh personality is really a soul based on principle, who throughout his political life has stood four-square for what he has believed in with passion, and fought for it with all the tools of his intellect. He is a man who has stood by the poor and disadvantaged both with passion and with humour. One might be pardoned for not quite believing this last when he explains his nickname “Blinds” as deriving from his long-time habit of wearing dark glasses; when, in fact, it was short for “Blindaga,” a pun on “Se(e)aga.”

What is clear in both the memoirs and Bryan’s study is Seaga’s love of, and commitment to, Jamaica and its ordinary people; a love that has not diminished with the years, and that is informed by a knowledge and understanding that come from having crossed the barriers of class and race. Reading Bryan, reading Seaga’s own account of himself, makes it easy to see that this is a man of great determination, who has simultaneously inspired immense devotion and intense hostility, both for good reasons. Edward Seaga is not someone who, to use his own words, would quietly light his candle, sing his Sankey, and find his way home. He is a man who, given the opportunity to shape his country, took that opportunity with both hands.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2010

F.S.J. Ledgister is a British-born Jamaican. He teaches political science at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, and has published work on Caribbean political development and political thought.