Book Reviews – May/June 2011

The new books that are reflecting the region right now


Seeing through Seaga’s lens

The problem with autobiographies is that the reader must always be alert to self-serving bias, and that problem is magnified when the autobiography is written by a politician. Edward Seaga, leader of the Jamaican Labour Party and the country’s fifth prime minister, writes in My Life and Leadership that he has “tried to adhere to an objective, unbiased presentation” though he admits that “some bias has filtered in as the story unfolded”.

In respect to Seaga’s personal life, though the details of his childhood and education are interesting for their glimpses into the making of a political leader, there is not much revelation. Nonetheless, the book, which is Volume I, is well worth reading as a historical account of modern Jamaica in the period 1930 (Seaga’s birth) to 1980 (when he became prime minister).

The bias is most obvious in Seaga’s continual blame of the opposing People’s National Party and its leader Michael Manley for nearly all Jamaica’s woes, especially in respect to gang-driven political violence. The JLP’s own links with the dons are glossed over, however, with Seaga even claiming that the 1967 loss of JLP MP for West Kingston, Clem Tavares, “opened a door to partisan political violence”. In similar fashion, Seaga minimises his role and that of his mentor, JLP founder Alexander Bustamante, in the break-up of the West Indian Federation in 1962. Although he writes as though in favour of regionalism, he describes the 1961 referendum which led to Jamaica’s pulling out as “a classic example of a democratic protest at work”.

Many parts of the book are devoted to criticising Manley’s attempts to use socialist policies for Jamaica’s socioeconomic development, and Seaga does an effective job of demonstrating why those strategies failed. His careful recording of Manley’s economic policy debunks claims such as those by economist Kari Levitt that this phase of Jamaica’s history was a “promising experiment with democratic socialism”. Seaga, in fact, is forthright in his criticism of several eminent Caribbean economists, writing that when Jamaica was forced to devalue its currency in 1977 because of Manley’s economic mismanagement, such a strategy was publicly rejected by “UWI leftists Professor George Beckford and Norman Girvan”.

His book may also raise ideological hackles in linking Rastafarianism to Jamaica’s social breakdown. While the Rastafarians were themselves mostly peaceful, he writes, “their message of ‘beating down Babylon’ (the police force and other oppressors)…was attractive to other anti-establishment rebels”. Young dispossessed black males, called rude boys, “patterned their own lives in defiance of authority and social norms, as Rastas did.” Such assertions are not informed by Seaga’s politics, but by his academic background in social anthropology.

These insights, however, are overwhelmed by Seaga’s political lens, which bends most sharply in his description of the JLP’s 1980 electoral victory: “The course of history was changed that day…It was a paradigm shift to ensure that the war against poverty would be the mission that would guarantee that ‘deliverance is here’.”

My Life and Leadership: Clash of Ideologies Edward Seaga
(Macmillan Education, ISBN 978-0-230-02163-1, 367pp)