Defend Truth


The UK’s Brexit agonies: Lessons from Jamaica


Steven LB Jensen is a research visitor at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights in Oxford and the author of The Making of International Human Rights: The 1960s, Decolonization and the Reconstruction of Global Values published by Cambridge University Press.

While the Brexit debates have been busy with historical references, there is arguably no historical event which comes closer in resemblance to Brexit than the 1961 Jamaican referendum on membership of the West Indies Federation.

On 12 May 1962, (the then recently deposed) Jamaican Prime Minister Norman Manley wrote in his diary the following:

Why[…] did I decide on the referendum? Why did I so totally commit myself and the Party to its result? Why did I leave out the smallest loophole for escape back to the old road if the Referendum failed?”

While the Brexit debates have been busy with historical references, there is arguably no historical event which comes closer in resemblance to Brexit than the 1961 Jamaican referendum on membership of the West Indies Federation. This event – unknown to most – carries echoes to the present and provides a certain diagnosis of the current political situation in the United Kingdom.

As the British Caribbean after 1945 moved towards independence from colonial rule, the nature of future statehood became a central question. The West Indies Federation was established in 1958. In Jamaica, the People’s National Party had been in power since 1955, re-elected in 1959 with Norman Manley serving as prime minister. Also in 1959, in a remarkable political move, Norman Manley’s government introduced trade sanctions against apartheid South Africa despite Jamaica not yet being a fully independent nation – something that would only be achieved in 1962.

Manley was in favour of the West Indies Federation. He clearly saw the economic, political and geostrategic reasons why membership in the federation was in Jamaica’s and the Caribbean’s long-term interests. The islands needed strategic leverage in a Cold War world that was largely indifferent to the economic needs of the Caribbean. Manley spoke about “the austerities of independence”, believing that regional collaboration was important to mitigate these austerities.

Manley was not forced to call a referendum given his parliamentary majority, but came under pressure from a negative campaign initiated by opposition leader Alexander Bustamante – who had previously supported the federation – but now saw it as a way to undermine the sitting government. For Bustamante, the referendum route could be a pathway to power.

Manley eventually reacted to the pressure and, seeking clarity, he decided to bring federation membership to a vote. During the final referendum debate in Jamaica’s House of Representatives in July 1961, another opposition politician, Donald Sangster, explained in simple terms what the decision was all about when stating, “The proposition is now: will Jamaica remain or not remain?”

The election campaign was bitterly fought with Bustamante – as part of his populist strategy – evoking the return of slave ships to Jamaican shores if Jamaicans did not vote to free themselves of the federation.

The referendum took place on 19 September 1961 and the result was a vote to leave. Jamaica’s departure from the West Indies Federation led to the federation’s collapse, leaving the small island states to fend for themselves. The fallout was also felt domestically. The Manley government’s position had been weakened and he would soon lose power. The political costs and political divisions endured and spilled long into the independence era affecting Jamaican politics over the next decades.

In October 1961 in the parliamentary debate, Ivan Lloyd, the longest-serving MP from Manley’s People’s National Party, delivered a devastating speech which speaks to Britain’s 2019 predicament. Lloyd said:

Good government does not merely depend on good laws. It also depends on the degree to which as a government you can make yourself acceptable to the people, so that the people develop and maintain a spirit of goodwill towards the government.

No matter who is in charge of the government, when once you do anything to destroy that goodwill among the people, you not only make it impossible and difficult for the party in power to govern, but you make it equally difficult and impossible for the other party to govern when it gets in power – as it may, some day in the future.”

The MP continued his post-referendum political diagnosis by emphasising the importance of responsible behaviour:

And whoever is responsible must realise that it is not the political injury which you may do to your opponent that counts, but it is the injury which you may quite unsuspectingly do to the national conscience by engendering and developing a bad spirit and a bad outlook which may prevail.”

As it approaches a general election on 12 December in which Brexit will still be the main bone of contention, the British electorate could do worse than to reflect on these words spoken 58 years ago in Kingston, Jamaica. The self-imposed “political injury” with the “bad spirit” will now be woven into the future fabric of the United Kingdom – if that entity still has a viable future after Brexit.

In 1961, Norman Manley spoke about Jamaica facing “the austerities of independence”. As recently documented by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, the United Kingdom already lives with the consequences of a decade of austerity politics, adding to the political complexity. The starting point to resolve what is at stake is not great.

A general election and possibly a further referendum at some point after the election are now the scenarios on the table. The problem is that the issues are of such major political and constitutional import, any outcome from these options will continue to have massive implications going forward, whoever is in power. There is no easy way of reconciling the political divisions, and the need to find a way forward that is respectful of institutions and of all citizens is a responsibility that all politicians should now bear.

Jamaica’s experience shows us that Brexit is not unprecedented, but the historical lessons may be hard for many to digest. The balancing act needed now is a responsible politics that seeks popular electoral support without reverting to the toolbox of populism, because that simplistic and short-sighted strategy has led the United Kingdom to its recent “no solution” impasse. That political demand, however, may be a bridge too far, given the current state of British politics.

The price of failure on this point is nevertheless clear, namely that Brexit fatigue will be a chronic condition no matter what the UK’s future relationship with the European Union will be. In that scenario, everyone will pay a price for years to come. MC