Interview by: Georgina Dhillon & Dr. Roli Degazon-Johnson

In May 2019, the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington, London, hosted the United Kingdom launch of P.J. Patterson’s book “My Political Journey”. The author, a former prime minister of Jamaica and a venerated Caribbean statesman was interviewed by Kreol Magazine International whilst he was still in Jamaica, the country he has loved and served since his early days as a schoolboy in the parish of Hanover.

Rural Beginnings Never relinquished

Many people tend to forget their origins – especially if those origins were humble – when they achieve success. Not so Percival Noel James Patterson.   Born in Jamaica’s capital city of Kingston, he never lost contact with his roots in Hanover, one of the rural parishes of the island.  Whilst other up and coming politicians would change constituencies with a view to increasing their chance of success at the polls, Patterson remained Member of Parliament for Westmoreland South Eastern/Eastern for a total of 27 years, winning his seat time and time again, with one six-year exception, until his retirement in 2006:

“Both of my parents came from Hanover, but when I was about to be delivered my mother sought the services of a trained midwife whom she knew very well, but who had relocated to Kingston. However, in accordance with African tradition my navel string was returned to Hanover from where I come and buried under an apple tree in Kendal. So I grew up in the rural hills about five miles out of the town of Lucea and, of course, went to Sunday school.”

One of Patterson’s earliest childhood memories was when at 3 years of age, his grandmother passed away. As a lover of history, he proudly recounts that the house in which he stayed at that time and the St. Luke’s Anglican church where his grandmother’s final rites would be held, were both very near to the Frome Sugar Estate. It was the workers on this estate who would mobilise and lead the fight for Universal Adult Suffrage granted to the island in 1938. In Patterson’s view it was this sugar worker uprising which would ultimately spawn the building of the nation of Jamaica and lead to its independence in 1962.

Later, Patterson’s mother, a school teacher, sent him away from Hanover to primary school in another parish St. James, where he would reside with an aunt who was also a village post mistress. This maternal wisdom ensured that he was not targeted as a pupil in his mother’s school and subjected to harassment from students who believed his mother would treat him more favourably.

Early Scholastic Achievement

Patterson demonstrated early scholastic prowess by winning one of the few island government scholarships whilst attending Somerton primary school in St. James. In this era only two such scholarships were available for each of the 14 parishes of the island. Patterson’s success despite his humble origins, would mean that he could attend a leading secondary school, Calabar High School in the island’s capital:

“Calabar was chosen by my parents partly because of its known traditions in extending the opportunity of education for those who came from humble beginnings. There was also an emphasis on religious education and my whole family on the maternal side were Baptists and so, Calabar was the school of choice for me.”

In January 1948, at 13 years of age P.J. Patterson would enter Calabar High School then located at Slipe Pen Road in Kingston, Jamaica. His favourite subjects would be History, English and Spanish. He would later win entrance to the University College of the West Indies at Mona Campus, Jamaica, be awarded an English (Honours) degree, and through his leadership of student organizations, commence his political journey.

Encounter with Bustamante: “I hear you want to be a lawyer!”

Sir William Alexander Bustamante known fondly as “Busta”, the charismatic national hero and first prime minister of Jamaica after independence was cousin to the Honourable Norman Manley, also a national hero and founder of the People’s National Party (PNP) which Patterson would later lead. Despite being leader of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), in opposition to the PNP, Patterson smiles as he recounts the influence that “Busta” had on his early political career:

“After I had started to dabble in politics, Busta saw me and said to me “you are masquerading under the name of Patterson” which, was my father’s surname, “but you belong to the James family.”

Busta continued: “I hear you want to be a lawyer. My advice to you is that if you can be half as good in the law as my cousin Norman, you will excel. But if you want to learn about politics, come sit at the feet of me, Gamaliel.”

Despite being in the Opposition, Patterson would closely observe the tactics of “Busta” throughout his political journey and listen carefully whenever he gave him advice.

The demise of the West Indies Federation

As the pace of British decolonization quickened in the middle of the 1900s and India for example gained its independence in 1947, initiatives were mobilized at a high level for the formation of a political grouping of the Caribbean colonies that would be called the Federation of the West Indies.

The period leading up to Jamaica’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1962 was fraught with turmoil. In retrospect these were birth pangs of new Caribbean nations charting a course different to what had been planned for them by the British colonial administration. Negotiations had been considerably advanced when the people of Jamaica led by the charismatic Sir Alexander opted out of the Federation by way of a Referendum called on the matter.

Patterson had just completed his Law degree at the London School of Economics and returned home to actively campaign for the PNP who were in favour of Federation. Unaware of his recent academic achievement, once again Sir Alexander saw him and said:

“Sonny, why are you still here? I thought you had followed my advice and gone off to London to study the law. Instead, you have my cousin Norman getting you to run up and down the place like mad ants.”

The PNP lost the Referendum on the Federation and Jamaica prepared itself for independence and nationhood, leaving a hurt and chastened Eastern Caribbean to eventually decide on 8 islands which would form the Eastern Caribbean Community or the “Little Eight”.

Probed about this upset for the PNP, Patterson considered that the people of Jamaica had made a decision that they would pursue a course of national independence on their own and that decision had to be respected. It was his view that positive advantages were still to be gained as an independent country by seeking to deepen economic integration among the countries of the Caribbean and by building the institutions which were necessary to move the Caribbean region forward:

“I have never regarded our commitment to a sovereign nation as being inconsistent with the contribution and the leadership which we have to provide in seeking to develop the Caribbean as a whole.”

Caricom Single Market Not the way of Brexit

In later years, Patterson would play a central role in marking the transformation from integration of the Caribbean region to the founding of the Caribbean Free Trade Area (CARIFTA) and its evolution into the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) and the CARICOM Single Market which both came about by 2006 benefitted from Patterson’s expertise in law and trade and his keen skills as an astute negotiator.

It was during his tenure as Jamaica’s Foreign Minister when serving as President of the African Caribbean Pacific (ACP) Group that he led negotiations with the European Union that would give privileged status to bananas and yield the Banana Convention, part of the Lome Conventions:

“My first major intervention on the international stage was for the negotiation of what is known as the Banana Convention. The European Union (EU) decided to allow the former colonies of England and France to become members and we had to forge that new relationship. The first thing we had to do was try to develop a common position in the Caribbean and then secondly, work with the other countries of Africa and the Pacific to see if we could negotiate as one single group.”

A Paramount Strategist and Formidable Negotiator

In addressing the skill displayed by the Caribbean leadership and its negotiating machinery, Patterson noted that one of the things which surprised the Europeans was that the Caribbean had the negotiating skills and the technical competence to match the EU during all phases of the negotiations. Asked about where he honed his own skills as a Negotiator, Patterson gives credit first to his parents and then to a founding father of the PNP:

“I learned much from my parents both of whom had a sense of caring and relating to the people within their community. My father was known for his kindness, his generosity, particularly to children and the elderly. My mother, a teacher known for her care of our neighbours.”

“I also benefited substantially from the spurring of O. T. Fairclough who was the founder of what crystallised into the People’s National Party. It was he who persuaded me when I finished my first degree at the University College of the West Indies to spend some period as an organiser in the field before pursuing my law studies. And that’s where I really learned everything. I was engaged in the simplest of forms, taught how to put up a microphone and to take it back, especially if you came into contact with situations in which  stones were being thrown because you were carrying on about a subject that they did not want to hear!”

His capacity to listen carefully and to understand and empathise with people has also stood “P.J” in good stead. He credits his capacity to read a crowd to the late Edna Manley, icon in the Jamaican art world and wife of National Hero and Founder of the PNP, Norman Manley:

“She would stand on the platform with me and call me “Pat”. She would say, “Pat, look at that crowd, just by the expressions on their faces”. She would know who was hearing and understanding, who was hearing but couldn’t understand and not relating.”

The man who in 1997 led the PNP to its third consecutive victory, breaking the ‘no-third-term’ barrier which the Jamaican electorate had served on all previous administrations since independence, winning 50 of the available 60 seats, spoke of his winning strategy with humility:

“I developed some experience of the details of putting an organisation together since I had come into the organising field because the PNP had won the 1955 election and subsequently lost the federal election. So I had to learn how you gear up the organisation, how you mobilise it. I had to grasp what brings together all the elements which are necessary to achieve a national political victory. And, of course, you have to have a message. The simpler, the better. And you have to be able to communicate it to the electorate to gain their confidence.”

Key Ministerial Portfolios

Patterson held a number of different, key cabinet portfolios before becoming Prime Minister. These included Foreign Affairs and Trade, Planning and Production, Finance and Planning and Industry and Tourism. In looking back, he singles out two of these portfolios for particular consideration:

“When I served as the Minister of Industry, Foreign Trade and Tourism, from 1972 to 1976, was a time when we were seeking to move ahead with CARIFTA, a free trade arrangement in the Caribbean community and I was charged with that responsibility as well. Foreign affairs, foreign trade and tourism were the most challenging and perhaps the most intellectually stimulating of all the ministries bar none. Tourism in particular was posing a very significant challenge. In fact, we had to take steps to keep the industry afloat and one of the essential prerequisites was to have an acceptance that tourism was an industry for service, not an industry for servitude. That was crucial for us given our history and but for that effort, tourism, as we know it today, might not have existed at all.”

Between 1989 and 1992 as Minister for Development, Planning and Production, Patterson had to make fundamental shifts and adjustments in the island’s economic model to deal with liberalisation and deregulation, as a consequence of globalisation and the dominance of the market economy. His leadership and strategic direction ensured effective competition, developing and transforming the economy into what it is today.

Regarding the future for the Jamaican economy, Patterson speaks of Vision 2030 which is a charge to make Jamaica a place of justice, to work and to live, all of which require national consensus:

“As we say in Jamaica, one hand can’t clap. If we decide to clap together as we have done in the field of entertainment, in the field of sports, where we’re strong, if we lift up the talent, if we all clap together for national growth and development, we will bring about a better quality of life for the people of Jamaica and for future generations.”

Mr Denis O'Brien presenting 'My Political Journey' by P.J. Patterson
Mr Denis O’Brien presenting ‘My Political Journey’ by P.J. Patterson

Courage, determination and resilience in dark days

The journey of this arch political strategist has not been all smooth-sailing, however. There was a moment in the early 1990s when Patterson was forced to resign as Deputy Prime Minister over an issue known as the Shell waiver scandal. By March 1992, however, he was sworn in as Jamaica’s sixth prime minister, successor to Michael Manley who had retired:

“It (the resignation) was a totally unexpected development and it caused me great pain and great anguish. To compound that, it coincided with a period when my mother’s health had deteriorated substantially and as we would often say in the Caribbean, she was travelling. So I had to deal with a public problem and also a personal relationship with someone who was very close, very dear, very precious to me. Undoubtedly, it was the most challenging period of my life, and in retrospect, it proves something which I have always said at particular periods, “God moves in a mysterious way………(his wonders to perform).”

But for the Shell Waiver Scandal and his resignation, Patterson would have been the “shoo-in”, successor to then Prime Minister Michael Manley. He was the ‘heir apparent’ but given public perceptions of him over the waiver scandal, he was obliged to compete for the position of party leader with his colleague Member of Parliament Portia Simpson – later Jamaica’s first woman prime-minister – so as to avoid appearing to have been installed than to have earned the post:

“I had to insist that it was conducted in a way that would preserve the unity of the party which was crucial not only to our electoral success, but would also serve as a platform for building national consensus that I have always regarded as an essential hallmark for the development of all nations of the world.”

The full extent of Patterson’s leadership would soon be revealed, however, when he enabled Jamaica to turn its back on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as one of his early initiatives as prime minister:

“I was determined that we should do everything that was necessary to put the economy in a state where we were no longer dependent on IMF borrowings for foreign exchange requirements. We passed 11 consecutive IMF tests and received the best report we ever got from the IMF. I determined that we would be able to implement an economic policy of our own. We worked assiduously with the international institutions and put the economy in the position where we could terminate our borrowing relationships.”

Reflecting on the Creole Languages of the Caribbean:

Given his early love of English and Spanish in his school days, in turning to a different subject, Patterson was asked about the extent to which Jamaican Creole is accepted and given value in the society:

“I think Creole, whether the English form, practised in Jamaica or the French as it exists in Dominica, Saint Lucia or Haiti, has been recognised as the medium of communication and generally used by most of our citizens. There has to be an appreciation that in terms of international communication we are not to lose sight of the importance of English, French and Spanish which are really the languages in which most people in this hemisphere communicate and most persons in Africa and Europe with whom we associate very closely. So I don’t think it’s a question of one or the other. It’s a question of ensuring that people have a chance to express and communicate in the medium which is generally understood.”

A Republic of Jamaica, The Association of Caribbean States, and climate change – hope and future possibility

Patterson recounted that a substantial portion of a chapter in his newly published book was devoted to the thrust for developing cooperation among all the countries that are part of the Caribbean irrespective of the differences in language and the accidents of colonial conquest. He observed that Jamaica’s current prime minister, the Honourable Andrew Holness has reiterated the intention to contribute meaningfully and substantially to deepening and making effective the process of regional economic integration. Further, at the start of the 1990’s a decision was taken to form the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) which would bring together the countries of the Caribbean and of Central America.  Thus far, the Association of Caribbean States has not really developed as the strong, effective force which had been envisaged, but in his view more efforts must be made, particularly with some of the issues among which must be Climate Change.

N J Patterson
Prime Minister, P.J. Patterson

In his final years as Prime Minister, P.J. Patterson urged the people of Jamaica to move towards making that last cut with their colonial past by taking on the status of a Republic, as their sister CARICOM countries of Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana had already done. Noting that the constitution of Jamaica provides for the process by which a change could be made to the republican form of government, he admits that efforts to move the process have stagnated. There is considerable consensus between the two main political parties as to what should be the new form, such as whether there be an executive presidency or a ceremonial president. Patterson hopes that this important move by and for his country, will not be long delayed:

“We have reached that point where after nearly six decades of independence, we need something which is the full commitment to a national symbol and representative of the Jamaican people.”