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The tangible and the intangible


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Today is the birthday of Saint John Paul II, who reined as pope between 1978 and 2005, and of Hugh Lawson Shearer who was prime minister of Jamaica from 1967 to 1972. Saint John Paul was born 97 years ago in 1920 and Hugh Shearer was born 94 years ago in 1923. On reflecting on the lives of these two men, one understands in sharp focus the difference between tangible and intangible services.

The definition of 'tangible' (both an adjective and a noun) is anything that can be seen or touched. For example, National Hero Sir Alexander Bustamante provided a tangible service as founder and first president of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU). He got higher wages for workers and was revered for it.

Hugh Shearer came out of this tradition. As a young man in the 1940s, he walked into the BITU offices and asked Bustamante for work. It is believed, in any case, that Shearer was related to Norman Manley (Bustamante's first cousin) as Norman Manley's mother's maiden name was Shearer. Hugh Shearer went through the ranks of the BITU, became island supervisor, and later its president-general.

Shearer served in the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation as a councillor (1947-51) and the House of Representatives for Kingston Western between 1955 and 1959. He served in the Legislative Council (the Upper House before political independence) senator and minister without portfolio (1962-67), prime minister and minister of external affairs, (1967- 72), Opposition leader (1972-74), deputy prime minister (1980-89).

During Shearer's time as prime minister the economy was booming, but the wealth hardly reached the masses. But Shearer understood the plight of the workers and introduced the holiday-with-pay law for workers. However, fundamental change for the workers had to wait until after Shearer stepped down as prime minister.

While Bustamante, on the one hand, got tangible benefits for the peasants, Norman Manley, on the other, advocated for universal adult suffrage (the right of all adults to vote in elections). Prior to 1944, only landowners and certain taxpayers could vote. Norman Manley led the fight for self-government. But the largely uneducated masses only understood tangible bread and butter issues. They wanted food now, not later.

In 1937, Norman Manley founded Jamaica Welfare. It was about training people to develop in groups and communities. Self-help housing, each-one-teach-one adult literacy programme, organising co-operatives, and so on did not bring immediate benefits. They were hungry and wanted tangible benefits instantly.

When Norman Manley came to power in 1955, the first thing that his Government did was to remove bicycle tax, which was a very tangible benefit. It is reported that Bustamante laughed at him and told him that he should have done that when the election drew near, as the voters would be bound to forget that five years later. I speculate that had Bustamante been alive he would have advised Prime Minister Andrew Holness to hold off on the income tax break until the time of calling the next general election.

The only election to the Federal parliament of the West Indies took place in 1958. The West Indies Federal Labour Party to which the People's National Party (PNP) was affiliated, won the election in the then colonies, but only won five of the 17 seats in Jamaica. The Democratic Labour Party to which the Jamaica Labour Party was affiliated won 12 seats.

Were it not for the fact that Norman Manley hired P J Patterson to ensure that there were more PNP supporters on the voters' list than of any other political party, the PNP would not have won its second term, which it got in 1959. So Bustamante was right.

The exclusive high schools were opened up by way of the Common Entrance Examination in 1957. But it had no impact on the results of the federal elections of 1958. Manley was asked if people can “nyam” education and there were remarks in the House that “salt fish is better than education”. In other words, education, though fundamentally important, was not tangible.

Michael Manley was a mix of his father and of his cousin Bustamante. He was the printout of his father's ideas, but he also had an engaging personality. Michael Manley understood that tangible benefits should be mixed with the intangible services to succeed politically.

As important as the black dignity message of Marcus Garvey was, and continues to be, it was largely an intangible service. Garvey promoted co-operatives, but many misunderstood him because there were no immediate benefits.

While the Roman Catholic Church has always provided tangible services, like food and other things, for the less fortunate, Saint John Paul called for debt forgiveness by the international lending institutions to the Third World. Although Saint Pope John Paul wrote encyclicals to change world society to one of loving God and loving our neighbours, this was largely an intangible service.

In the scriptures the Jews did not initially see the importance of going into the desert. When they got hungry and complained to Moses that they were better off as slaves in Egypt. “Oh, that today you would listen to His voice, harden not your hearts.” (Psalm 95). Part of the Jewish culture is in knowing their history and we need to do the same. It is the only way that we will understand the importance of intangible services.