Patterson, Percival James "P. J."

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Patterson, Percival James "P. J."

April 10, 1935

Percival James "P. J." Patterson, the prime minister of Jamaica, was born in Dias, Hanover, Jamaica. He was educated at Calabar High School in Kingston; graduated from the University of the West Indies, where he earned a B.A. in English, in 1958; and received his law degree from the London School of Economics in 1963. Patterson was admitted to the Jamaican bar later that year. He began his political career in 1958 when he joined the People's National Party (PNP) as a political organizer.

Between 1963 and 1972, Patterson established a private legal practice, though he remained active in national politics. In 1964 he was elected to the PNP's National Executive Committee, and in 1969 won election to the Jamaican House of Representatives. In February 1969, at age thirty-three, he was elected vice president of the PNP, the youngest person ever elected to that post.

The Turbulent 1970s

Patterson gained prominence as a political organizer in the 1970s. Most notably, he directed the PNP's pathbreaking 1972 electoral campaign that rallied marginalized and disenfranchised groups, particularly youths and the urban unemployed, to join a coalition with disaffected workers, peasants, and the middle class.

These alienated groups were impatient with the authoritarian politics of the incumbent Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). They were also fed up with the JLP's insensitivity to Afro-Jamaicans' desire for cultural respect and dissatisfied with the party's inability to realize the desire of ordinary people for a better life. By mobilizing these disaffected constituencies and commingling PNP populist rhetoric with radical themes in popular music and culture, the PNP swept to power in a landslide under the leadership of Michael Manley (19241997) in February 1972. Patterson's implementation of the party's electoral strategy identified him as an unparalleled political organizer and his success earned him a place in Manley's cabinet as minister of industry, foreign trade, and tourism.

The turbulent 1970s would test Patterson's mettle. The decade saw Jamaica turn politically leftward under the PNP's socialist banner at the very moment that the shock of the OPEC oil price hikes and the destabilizing run-up in world oil prices hit the island. As the domestic economic crisis worsened, Patterson introduced several initiatives. He shielded consumers from predatory pricing, established a consumer affairs unit to stop hoarding, spurred job growth, and encouraged import substitution by initiating agro-industrial projects for processing local produce.

Patterson was also a major actor in regional and international economic organizations. In 1974 he helped establish the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM), and he was a leading negotiator and spokesman for less-developed countries on trade issues. He was also an architect of the Lomé Convention, a special trade agreement between the European community and a group of African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) countries to promote sustained development in ACP states. This agreement was signed in February 1975 as part of the North-South dialogue between rich and poor countries. In this exchange, poor countries campaigned for reforms in international trade that would benefit them. As Jamaica's minister of foreign affairs and foreign trade, ministerial chair of the Group of 77 (a United Nations coalition of developing countries), and president of the Council of Ministers of the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States, Patterson was a significant contributor to the North-South dialogue.

Notwithstanding these efforts to promote a new international economic order and self-reliance at home, the PNP was defeated at the polls in 1980. Out of power, Patterson returned to practicing law. In 1981 he became a founding partner of the law firm Rattray, Patterson, Rattray, and three years later he was appointed a Queen's Counsel in recognition of excellence in the practice of the law.

The Call to Leadership

With Manley at the helm, a chastened PNP was returned to power in 1989. The party's success resulted from its decision to jettison political radicalism and embrace free-market policies, and its promise to deliver economic gains for the poor. In 1992, however, an ailing Michael Manley retired from politics. Patterson, who had been deputy prime minister since 1978, was elected party president and sworn in as prime minister in March 1992.

Patterson's rise to power was a momentous event. Except for former prime minister Hugh Lawson Shearer (19232004), who was the first Afro-Jamaican prime minister, all previous prime ministers were of mixed racial stock. Shearer was not of mixed race, though he was brown-skinned. Patterson was Jamaica's first dark-skinned prime minister, and after Shearer only the second Afro-Jamaican to hold that office. The symbolic value of this achievement was not lost on the black-skinned Afro-Jamaican majority. More important, the 1990s had ushered in an era of great change, both domestically and internationally. This great transitionmarked by the collapse of communism, the demand for democracy by restive civil societies, and the triumph of free-market capitalismwas especially challenging for poor countries and their leaders.

In Jamaica, growing poverty, economic hardship, and the triumph of market values were eroding traditional social norms and values. These were replaced by greed, selfishness, and a get-rich-quick mentality. In the absence of restraining civic norms and effective public institutions, the results were high rates of criminal violence, persistent social unrest, and government corruption.

Nonetheless, a vocal media, an invigorated public opinion, and newly emergent reform organizations countered these negative trends by demanding effective governance, insisting on probity in public life and calling for a return to democratic values. Patterson thus became prime minister at a critical juncture, when creative vision and strong leadership were called for.

How well did Patterson respond to these challenges and to the call for leadership? First, he confounded his detractors by scoring three consecutive electoral victoriesin 1993, 1997, and 2002. In the country's postcolonial history, no leader had ever won three consecutive terms of office. Second, Patterson made key changes in both public policy and the political culture. In a world where national development and economic growth were increasingly dependent on new technologies of communication and on the modernization of national infrastructures, Jamaica made a quantum leap in both areas. By democratizing citizens' access to cell phones, cable broadcasts, and the Internet, the PNP satisfied their desire for leisure and luxury goods, and the party put in place new technologies that would positively influence the quantity and speed of economic transactions. The same could be said of the economic value associated with the PNP's massive expenditures on roads, bridges, highways, and electrical grids. In sum, by introducing new technologies and modernizing the island's infrastructure, the Patterson administration increased Jamaica's ability to compete in the new global environment.

Finally, by governing with a pragmatic, consultative, and nonauthoritarian style, Patterson broke with the worn-out populist style of Jamaican leaders. Though criticized by detractors for being boring and uncharismatic, Patterson's style has been viewed by many to be well-suited to the new period of ideological demobilization and pragmatic policy making.

Falling Short: Crises and Transitional Leadership

Despite these achievements in guiding Jamaica through a rapidly changing world and lowering the temperature of partisan politics, Patterson failed to inspire public confidence. Paradoxically, he could get the people's votes but not their enthusiasm. Moreover, though he regularly proclaimed his commitment to building civic values, scandals and disclosures of corruption in his administration only reinforced public cynicism. Thus, though Jamaicans were hungry for bold leadership and yearning for an inspired vision of a positive future, not many besides the most partisan looked to Patterson as their unerring guide.

Indeed, Patterson's inability to stem the violent crime that claimed hundreds of lives every year, his stunning ineffectiveness in reining in a security force inured to extra-judicial killing as a crime-fighting strategy, and his inability to give the inner-city poor hope have threatened to nullify his achievements.

Hence, despite innovations in infrastructural modernization and the adoption of a democratic style of political leadership, these flourishes seemed meager to a public demanding more. In fact, Patterson's seeming unwillingness to make tough decisions, his insensitivity to human-rights concerns, and his temporizing in the face of increasing crime and social discontent only encouraged critics in their view that he was not the man for the times. That assessment may not be too far from the truth, for Patterson can be viewed as the embodiment of the struggling transitional figure caught in the tide of great historical change. He is therefore likely to be judged an enigmatic, foundering figure, whose leadership proved inadequate at a major turning point in Jamaica's political history.

See also Jamaica Labour Party; Manley, Michael; People's National Party


Bertram, Arnold. P. J. Patterson A Mission to Perform. Kingston, Jamaica: AB Associates, 1995.

Stone, Carl. "The Danger of Choosing Mr. Niceguy." In The Stone Columns, the Last Year's Work: A Selection of Carl Stone's Gleaner Articles, January 1992 to February 1993, edited by Rosemarie Stone. Kingston, Jamaica: Sangster's, 1994.

obika gray (2005)

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Patterson, Percival James "P. J."

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