Shearer, Hugh

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Shearer, Hugh

May 18, 1923
July 5, 2004

Hugh Lawson Shearer's political life spanned the first fifty years of Jamaica's modern political system. Throughout his career, he respected electoral democracy, defended workers' rights, practiced bipartisanship, and supported convergence between Jamaica's two leading political parties, the People's National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). Shearer played a decisive role in consolidating Jamaica's party and parliamentary systems in their formative years since 1944, and eventually became prime minister of Jamaica.

Shearer started his public life in the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) in 1941 at the age of eighteen, when the union was two years old. It has remained Jamaica's largest trade union. He made his political debut in the 1947 local government elections, the first local elections under universal adult suffrage. Shearer won a seat as a councilor for the Jamaica Labour Party. This improved his status as a young leader of the BITU. As early as 1947 Shearer was regarded as Alexander Bustamante's protégé and the heir apparent of the BITU. Bustamante was leader of both the BITU and the JLP.

Shearer's rise in the BITU went more smoothly than his rise in representational politics. He lost his first general election contest in 1949 to Ken Hill (PNP), himself a labor organizer. However, Shearer was successful in 1955. The JLP lost that election and Shearer became a great asset to Bustamante when the JLP went into the opposition.

From 1955 to 1958 Shearer made many proposals in the legislature to provide severance pay for workers with long service who were dismissed or retrenched, and for holidays with pay for domestic workers. He put workers' rights above politics by supporting much of the PNP's labor legislation. This included legislation establishing the Pensions Authority, the Sugar Workers Pension Fund, amendments to the Holidays with Pay Law, and the Trades Disputes (Arbitration and Enquiry) Law.

In these years in opposition, Shearer became one of the frontline members of the JLP in the Jamaican legislature. He was quick to point to those PNP policies that supported the emerging private-sector market and those favoring labor, as evidence of the convergence between the two parties. The JLP represented a combination of free enterprise and labor rights, and the PNP, a socialist party, favored a larger role for state planning and advocacy of labor.

Shearer and a younger generation of JLP leaders also provided thoughtful advice to the aging Bustamante and represented a new guard of more professional JLP parliamentarians. Despite this, Shearer lost his seat in the 1959 elections. This loss reduced the party's labor representation in the legislature. It signaled a shift to more business and professional middle-class leaders in the party.

Shearer was able to concentrate more on trade union matters. In 1959 he became Island Supervisor of the BITU. In these early days a unique political friendship developed between himself and Michael Manley, later Jamaica's prime minister. As Manley's biographer Darrell Levi said, "Shearer and Manley have shared a friendship which has survived sometimes bitter union and political struggles" (1989, p. 16).

Shearer was appointed senator when the JLP won the general elections in 1962. He became a minister in Jamaica's first government at independence. He was minister of External Affairs. Speaking at the United Nations in 1963, he proposed that 1968 be designated International Year of Human Rights, and this was so done.

Shearer was elected again to the Jamaican parliament in 1967. After the retirement of Bustamante and the sudden death of Prime Minister Donald Sangster in that year, Bustamante steered the succession for the prime minister-ship in favor of Shearer in order to preserve the labor wing of the party from encroachment by the business wing.

Shearer became Jamaica's third prime minister, serving from 1967 to 1972. He was forty-three years old and the youngest prime minister in the British Commonwealth. During this period, Jamaica achieved its highest continuous rate of growth and reached maturity as a manufacturing economy. He explained that Jamaica's success should be based on "hard work, not faith, hope and foreign charity" (Neita, 2004).

Despite some economic success, the gap between rich and poor widened and the government was attacked for this during the Rodney Black Power riots of 1968. The Shearer government alleged that it could possibly be over-thrown and overreacted by limiting rights to march and censoring radical literature.

Shearer's government was voted out in 1972, and he resigned as JLP leader in 1974. But in the ideologically polarized period of the 1970s, Shearer remained the one major figure in the JLP that Michael Manley, prime minister from 1972 to 1980, could reach out to for bipartisan understanding.

Shearer returned to government as deputy prime minister and minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the 1980s. While Prime Minister Edward Seaga concentrated on Jamaica-U.S. relations and finance and investments, Shearer kept the administration committed to Jamaica's third-world policy through the United Nations; the Non-Aligned Movement; the Group of 77; the African, Caribbean, and Pacific organization; and the Caribbean Community, a foreign policy championed by Michael Manley but more militantly so.

The JLP lost the elections of 1989, and Shearer lost his parliamentary seat in 1993. He then retired from representational politics. However, one of his greatest achievements has been to detribalize the workers movement through his efforts in the 1990s in building the Joint Confederation of Trade Unions (JCTU), an association of Jamaica's leading trade unions. Shearer remained president of the JCTU until his death in 2004. He passed away as the elder statesman of Jamaica's labor movement and was widely commended for his conciliatory leadership style. Shearer was awarded the Order of the Nation, Jamaica's second highest honor, in 2002.

See also Jamaica Labour Party; People's National Party


Ashley, Paul. "Jamaica's Foreign Policy in Transition." In The Caribbean in World Politics: Cross Currents and Cleavages, edited by Jorge Heine and Leslie Manigat. New York and London: Homes and Meier, 1988.

Eaton, George. Alexander Bustamante and Modern Jamaica. Kingston, Jamaica: LMH, 1995.

Levi, Darrell. Michael Manley: The Making of a Leader. Kingston, Jamaica: Heinemann Caribbean, 1989.

Neita, Hartley. "Remembering Hugh Lawson Shearer, 19232004: Shearer the Prime Minister." Jamaica Gleaner (July 7, 2004).

robert maxwell buddan (2005)