Michael Manley: The Biography by Godfrey Smith

A part of this review appears in today’s Sunday Gleaner – incomplete and wrongly attributed to the author! The newspaper also does not mention the excellent local publishers, Ian Randle Publishers (IRP). Here is my review (yes, I wrote this!) in full.  In the context of today’s strife within the People’s National Party, the timing of this publication is particularly apt. Perhaps we could look at the Manley era through this current lens, while gaining some rather helpful insights.  Many thoughts ran through my mind as I read the book. Where is democratic socialism today? Has the plight of the “sufferers” been eased over the past few decades? Is the Jamaican citizen now self-reliant, confident and proud, as Manley had envisaged?

Manley's biographer is Godfrey Smith, a well-known Belizean politician and lawyer. The genesis of the book came from a meeting between Smith and Michael Manley's daughter Rachel, the author says. (Photo: Jamaica Observer)
Manley’s biographer is Godfrey Smith, a well-known Belizean politician and lawyer. The genesis of the book came from a meeting between Smith and Michael Manley’s daughter Rachel, the author says. (Photo: Jamaica Observer)

Kudos to author Godfrey Smith, and to Christine Randle of IRP for producing a book that I believe is a major contribution to Jamaica’s difficult, but fascinating political history. It will be available online by the end of the month, and in Jamaican bookstores any day now. Please check IRP’s Facebook page for updates.

Michael Manley: The Biography

We human beings are complex creatures. We have our peculiar ways. We like to think we are logical, but we often behave irrationally. We often vacillate, just when we should be decisive. We make (and do not always acknowledge) mistakes, and we have unexpected successes.

Reading what might be considered the definitive biography of former Prime Minister of Jamaica Michael Manley confirmed what I had always suspected: that he was just such a human being. Manley has often been portrayed either as a noble but misunderstood leader of messianic proportions; or as a misguided, slightly sinister politician, who brought Jamaica to its knees during the 1970s. This book clearly demonstrates, through intriguing, often intimate revelations, that Manley was neither of these one-dimensional extremes. Yet he was presented to Jamaica (and the world) as one or the other, during his political career and even to this day. This is how we, the public, treat with our leaders, of course: either on a pedestal, or with feet of clay.

Man of the People: In this Gleaner photograph, Prime Minister Michael Manley carries his shovel as he joins Kingston Jaycees in their joint effort with Rae Town Fishermen's Cooperative to construct a community health clinic on Labour Day, 1975.
Man of the People: In this Gleaner photograph, Prime Minister Michael Manley carries his shovel as he joins Kingston Jaycees in their joint effort with Rae Town Fishermen’s Cooperative to construct a community health clinic on Labour Day, 1975.

This is why such a biography is invaluable. It explores the man behind the superficial “good guy, bad guy” facades. The author calls his subject “Michael” throughout the book, thus immediately “humanizing” him. Mr. Smith collaborated closely with Manley’s daughter Rachel on the writing of the book. Among several other sources – family members and others close to him – he makes substantial use of what he calls “priceless” private correspondence between Manley and his loyal friend, the late Professor Rex Nettleford. The latter offers the reader an unusual and revealing perspective. Professor Nettleford’s reflections are sympathetic and supportive, seeking to explain setbacks, uphold strengths and applaud the successes of his friend. By contrast, the author punctuates his narrative with the hardheaded comments of political scientist Carl Stone, the perceptive founder of the Stone Polls. We are indebted to Professor Stone for his continuous taking of the political temperature, creating a diligent chronicle of the times.

Professor Rex Nettleford was a close friend of Manley. The biography draws heavily from the interesting and thoughtful correspondence between the two. (Photo: nationalgalleryofjamaica.files.wordpress.com)
Professor Rex Nettleford was a close friend of Manley. The biography draws heavily from the interesting and thoughtful correspondence between the two. (Photo: nationalgalleryofjamaica.files.wordpress.com)

Manley was a man of his time. This book takes us through his childhood, growing up in the shadow of his esteemed, high-achieving father (and a National Hero, no less) Norman W. Manley, and his artistic, indulgent mother, Edna Manley. As a child of Jamaica’s “first family,” the young Michael grew up in the privileged world of Drumblair. Already a member of the political elite, he asserted himself early as “competitive,” rebellious and strong-willed. He would have been expelled from Jamaica College if his influential father had not intervened. A bit of a “spoiled brat,” one might say.

So, here’s another contradiction. This “man of the people” never lost his love of classical music and art. It was what he was brought up with. His carelessness with money was also a product of privilege. Nevertheless, the author points to Manley’s hard work during the years before he entered politics in the trade union movement. He was proving himself. He was trying to escape those “family connections” but was also genuinely concerned with the plight of the Jamaican worker. We learn that he was afraid of public speaking as a young man, preferring to write – quite ironic since he was later famed for his orator’s skills. He made his first speech at age 27.

The days of Drumblair are gone; only those who experienced it will view it with a twinge of nostalgia. From that comfortable world Manley emerges in the 1960s – a time of great change in Jamaica and globally, engulfed by the Cold War. That war was far from cold. This was a long and exhausting era of heated rhetoric, rumors, arguments, threats, conspiracy theories – and furious, conflicting ideologies. It was a bit like social media today, in fact! But this was the backdrop to Manley’s earnest efforts to progress, to find a way that would benefit and empower the Jamaican people. He traveled through a troubled landscape that was not for the faint-hearted. Manley possessed the requisite courage.

The point is that we cannot simply pick up a figure like Michael Manley and transplant him into the 21st century; and this book does not attempt to evaluate his actions (and those of his contemporaries) by our modern standards. Truth be told, the Cold War era now seems light years away; with technological advances, society has taken a huge leap forward. Having said that, the book portrays Manley’s vision and the evolution of his ideas in a sensitive manner. Unlike many politicians today Manley was a long-term thinker, whose vision stretched beyond the next election cycle. Yet this book does not hesitate to note that many of his most far-reaching plans, such as land reform, were quickly derailed.

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro was also Manley's lifelong friend. (Photo: PNP Jamaica)
Former Cuban President Fidel Castro was also Manley’s lifelong friend. (Photo: PNP Jamaica)

The book takes us in strict chronological sequence through Manley’s life, without “flashbacks” or “fast forwards.” The Prologue is a concise overview of Manley’s life and times that illustrates the contrasts and contradictions embedded in them, opening with Manley returning from a pleasant evening at the White House with President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and contrasting it with the exciting days of his early acquaintance with Cuban President Fidel Castro – who remained a lifelong friend. This was a thought-provoking introduction, preparing us for the intense, at times almost roller coaster trajectory of Manley’s career.

I enjoyed the short interludes, in which the author “sets the scene” for memorable occasions. The somber mood of Norman Washington Manley’s funeral, and the electric atmosphere at the launch of the PNP’s official campaign for 1980 in Sam Sharpe Square are described in a few short paragraphs.

Apart from the intricacies of his political world, the book offers many glimpses into Manley’s private life, updating the reader at regular intervals. He was married five times, and throughout four of these marriages conducted affairs with other women – including sometimes the wives of close friends. His relations with his children were at times strained by his absences and affected by his work. His colleagues and family suffered, not only from his womanizing but also from a ruthless streak. One example was his treatment of former Finance Minister David Coore, an old friend from childhood days. Michael Manley was a man used to getting his own way. He was a charming, physically attractive and charismatic man, indeed. He was a brilliant speaker, who had a mesmerizing effect on the huge crowds who attended his meetings. He enjoyed praise, and was hurt by criticism. Was he genuinely likeable? The book allows you to judge for yourself. But for politicians, expediency often rules the day.

Prime Minister Michael Manley with U.S. President George H.W. Bush at the White House in 1990. (Photo: Michael Manley Foundation)
Prime Minister Michael Manley with U.S. President George H.W. Bush at the White House in 1990. (Photo: Michael Manley Foundation)

The Prime Minister whom we meet in the Prologue, and who maintained cordial relations with the United States, was “Michael Manley Mark II.” This was the second edition, if you like, when he served as Prime Minister from 1989 to 1992. I found this latter section of the book particularly insightful, as the author carefully dissects reactions from former supporters and colleagues on his drastically changed philosophy and new pragmatic approach. At this point in the book, one senses that the author feels some sympathy towards Manley. He seems to suggest that during his last term in office – curtailed by illness – he was just doing his best in the face of a growing debt burden and the inevitability of another IMF agreement. He had damage control to do within his political party, before stepping down and handing over to the ultimate political strategist, P.J. Patterson. Democratic socialism was, by this time, a forgotten dream from a bygone era. Oh, how familiar this all sounds! The politics of disillusion, apathy and broken ideals is a landscape that we are all familiar with, to this day.

The author answers some questions about Michael Manley’s life that I have often pondered (one of which is, was he an “original”? Were his radical views his own, or borrowed ideologies?) More questions, arise, though, such as that annoyingly persistent query: What really was Manley’s legacy? Was it all worth it? His turbulent career could be regarded as an ultimately unsuccessful experiment in socialism, with more negative than positive impacts on Jamaican society. Did Manley really believe “socialism is love,” or was he merely romancing the Jamaican public? Was he a “talker rather than a doer,” as Professor Stone suggested?

Professor Carl Stone's political commentary and polling techniques were remarkably accurate and trenchant, and his work is well worth reading to this day. (Photo: University of the West Indies, Mona)
Professor Carl Stone’s political commentary and polling techniques were remarkably accurate and trenchant. His work is a “must read” for those enquiring into Jamaica’s political history. (Photo: University of the West Indies, Mona)

The book summarizes Manley’s achievements, both tangible (and there were many, including the National Housing Trust, JAMAL and others) and intangible. One, in Rex Nettleford’s view, was what he called the “smadditization” of Jamaican society (the goodly Professor was adept at coining these phrases). The book notes Nettleford’s view: “Every jack man and woman in Jamaica now felt he or she was somebody because Michael had ripped away the colonial mindset of inferiority and imbued Jamaicans with a sense of confidence of confidence and self-worth. This was something no value could be placed upon.” Self-reliance was the cornerstone of Manley’s vision for Jamaica. Yet, has the Jamaican mindset reached this point (setting aside the inspiration of Usain Bolt)? This is one of many questions arising from this biography that we might like to examine in the cold, somewhat unforgiving light of the 21st century. How has our self-esteem been looking lately?

Michael Manley "in his ackee" (or in his element) during a rally, with his famous "Rod of Correction." (Photo: Michael Manley Foundation website)
Michael Manley “in his ackee” (or in his element, if you prefer) during a rally, with his famous “Rod of Correction.” (Photo: Michael Manley Foundation website)

I wonder why no one has suggested that Michael Manley be nominated as a National Hero. One compelling reason might be that many Jamaicans, especially those in under-privileged communities, are still living in the atmosphere of political divisiveness that he – and others, on both sides – helped to foster. The book describes the distribution of land and housing along party lines, and the PNP’s association with political “enforcers” such as Burry Boy (Manley and his Cabinet ministers attended the latter’s funeral in 1975, an action that Manley later conceded was unwise). In 1974, Manley publicly thanked them at a rally, calling them “my Paseros of the Garrison.” Yes, did you know there was a Garrison Gang? Of course, this was by no means limited to the People’s National Party (PNP) side of the equation. Both parties aligned themselves with criminals.

Not surprisingly in light of this, the average Jamaican is more wary of politicians nowadays. The book notes the disaffection with the Government that quickly emerged during Manley’s second short stint as Prime Minister. In December 1989, 66 per cent of the population was dissatisfied with his administration, after less than a year in office. The heady days of political activism were gone. Apathy set in. Fiery speeches would be of no avail now.

Voting in the 1980 election, which was marred by violence among politically motivated gangs. (Photo: Gleaner)
Voting in the 1980 election, which was marred by violence among politically motivated gangs. (Photo: Gleaner)

Yet, reading about some of the extraordinary events of the period, one feels that progress has been made in governance. One could not imagine some of these dramatic (and undemocratic) events happening today: the State of Emergency and imprisonment of Opposition members, for example, or the National Executive Committee of the PNP overruling a Cabinet vote in 1980.

Similarly, one could not now envisage a Prime Minister traveling overseas at the drop of a hat – for a week or two at a time – to pursue his international agenda with like-minded political leaders of the time, while his country flounders in an economic crisis. This “internationalist” aspect of Manley’s career is described in detail in the book, which notes its importance for Manley. He convened an impressive group of world leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, at Runaway Bay Resort in 1978, demonstrating an ability to bring together powerful leaders that “no other West Indian leader then or now could show,” the author notes.

The book ends on a muted, thoughtful note with a vivid description of Manley’s funeral. Did all the sound and fury of the 1970s signify nothing, after all? The book spins a complex web of inspiration, frustration, possibilities and disappointments, following each other head over heels. It is a compelling narrative. I would recommend this book as a very readable account not only of the man and his ideas, but of the times he lived in. It’s a piece of history; and as such, it’s a necessary and satisfying read.

Michael Norman Manley (1924 - 1997).
Michael Norman Manley (1924 – 1997).


4 thoughts on “Michael Manley: The Biography by Godfrey Smith

  1. Love this Emma. Really good piece that inspires me to read the book. We are a having the official opening of the Rollins Enterprise Centre in Rose Town on Tuesday @ 4pm, hope you can make it. Ruthj

    Sent from my Galaxy Tab® A


    1. Thanks, Ruth! I think you will find it quite revealing – there is much more than what I touched on. Tuesday is a really busy day for me and I have to go everywhere by taxi cab, but I might be able to squeeze in the opening – would LOVE to be there. I will let you know. PS I need to remind people again about social media for Rose Town. There must be someone up there who can get it going. Everyone’s been all over the place all summer, it’s been a bit difficult.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.