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Hugh Shearer

FULL TITLE: Hugh Shearer – A Voice for the People

PRICE: Paperback US$30.00; Hardback US$49.95


Hugh Shearer: A Voice for the People chronicles the life and multifaceted career of Hugh Lawson Shearer – Journalist, Trade Unionist, and Politician – and his rise to become one of the first leaders of post-independence Jamaica. Shearer was part of the family dynasty which dominated Jamaican politics from 1944 and through the first 25 years of independence, following in the footsteps of Alexander Bustamante, Norman Manley and later to be succeeded by his cousin Michael Manley.

But Hugh Shearer was his own man; described by the foreign press as ‘handsome and athletic-looking’ and as carrying ‘the air and properties of a …successful business executive’, Shearer was known for his charm and humility which belied his toughness and skill as a negotiator but which served him well as a trade unionist and later as a politician and prime minister. Gains in the areas of salaries, pension rights, shorter single-time working hours, maternity leave and numerous fringe benefits covering health and education for workers are part of the Shearer legacy as a trade unionist.

Though presiding over the country during one of its most prosperous periods, Shearer’s tenure as Jamaica’s third prime minister was not without its challenges locally and internationally. His leadership coincided with the period of worldwide student protest and the aggressive Black Power Movement which he had to confront at home and which he did decisively and with toughness. But it was the same Hugh Shearer who got the United Nations to declare 1968 an International Year of Human Rights and used that forum and others to speak out for Jamaica on behalf of the oppressed peoples of South Africa.


The Late Hartley Neita served as Press Officer to Norman Manley and Press Secretary to Prime Ministers Donald Sangster and Hugh Shearer. He was a Communications Consultant and Journalist.

Excerpts from Hugh Shearer


The new Prime Minister’s first public engagement was the official opening of the new offices of the Dominion Life Assurance Company in New Kingston. There he focused on the need for Jamaicans to increase their savings.

I am not satisfied that Jamaicans are saving enough. There is evidence
of a growing affluence in the society but there is not enough evidence
that the society is fully savings-conscious. Now is the time to begin.
Not tomorrow, not next week, not next month, nor next year. The time
to begin is now.

He then called on the insurance companies operating in Jamaica to make a greater contribution to the development of the country.
The Gleaner’s subsequent editorial was interesting.2 It said there was a substantial sector of the population which was unemployed, underemployed or lived subsistence lives, and these persons could not save significantly.

The middle income group should be in a position to contribute much
to national savings, and while many do, there is a large number who
want to imitate the standard of living of the middle income groups in
the wealthy industrialised countries like the United Sates.
We are constantly bombarded with advertising, magazines, films,
etc., which depict the higher levels of affluence of these societies. It is
natural that the thoughtless should want to enjoy the same standard of
living. The point is, however, that they do not stop to realise that
Jamaica is still far from being a wealthy country. There is still much
social capital that must be provided, to catch up with the centuries of
neglect in matters such as schools, roads, etc., before thought can be
given to affluent living.

From the topic of savings, Shearer turned his attention to human rights. As had been suggested when he proposed the International Year for Human Rights at the United Nations, Jamaica held an International Human Rights Seminar in Kingston.3 The purpose of this Seminar, Shearer said, was to allow participants to compare notes, to share experiences and to discover whether someone else has been more successful in dealing with a particular problem.

We hope to discover, each of us, who has managed more effectively to
disseminate amongst the people a detailed knowledge and
understanding of the meaning of every civil and political right, and we
hope to profit from the experience of others and so avoid pitfalls into
which they may have fallen.

He then made what was considered a significant statement, which was followed by immediate action by his Minister of Home Affairs, Roy McNeil.

We are becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that international
measures for the promotion of Human Rights can take us only so far. In
the final analysis, it is the means which each country applies and adopts
at home to make these rights effective that will determine whether or
not our citizens enjoy the rights they should, and whether the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights becomes a meaningful entity in their
daily lives.

The next day, McNeill revealed that 23 Jamaicans whose passports had been seized, cancelled, withdrawn or refused, could now obtain them.
This was seen as an example of Shearer’s commitment to the principle of human rights.

He made sure, too, in those early days of his assumption of the office of Prime Minister, to keep in touch with the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union. This was similar to what Bustamante had done when he was first elected to and became the Leader of the majority Party in the House of Representatives. So, two weeks after being sworn in to this new office, he spoke to a packed Ward Theatre of some 2,000 members of the Union. It was an address which was delivered in his usual frank way of talking to his union family.

I can talk to you in one of two ways. I can tell you what you would like
to hear or I can tell you the things that you should be told. I claim that
I am able to talk to you — members of the working class of this country
— as one of you. And particularly because I am one of you, I am
confident that you will, from time to time, accept and understand
that, in the exercise of the authority vested in me as Prime Minister of
Jamaica, from time to time when I make decisions they will be decisions
in the interest of the nation.

He was interrupted by a thunder of cheers. When it faded, he continued.

However much these decisions may be unpopular I want the entire
working class and other sections of the community to understand that
as Prime Minister I cannot seek and will never seek to ‘butter’ nor to
please any clique or section in the country to the detriment of the
nation as a whole.

The applause resumed. He continued.

Some people are wondering what Shearer is going to tell the workers
this morning. Let me make it clear to those who are asking the question,
Shearer is at no time in any difficulty to tell anybody in this country
what they must be told, to carry out my obligations as Prime Minister.
Some are wondering what sort of man Shearer is; some are wondering
if I will be able to manage the job.

There were shouts of: ‘Tell them Brother Hugh … You can do it …’

I have news for them. I am in no doubt that after 25 years in the trade
union movement under the leadership of Sir Alexander Bustamante, I
can reply in a short sentence. You have a no-nonsense Prime Minister
to deal with!

He then spoke about the problem of crime and violence and his intended response to the shooting and murders taking place, particularly in the inner city areas of Kingston.
Popular singers had been glorifying the men involved in these crimes, who had earned the name of ‘Rude Boys’ or ‘Rudies’. These popular songs included ‘OO7, A-Shanty Town’ sung by Desmond Dekker, some of the words of which were

And now rude boys a-go wail
Cause dem out-a jail
Rude boys cannot fail
Cause dem mus’ get bail
Dem a-loot, dem a-shoot
Dem a wail
A-Shanty Town
Rude boy dem a bomb up de town.

Another was ‘Tougher Than Tough’ by Derrick Morgan with lyrics which said:

Rudies don’t fear no boys, rudies don’t fear.
Rudies don’t fear no boys, rudies don’t fear.
Rougher than rough, tougher than tough
Strong like lion, we are iron.
Rudies don’t fear no boys, rudies don’t fear.

And there was ‘Johnny, You Too Bad’ by The Slickers.

Walking down the road with a pistol in your waist
Johnny you’re too bad.
You’re just-a robbing and stabbing
Y’know you’re too bad.

Rudies had a special ‘hip-hop’ style of walking, bouncing from one foot to the other almost as if they were dancing to the new Rock Steady style of music which was replacing the Ska. They moved about in gangs, with many of them riding ‘S-90’ motorcycles. They wore the cloth caps identified with golfers. Their expensive Van Heusen shirts were worn outside their pants which were cut in the Continental style of the time. They cut their hair in a low Afro style which was becoming popular among black men and women internationally. Interestingly, none wore Rastafarian locks at the time.
According to Clinton Hutton, UWI Lecturer in the Department of
They called this style of dress the ‘Spaeng’, only buttoning the last
buttonhole of their shirts and leaving the rest flying in the wind. Some
also had the reputation of dapper dressers; many were often decked out
in their three-piece suits, felt hats and suede shoes.
The Rudie maintained his reputation in two ways. Firstly, the Rudie
had to have disposable means, to treat friends and himself. Secondly,
the Rudie had to ‘chuck badness’ and protect himself when necessary.
For this reason some would frequently ‘mash up dances’ to grab
attention. To be a Rudie meant that you had to be slick, fearless and
street-smart. And as the number of unemployed youth in Kingston’s
ghettos increased and economic opportunities simultaneously decreased,
many youngsters started to look upon the Rudie as a person whose
behaviour patterns guaranteed a better lifestyle. He seemingly always
had money. The slickest of Rude Boys rode the S90 motorcycle. A fast
lifestyle, expensive clothes and numerous women became the hallmark
of the Rude Boy, and to many deprived youngsters, the Rude Boy
represented their local Robin Hood.8

To deal with these ‘rudies’ and other ‘gangsters’, Shearer revealed that he had given orders to the police ‘to proceed without reservation and without restriction to tackle the problem of violence and to bring wrong-doers to justice in whatever way it can be done’. Two weeks later, he elaborated on these instructions when he addressed the Central
Conference of the Police Federation and gave them what was seen as a clarion call to rid the country of criminals.

There is a growing mood of anger by the people against the few criminals
who are instilling fear in the country. I owe a duty to inform wrongdoers
that the attitude of society is hardening against violence to a degree not
reached before. I have received proposals from responsible sections of
the society who want persons who rape, assault, and rob old men and
women and children, to be punished by flogging in public squares.
This was received by standing and sustained applause.
I am bringing this to the attention of the nation so that wrongdoers can
understand the mood and temper of people against whom they are
doing so many wrongs, where institutions and responsible bodies put
in writing that they want savage punishment of this sort. The country
should take note of what can be asked for, when people can say: ‘Do
not flog them behind walls; bring them into the square and do it at

He then called for cooperation between the public and the police.

One of the things our country must understand is that there must be
discipline and respect for whoever is in authority and for the maintenance
of law and order. And when it comes to handling crime in this country
I do not expect any policeman when he tackles a criminal to recite any
Beatitude to him. With due respect to all the ’ologists, the police cannot
tackle a wrongdoer and talk about ‘blessed are the meek’.

Later in the year he underscored this charge to the police when he said that, as far as he was concerned, they should not stop when confronted by criminals carrying guns ‘to take a tape measure to find out what the distance is between themselves and the criminals before setting them alight’.
Support for this stance, and for Shearer’s earlier statements to the BITU delegates, came quickly from the Jamaica Employers Federation. Said the organization:

His stated determination not to seek to please only one clique or section
of the population, and his issuing of orders for stern measurers against
violence by any group must clearly receive the support of the vast
majority and be very warmly applauded.

This was followed by a personal statement by Leslie Ashenheim, the Federation’s President, who gave a pledge of cooperation and help in all that ‘he has to do in the interest of the Jamaican economy’.
‘We have greatly admired his recent speeches,’ he continued, ‘and we should like him to know that we have taken full note of all that he expects from us as employers and from the workers.’
Comments of this support coming from these sources which had been critical of Hugh Shearer before, boded well for the future.