Hugh Shearer

'Decent' prime minister of Jamaica
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The Independent Online

Hugh Shearer became Jamaica's third prime minister in 1967, five years after independence from Britain. He succeeded Donald Sangster, who died in office, and served a full term until 1972. The Jamaica Observer described him as a "decent human being" who bore no bitterness or resentment towards his opponents and rivals - no mean compliment in a country where politics is often anything but polite. The current Prime Minister, Percival Patterson, praised him as a "quintessential nationalist".

Hugh Lawson Shearer, trade unionist and politician: born Martha Brae, Jamaica 18 May 1923; Prime Minister 1967-72; Foreign Minister 1980-89; President, Bitu 1977-94; twice married (one son, two daughters); died Kingston, Jamaica 5 July 2004.

Hugh Shearer became Jamaica's third prime minister in 1967, five years after independence from Britain. He succeeded Donald Sangster, who died in office, and served a full term until 1972. The Jamaica Observer described him as a "decent human being" who bore no bitterness or resentment towards his opponents and rivals - no mean compliment in a country where politics is often anything but polite. The current Prime Minister, Percival Patterson, praised him as a "quintessential nationalist".

Like many Caribbean leaders of the independence generation, Shearer came to politics from the trade-union movement. He was a moderate labour leader, believing it was in the interests of the workers to help the bosses make money. But he was also a tough and skilful negotiator, who extracted the best terms available for his members. His term as Prime Minister was highly successful in at least one respect: the Jamaican economy grew at an average rate of 6 per cent a year, which is three times the present rate. Manufacturing industry developed rapidly in what had previously been a largely agricultural island, growing sugar, bananas and coffee for export.

Shearer was born in 1923, in a small village near Falmouth, in Trelawny parish. He was brought up by his grandparents, and did well enough at the local primary school to win a scholarship to St Simon's College, a leading private school in the capital. He left at 17, and took a job was on the Jamaican Worker newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (Bitu), the country's main labour organisation, founded by, named after, Sir Alexander Bustamante, a distant relative who became Shearer's mentor and patron. By 1947 he was Assistant General Secretary of Bitu.

That year, Shearer was elected to Kingston city council for the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which had been founded by Bustamante in 1943. In 1948 he was awarded a Colonial Development and Welfare Trade Union Scholarship to study in Barbados, and on his return he rose steadily through the Bitu ranks. In 1960 he was elected Vice-President of the union. By that time he had also served a term in the House of Representatives as MP for Western Kingston, which had previously been represented by Bustamante. He lost his seat in the 1959 general election, but soon afterwards was appointed a JLP representative on the Legislative Council, the pre- independence government.

After independence in 1962, when Bustamante became Prime Minister, Shearer was appointed to the Senate, and served as leader of government business and minister without portfolio until 1967. In 1965 he was deputy chief of mission in the Jamaican delegation to the United Nations General Assembly, where his proposal that 1968 should be declared Human Rights Year was adopted. In 1967 he was elected MP for Southern Clarendon constituency, a seat also previously occupied by Bustamante, which he subsequently held until 1993.

The sudden death of the JLP prime minister, Sir Donald Sangster, a few months after winning the 1967 election, left Shearer, the protégé of the ailing Bustamante, as his obvious successor. He also took over from his mentor as leader of the JLP. Shearer presided over a period of sustained growth, and was also responsible for a number of social improvements, including the construction of hundreds of primary schools.

But inequality and social tensions were mounting, and in 1968 Shearer made himself unpopular with the growing black power movement by refusing to allow a leading Guyanese black activist, Walter Rodney, to enter the country. This controversial decision was followed by days of rioting, and led indirectly to the conservative JLP's defeat in the 1972 general election by the more left-wing People's National Party (PNP), led by Michael Manley.

Shearer served as leader of the opposition for two years, before taking up his trade-union work again, and relinquishing the leadership of the JLP at the same time. He was elected President of Bitu in 1977, and in 1994 became the first president of the newly formed Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions, after serving for two years as head of the trade unions' research centre.

In 1980, following the electoral victory of the JLP, Shearer had returned to government as minister of foreign affairs and foreign trade, taking on the additional portfolio of industry and commerce for the 1986-89 period. He was Jamaica's longest-serving foreign minister.

Colin Harding



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