Every August we hear dewy-eyed imperialists nostalgically lamenting how much better off we were under the Union Jack. And the recent Stone poll showing that 53% of Jamaicans feel we would have been better off if we had remained a British colony was certainly food for thought. Yet suppose a referendum had been held in 1962 and a majority of Jamaicans had voted against independence. Would Britain have continued to support us as a colony?


If history is any guide the answer would almost certainly have been no. After all Britain did not take possession of this island at gunpoint or forcibly transport millions of Africans across the Atlantic because of an altruistic desire to improve Jamaica’s lot. It may have been the least despotic imperial power in history, but the fact remains that the British Empire’s raison d’etre was to make Britain richer. The moment its colonies became a drain rather than a contributor to the public purse their independence became not only possible but certain. It was not high minded benevolence that prompted Britain to rush its often unprepared possessions into freedom, but the dawning realization of its taxpayers that the damned things were costing more than they were bringing in.


Which is why the question as to whether Jamaica would have been better off if it had remained a British colony is completely meaningless. It‘s true that most of the remaining tiny pink spots on the map have done rather well. But the piddling sum it costs to run these toy colonies is probably only acceptable to the British public because of the sense of national pride they engender. “Look how marvelously we run our possessions today”, these colonial vestiges seem to say, “just as marvelously as we ran them when the sun never set on our Empire”. Which, as they say in old blighty, is a load of tosh. There is no way Britain would have pumped the kind of money into Jamaica that would have enabled us to reach a similar level of development as its present miniature imperial possessions like Cayman.


So independent Jamaica should not be compared to a child who ran away from home against its parents’ wishes and who but for willfulness might now be enjoying the comforts of the luxurious mansion it abandoned. Rather it can be likened to a young adult firmly pushed out the door by a stern father tired of paying all the bills and told it’s now time to make his own way in the world. And young Jamaica - for a 40 year old country is still but a stripling - has really not done all that badly.


We’ve certainly gotten the really big things right. Our democratic record for instance is excellent. Since 1962 Jamaica has held regular multi-party elections, remained assassination free, suffered no serious uprisings, adhered to the rule of law, and maintained a free press. Only 16 other countries of over a million people can make the same collective claim but over the past four decades - Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Finland, Ireland, Norway, Japan, Switzerland, Costa Rica.


We are certainly no Jeffersonian utopia, but power here has never come through the barrel of a gun. Violent don controlled garrisons remain a serious threat to the Jamaican body politic, but so far they have never prevented the will of the people from ultimately prevailing. Every leader of this country has been constitutionally chosen, and losing candidates have always in the end accepted the ballot count. All elections here since 1962 have produced a government that the majority of the voters wanted, which is the real point of the entire exercise.


Sir Karl Popper defined democracy as “the type of government which can be removed without violence”. From this perspective independent Jamaica is unquestionably one of the world’s great democratic successes. And it’s about time we gave ourselves some credit for this. However worthy the political system the British bequeathed to us, it’s the common sense of our people that has enabled it to survive intact.


The other remarkable fact about Jamaica is its high life expectancy of 75.3 years, up from 65.5 in 1962. We are only slightly behind the US’s 77 and significantly ahead of the less than 70 of US blacks. Indeed in 2000 the World Health Organization DALE (Disability-Adjusted Life Years) system - which measures the number of years a person can be expected to live in full health and gives a truer picture of a country’s health than simple death rates - ranked Jamaica 36th out of 191 countries.


To be sure we are an economic underachiever, though our large informal sector makes it difficult to figure out exactly what our true financial situation is – surely the official figures are not telling the entire story. Yet while Jamaica may not be rich, it is definitely not destitute - you don’t see anyone starving on the streets here. And though God knows where the money to buy them is coming from, all those new cars and cellular phones makes it difficult to take serious those Cassandras who claim we are sinking into a mire of poverty. Does anyone really believe the average Jamaican is worse off than in 1962 when half the population went barefooted? Certainly our levels of inequity have fallen dramatically since independence, with our GINI index dropping from .63 in 1968 to .38 in 1999.


Our greatest failure has no doubt been in the area of personal safety, with the murder rate going up tenfold from 4.2 in 1962 to last year’s 44.2. Yet our penchant for violence is in my opinion directly related to our family structure. There is no society on earth with an 85% out of wedlock birthrate that does not have a serious problem with violent young men. Why does Jamaica have one of the world’s highest homicide rates? For the same reason that we are one of very few countries with significantly more illiterate men than women and that 77% of our university students are female. Frankly Jamaica is faced with three clear choices – remain highly violent, drastically change our mating habits, or lock up huge amounts of young men as in the US. And only we the people can decide which course we prefer.


Yes there is a lot of room for improvement. But the bottom line is that independent Jamaica has proven one of the world’s most stable democracies and its people enjoy an almost first world life expectancy. How could anyone but the ignorant consider this unmitigated failure? Our commentators and talk show hosts often seemed obsessed with the negative. But did the cheerfully good-natured throngs at the recent World junior games and independence celebrations seem residents of a miserable and downtrodden country?

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