In 1974, the year in which Michael Manley turned 50, members of the Drumblair domestic staff from his early boyhood recalled that Michael spent a great deal of time hobnobbing with them. His mother, Edna Manley, had separately related the same story. Members of the domestic staff at Jamaica College (JC) when he boarded there reported that he spent much of his time in their company. The habit of fostering and maintaining good relations with subordinates was one that remained with Michael Manley for the rest of his life.
In his days as Head of Government, for example, whenever he travelled to meet with political, religious, business or other leaders, he would always find time to greet and converse with the subordinates involved in the preparation and execution of the event and to thank them for their participation.
Michael Manley’s unfailing interest in the wellbeing of subordinates, his intense loyalty to everyone on his side, and his tremendous ability to motivate and inspire endeared him to people everywhere. These qualities also tended to propel him into leadership roles. As early as 1934, at the age of nine, he was appointed the first School Captain of St Andrew Preparatory School.
At Jamaica College, where his father broke the tradition of bullying in his schooldays, there was a repetition of history, as Michael stood as the defender of small boys who were victims of the pernicious practice. Like N.W. Manley, he was credited with single-handedly muscling bullying out of the school. He had a knack of motivating others to unexpected levels of achievement. Two of his contemporaries at JC, David Coore and John Hearne, recalled that, unlike his father, Michael was not a great performer in sports. Yet, he would invariably be appointed captain of any team that he was good enough to make. He then extracted the best that his team-mates could produce.
The reaction to Michael’s departure from JC is eloquent testimony to the regard in which he was held by the entire student population. Not many were privy to the events that led to the sudden end of his career at the school. All that was known was that there had been a confrontation between him and two members of the staff, one being the headmaster. Yet, in protest against the termination of his school career, the students staged a demonstration and went on a two-week strike.
Michael had had no part in that strike, which occurred after his departure from JC, but a few years later, as an executive of the West Indian Students’ Union, he was a central figure in a famous strike against living conditions of some students in London.
Leadership in activism
That leadership in activism remained a feature of his stay in London and was appropriate preparation for his future career as a trade unionist asserting the rights of disadvantaged workers.
Starting as Sugar Supervisor of the National Workers Union, he first researched thoroughly their conditions of life and was appalled and incensed by what he found. His egalitarian instincts and his deeply entrenched loathing of injustice underlay his career as the ultimate workers’ representative and reached beyond trade unionism into his political leadership of the nation and indeed motivated him on the international plane.
By temperament and instinct, Michael Manley was well suited to the role of people’s champion. He did not stand on ceremony or on overstated formality. On becoming Head of Government, declaring that he did not like noise, he ordered discontinuation of the established practice of using the siren to clear the way for the Prime Minister’s movement through traffic.
He enjoyed manual work with communities to improve their facilities and amenities and dressed appropriately on such occasions. Indeed, in his first general election campaign as leader of the People’s National Party (PNP), he adopted bush-jacket suits as his business wear. He wrote in his first book, “The Politics of Change”, “It is vital for political leadership to ‘back its jacket’ and get in among the people at the roughest working levels from time to time.”
He was comfortable with being called simply “Michael” and often that name alone would suffice as his signature. His famous temper would be riled on his receipt of information that some humble person was shabbily treated because of her or his lowly status. At least once as Prime Minister he issued a written directive under the heading “Matters Affecting People”, with an instruction that it be filtered through the administrative network to reach every civil servant, that the greatest urgency should be applied to all matters affecting the wellbeing and welfare of people.
Always in communication
Michael Manley always remained in communication with the people, in good times and bad. Even when they were hurting from economic hardships in the late 1970s and were on the verge of voting his party out of office, the people knew that he was in their corner.
Early in his career as a trade unionist, Michael was given the nickname “Young Boy” as a term of endearment. In A Voice at the Workplace, he amusingly related an incident where a participant in a formal negotiation referred to him by his nickname. His Young Boy moniker endured for a decade until Michael Manley in the height of the JBC strike spoke of “the walls of Jericho” and from that moment became “Joshua”. On the campaign trail, his comrades would sing, “Yu wrong fi trouble Joshua. Yu wrong. For Joshua is a lion, an’ lion will devour you. Yu wrong fi trouble Joshua. Yu wrong.”
Over the years, before and after his retirement, every opinion poll to test the views of the public on the stewardship of Jamaica’s Prime Ministers has shown Michael Manley ahead of the field by a great margin.