Jamaica's Prime Minister had intended to spend last week talking to world leaders about issues such as the threat of climate change to his island nation.
Instead, Andrew Holness was fielding questions from journalists about the Windrush scandal that was dominating headlines and embarrassing the UK government.
The day before we meet at the Jamaican High Commission in South Kensington, Theresa May had apologised to the 12 Caribbean Commonwealth leaders whose countries were linked to Windrush. At a hastily arranged meeting May said she was sorry for the anxiety caused to Caribbean people who were invited to come to the UK between 1948 and 1971, many of whom were stripped of their access to services and, in some cases, threatened with deportation.
Tall and broad, Holness cuts an imposing figure, but his demeanour is warm, with the politician’s air of being completely unflappable that makes him seem beyond his 45 years. In a deep, calm voice, Holness says he accepts Theresa May’s apology “with the sincerity that it was given” and accepts her explanation that the Home Office’s errors were “an unintentional consequence of a policy change”, but he is quick to add the Windrush generation should have their rights restored and says compensation should be paid – a policy home secretary Amber Rudd confirmed this week.
Has this scandal soured relations with the UK? He pauses. “No,” he says. “I don’t believe it has soured [relations], but it highlights the difficulty of the relationship. There is a very strong relationship, for many years it transitioned through many phases but for Caribbean people who were a part of former colonies we expect that there would be a greater consideration for Caribbean peoples within the Commonwealth and within the UK.”
When pressed further about Jamaica’s relationship with the UK, he says there is a strong relationship “people to people”, driven by the more-than 800,000 Jamaican diaspora in the UK, though he adds that “we don’t have as strong a relationship tradewise as we used to. We should.”
The US is now Jamaica’s leading trade partner, while China has risen to become a key investor. Though Britain is a major export partner, Holness points to areas such as tourism, agriculture, logistics and real estate development as areas where there could be greater investment.
On the possibility of a post-Brexit free-trade deal between the UK and Jamaica, he throws the net wider: “One would think that the UK post-Brexit would be free to pursue trade arrangements with countries right across the world and a great place to start would be the Commonwealth. Jamaica is looking with great optimism that there will be some refocusing on trade with particularly the realm countries.”
A doggedly pro-business Prime Minister, supporting greater trade and investment has been the mainstay of his premiership. First elected as an MP at the age of 25, the former education minister became PM and leader of the centre-right Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) in late 2011 after the former leader, Bruce Golding, stepped down over his handling of the extradition to the US of an alleged head of a criminal gang. In an early election called later that year, the JLP lost to the centre-left People’s National Party. After serving as opposition leader, Holness clinched a one-seat majority victory in the February 2016 election.
When he came to power, Holness was quick to establish a new Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, as well as policies, such as tax incentives, that removed obstacles to investing.
With 4.3m visitors a year, tourism is the one of the obvious industries to grow. Jampro, the government’s trade and investment ministry, is managing a portfolio of 10,000 new rooms to be built by 2023, while an airport extension will allow larger jets to touch down. In contrast to the way some authorities have opposed Airbnb, Jamaica has embraced the travel disrupter, which launched its Trip service in the country late last year.
But Holness has also been trying to attract greater investment in business process outsourcing (BPO). A hotspot for near-shore services that also covers legal, human resources and accounting services, Jamaica has more than 26,000 people working in the $400m industry and Jampro wants to add another 11,000 roles in the near term. Holness rattles off the reasons why Jamaica is competitive in this sector: its location close to the US is pivotal, as is English fluency and a “cultural affinity” with America. It was also a pioneer in the BPO market in the 1980s.
One of the elements that sets Jamaica apart from Latin American and Caribbean rivals as a base for BPO operations is also that it is politically stable. But in January this year the government declared a state of emergency in the Montego Bay area, the main arrival point for British holidaymakers and one of the centres for the BPO industry, after a spate of shootings. There were 38 killings across the country in the first six days of 2018 alone and, for a small country of just 2.9m people, it has one of the highest murder rates in the world.
In Holness’ words, “crime and violence has crept into the narrative about Jamaica”, but he does not believe that the state of emergency in Montego conflicts with the image of Jamaica as a stable base for outsource contracting. On the contrary, he says: “I think it reinforces the view that the Jamaican government is serious about reclaiming its image in the international community as a safe, peaceful, law-abiding place.”In February, the state of emergency in Montego Bay was extended until May.
In Holness’ words, “crime and violence has crept into the narrative about Jamaica”, but he does not believe that the state of emergency in Montego conflicts with the image of Jamaica as a stable base for outsource contracting. On the contrary, he says: “I think it reinforces the view that the Jamaican government is serious about reclaiming its image in the international community as a safe, peaceful, law-abiding place.”
Aside from economic questions, there is another political decision the country looks set to weigh up at some point – one that goes to the heart of its relationship with the UK.
Becoming a republic has support from both of Jamaica’s main political parties. But in this instance, Holness is playing the long-game.
For Holness, jobs come first – becoming a republic will have to wait.
“Right now the focus is on the economy and, yes, we want to project our political independence, but that can be meaningless if we don’t have the economic legs to stand on. So we’re building the economic legs. Once we have that then certainly we can seek our political independence.”