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Bermuda Independence Group: Beating a Dead Horse?

Bermuda: Beating a Dead Horse? Premier Alex Scott Tries for Independence Again

• Premier Alex Scott and his Progressive Labour Party continue to lobby Bermudians for independence despite falling approval rates in January and February.

• Some of his supporters see Scott as a patriarch seeking independence, while some critics say he is a man with a political death wish.

• Accelerating the independence debate, British Overseas Territories Minister Bill Rammell released a memorandum explaining the British government’s preference for a referendum vote on independence.

• Scott views independence as a cure for crime and racial tension, which is an unverifiable hypothesis.

The issue of independence continues to be debated on this island of 65,000 as Premier Alex Scott, along with his Progressive Labour Party (PLP), are trying to market Bermuda’s separation from the United Kingdom as good for business, good for the islanders and a logical next step in the island’s evolution. The issue was recently jumpstarted in December when Scott created the Bermuda Independence Commission (BIC) – designed to disseminate information on the benefits and costs of independence – and a recent declaration by the British Foreign Office that Whitehall was open to the possibility of Bermuda’s independence. However, the question remains why Scott has taken on this unpopular issue precisely as his own personal approval ratings plummet below 35% according to a February Research Innovations poll.

Going Against the Grain
Since the establishment of Bermuda’s first constitution in 1968, there has been continuous and unending debate over the island’s status as one of the remaining components of the British Empire. Historically, Bermudians, both white and black, have been against independence. A symbolic example of this was the PLP’s 1968 campaign – where independence was one of its planks – which was unsuccessful despite the momentum provided by the then recent status change. The United Bermuda Party (UBP), the traditional opponents of independence, itself considered independence in the 1970s, when the United Kingdom dissolved the sterling area. While in power in 1977, the UBP produced a 54-page Green Paper discussing the advantages and disadvantages of independence, with the majority of its members subsequently opposing any new steps towards independence because they believed it could negatively affect the island’s business climate. Such an argument is still used today by the UBP and other opponents of going it alone.

While in power in 1988, the UBP again attempted to hold the first referendum on independence but failed to get it off the ground after Premier Sir John Swan (UBP) was quoted by the Bermudian newspaper, The Royal Gazette, as saying in 1982, “With the Americans to feed us and the British to defend us, who needs independence?” Fading UBP support in the approaching 1989 election and Swan’s comments made independence a muted issue in a formal sense, with the government content to form the Committee for the Independence of Bermuda to ensure that the debate, at least on a pro forma basis, continued.

In the atmosphere of an evolving NAFTA and with the maturing of the EU, the discussion over independence was reopened in August 1995 when Premier Swan, against the majority of his party’s wishes, brought up the referendum. Although it previously had supported independence, the PLP boycotted the vote due to uncertainties about whether independence would benefit the party or not. The UBP, out of concern that misinformation about independence might be circulating, produced a second Green Paper that estimated the costs of independence to be $3.2 million. Opponents then as well as now cite the costs of independence as being too high, the expenses connected with patronage involved in key new appointments (such as the Governor and Chief of Police, who are now appointed by the Crown), diminished political weight due to the loss of British support, the maintenance of economic stability in the absence of organic links to Britain, fear over security issues and, in practice, the decision’s irreversibility. Independence proponents have argued that Bermuda’s well-established status as a business center would not be susceptible to violent political shifts, that the additional costs would be modest because of the island’s micro-state status, future patronage would be no more evident than at present and any permanent solution to Bermuda’s historical racial divide will require the establishment of a separate and distinct national identity. In 1995, with the PLP boycotting and large swaths of the UBP opposed, the referendum failed with 74% of the electorate opposed – although there was a low 59% turnout. Premier Swan, at the time the leading proponent of independence, resigned immediately.

Independence Today
The independence debate is occasionally stoked by news from London, such as in October 2003 when British representatives to the UN Committee on Decolonization said that the British government was willing to negotiate independence for its territories. Premier Scott, however, has made independence much more of a contemporary issue, bringing it into the political mainstream in 2004 by calling for the creation of the Bermuda Independence Commission (BIC), which was achieved in November of that year. According to Scott and the many supporters of independence who have rallied around him, the issue remains unpopular because of a widespread lack of information; the BIC was created to rectify this situation.

The question today is whether such a vote should be conducted as a function of a general election – where voters would indicate their favoritism by selecting candidates and parties based on platforms that include their take on the issue of independence – or by referendum which would be a straight up or down vote on the subject. Scott and many within the PLP support a general election based on their creedal belief that Bermudians do not have enough accurate information on independence and that past transitional steps by other British overseas territories were successfully conducted in a similar manner. The UBP prefers a referendum because of recent polls showing that the majority of Bermudians (65%, according to a February 2004 Research Innovations poll) oppose any change of status and the party’s belief that more pressing matters, not independence, should be the central issues in the upcoming 2008 elections (UBP leaders boycotted and refused a seat on the BIC for this reason).
Scott lately has accelerated the debate, in what appears to be a push for an eventual make-or-break vote on the topic—what U.S. politicians would describe as going for a “nuclear option.” In his latest move, Scott has taken credit for British Overseas Territories Minister Bill Rammell’s February 18 memorandum that left the door open for a vote on independence via a general election, taking it as evidence of London’s approval of the creation of BIC. However, Rammell’s report was perfectly clear—it only stated that the British government preferred referenda as the mechanism of choice for achieving independence.

Amid his politicking, Scott’s approval rating has taken a dive from 80% a year ago to below 35% in January 2005. More alarmingly for the Premier’s long term prospects is his disapproval rating, which has jumped 10 percent, from 36% in November 2004 to 45% in January. Scott’s single-minded focus on independence, whether meant simply to disseminate information or pursue full-fledged independence, has brought his political motives into question, especially when on average 60% of Bermudians have consistently been opposed to independence. The methods Scott has used to market his preference for independence are somewhat disappointing as well, particularly when he suggested independence would cut crime as a result of giving the Bermuda government control of its police force. Currently, Bermuda funds and controls its entire police force with the exception of the Chief of Police, a position selected at the Governor and Crown’s discretion.

As much as Premier Scott and the PLP might like Bermudians to believe it, God Save the Queen has no demonstrable effect on crime. Likewise, the UBP and other critics of independence should not assign the independence movement the role of a convenient scapegoat in order to explain existing racial tension, crime or any other of the island’s economic, political and social maladies.

Scott’s and Walton Brown’s (Chairman of the Committee for the Independence of Bermuda) claim that Bermuda’s national identity – to be born on some future independence day – will solve questions of the continued “colonial status order” and racial division on the surface appear unlikely at best. It is naïve to think independence would magically erase existing social pathologies and that Bermudians would be dedicated to dismantling such a hierarchy only after independence, but not before. A new national anthem and new symbols, which Phillip Perinchief (a member of the Central Policy Unit charged with liaising with the BIC) in 1995 claimed would be necessary to close the racial divide is unlikely to resolve the issue. Such is the case in the United States, where after the Emancipation Proclamation, a civil war, the legal end of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, there still exists a steep social separation between the races.

Likewise, those Bermudians who feel affected by what they see as an unequal, unjust and racially divisive history that is ineradicably attached to the old symbols of empire, see no recourse under Bermuda’s present status and who want to start off on a clean slate, should by all means vote for independence. The island ought to be rendered free of dependency on Britain if the reserve powers are considered a contributory factor to racial tension. However, there is no reason that these and other Bermudian problems cannot be tackled now, prior to the establishment of full sovereignty, if that is the goal.

The economic costs to the island as a result of independence are being exaggerated or minimized by both sides of the debate, respective to their stand on the matter. On the one hand, the PLP should not discount the possibility that independence might prompt the very fickle international business community to think about abandoning ship, or at least transferring to a less costly vessel elsewhere, if Bermuda’s tax policies change. Based on the experiences of other island nations during the independence movements of the 1960s and 1970s, this was often the case and remains as a definite possibility, even for a well-established and relatively well-governed principality like Bermuda. On the other, the UBP and independence opponents should not rely on doomsday scenarios to drum up support; the UBP’s 1995 estimates of $3.2 million in additional costs, while undoubtedly higher now, are still relatively low for a political system currently financed by a $594.6 million annual budget.

Premier Scott and his supporters should not automatically euchre sensitive issues by insisting on only one electoral methodology—general elections. Such a tactic does a disservice to the Bermudians they represent and is reminiscent, one may recall, of Vladímir Meciar’s and Václav Klaus’s efforts to split Czechoslovakia in 1992, despite the public majority against it. Scott’s venture, in the face of his constituency’s undeniable and growing discontent over the quality of his leadership, can only be attributed to his and the PLP’s hopes that if independence comes hand-in-hand with the party’s victory, the PLP is likely to be assured a secure future in power as the nation’s patriotic and founding party. But if it does not, he has gambled away a rewarding position in Bermuda’s public life.

At this juncture, the governing PLP with Premier Scott at its head might want to separate its current role as representatives of the people of Bermuda and their dreams of independence in order not to allow heady rhetoric to obfuscate a possible, practical solution now to the island’s deep social problems – which will not necessarily disappear with a change in political form.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Director Larry Birns and COHA Research Associate Jorge E. Esteban.

© Scoop Media

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