Bermuda: Independence by any Means; Governance as an Obsession

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• Premier Alex Scott plays reckless poker as he defiantly muffles the voices of over 15,000 Bermudians calling for a referendum as the preferred vehicle to decide the independence question.

• The Premier continues his tireless quest to achieve independence by means of a series of schemes, all aimed at shifting public opinion in his favor.

• The Premier made to scramble for more solid ground as major flaws in the document released by the Bermuda Independence Commission (BIC) came to light.
Bermudian Premier Alex Scott, of the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), has declared 2006 as the year for an independence dialogue; however in reality, this announcement simply marks an extension of his unremitting attempts to engineer a majority in favor of ridding the island of 397 years of British rule. As the new year commenced, the case for Bermudian independence has failed to attract a tidal wave of public backing. To Scott’s dismay, this year has witnessed the successful mobilization of public support in favor of staging a referendum, which counters his goals for the process, and dampens his prospect for victory.

COHA’s Position
As of now, Scott appears set on keeping the issue open, but simmering on the back burner, waiting for the mathematically precise moment when the island’s sentiment on the issue of independence shifts, and the numbers begin to come up in his favor. While the Council on Hemispheric Affairs historically has supported every independence campaign in its purview where a majority of the people have called for independence, COHA, however, has taken the opposite position on Bermuda’s independence, and has found that there are a number of disconcerting aspects to Premier Scott’s driving quest to achieve it pretty much by any means. There is no doubt that in a democracy, elections should be an occasion for free and open dialogue regarding issues that profoundly affect the fate of a populace. However, any such conversation must be accompanied by sufficient information and sound analysis, along with a detailed plan concerning how it will be achieved, rather than the incomplete and tainted proceedings that are being witnessed in Bermuda. What is needed is a commitment to resolve the issue once and for all – at least for this generation – and not let it lie, as John Randolph of Roanoke once remarked, like a mackerel lying on a dock under moonlight, stinking while it shines. The advocates of independence must come up with decisive arguments proving that independence will overwhelmingly benefit the nation and its citizenry, or must, in good conscience, surrender their fight. The issue must not get in the way of confronting enduring economic, social, and political matters that need to be solved in a timely fashion, if the island is to thrive: housing; public health; education; an overly narrow based economy; and the need to rehabilitate tourism.

Bermuda and the Case for Independence
Territories have traditionally sought a path to sovereignty when faced with a critical mass of reasons justifying this pursuit, including perceived emotional needs, compelling economic conditions, or dire levels of oppression that have triggered an upwelling of popular sentiment in its favor. Demonstrably, Bermuda suffers from none of these conditions. To the contrary, for a tiny territory of 20.75 square miles with a population of around 68,000, Bermuda enjoys all but complete sovereignty, save a few, but costly, functions like conducting its foreign affairs, and defense, now the responsibility of Great Britain. Its citizens already enjoy one of the highest per capita incomes in the world (on a par with that of the U.S.) and low unemployment. Certainly its Premier and his cabinet members are well compensated for their services, receiving incomes many times the normal size of their U.S. counterparts, plus a limousine and driver.

The island’s highly developed economy derives its success mainly from foreign tourism, financial remittances, international business and financial services, with over 13,000 foreign companies registered in the country and more than 500,000 tourists visiting the island yearly. Such prosperous conditions on the island can in part be attributed to the fact that the island and its taxpayers are spared an array of administrative costs, due to the fact that Britain is responsible for Bermuda’s external relations and defense.

From an economic perspective, a strong case can be made that independence may be irrelevant, or at least not be in Bermuda’s best interest at this time, notwithstanding Premier Scott’s picturesque, if Colonel Blimp-like, orotund rhetoric, that “Independence will bring us together under one flag, one theme, one commitment, one country, one abiding belief that this point of geography in the Atlantic is our nation.” Such purple passages, reminiscent of Simón Bólivar, when he was courageously preparing to yank down the imperial Spanish flag, suggests that supporters of independence are adamant that it is time for Bermuda to stand on its own feet and take on the responsibilities of being a full-fledged member of the global community. But remember, one is talking about an island with a population and size no larger than a small provincial city like Salisbury, on the eastern shore of Maryland, whose mayor is paid perhaps 25% of Scott’s income.

On an equally illusory level, The Premier uses the tortured logic that a move away from Britain would increase tourism to Bermuda because, among other factors, after the island eventually becomes a full UN member, it can look forward to hosting UN delegations and their families. Regardless of the optimistic vision of UN-related functions being staged in Bermuda and thus swelling convention revenues, there isn’t the slightest indication that this would automatically result from independence, and certainly wouldn’t be a predictable source of revenue.

Furthermore, some members of the business sector fear that a break from Britain could dissuade investors from continuing to consider Bermuda a stable commercial environment, which would have undeniable negative economic implications for the island. This apprehension is given some weight by the Association of Bermuda International Companies (ABIC), which represents all-told, 133 international companies maintaining a legal presence on the island, who are united in insisting that they must have the right to bring judicial appeals to the Privy Council in London. They see this as a key to preserving the stability required by those international businesses, whose corporate headquarters are at least nominally housed on the island. For example, an anonymous CEO of an Irish company based in Bermuda, apparently warned Premier Scott that his company would not hesitate to return to Dublin if local conditions bred by the independence movement became sufficiently untenable for its corporate interests. Although foreign companies must realize that the issue of independence is fundamentally a Bermudian matter, and not for foreign multinationals to determine, their voice is difficult to ignore, considering that financial services now account for 60% of the island’s GNP. Such economic factors undoubtedly color some of the public’s attitudes towards independence.

Sentiment on Independence

Early last month, the Hamilton daily The Royal Gazette, conducted a telephone poll that showed that support for independence had risen from 16% last November to 24%. These results came directly after Scott announced that 2006 “is going to see the beginning of discussions on independence.” Although this is the first indication in some months that public opinion in his favor has increased, it does not necessarily indicate that Bermudians have become pro-independence minded. Even though Premier Scott’s advocacy of independence has heated up in recent months, he has not been able at any point to carry the populace with him, perhaps because his personal standards of objectivity and fair play have become casualties of the fray. These personal shortcomings have been exacerbated by a persistent inability to provide adequate and balanced information regarding the costs and consequences of the island’s breaking its ancient ties with the U.K. His inability to supply a cogent explanation as to why independence is at the top of his wish list for the island, when it is far from certain that the island’s economy is well situated enough to confront the many transformations that simultaneously will arise if it is achieved, illustrates a clear lack of judiciousness and foresight.

Scott’s Campaign and the Political Climate
In order for pro-independence sentiments to attain the requisite density, Premier Scott must reach out to the entire electorate, and clearly demonstrate that the benefits of cutting ties merit the rise of potentially negative consequences. His evidence must be unequivocal and must reflect benefits for the entire Bermudian society, as opposition to independence presently seems to be evenly spread among all social classes. As of now, fewer than 25% of those earning less that $50,000 a year support independence, while 26.3% of earners between $50,000 and $100,000, and 21.5% of those in the highest income brackets feel similarly. Historically, there has been a perception that the island’s whites are far more resistant to independence, because they view such a change as a threat to their current privileged social and economic status vis-à-vis the black majority. However, since the percentage of the black population opposing independence also exceeds 50%, such opposition deserves not to be seen simply as a racial or economic matter.

Based on historical references, the leadership of the black majority PLP off-handedly maintains that many black Bermudians are not satisfied with the status quo. It is a matter of record that for much of the island’s history, the fate of their respective racial communities in terms of wealth and political power was pre-ordained. As some PLP militants see it, independence would allow the island to move forward from its dark, racist past, and neutralize a profoundly bitter historical memory. While this is a topic that must be addressed, the race-based thesis cannot be easily validated, and the Premier has not committed himself to a plan that would necessarily lead to greater equity.

Bermuda Independence Commission (BIC) and its Report

The roots of the latest flare-up of the independence controversy largely can be found in the work of the Bermuda Independence Commission (BIC), which was convened on December 16, 2004 for the ostensible purpose of educating, informing and encouraging discussion and debate on the subject of independence. Theoretically, it was mandated to provide unbiased and accurate information considering all facets of the political spectrum, including the submissions of all of the island’ political parties.
In reality, little pluralism was displayed in the selection of the commission, the determination of its objectives, or the implementation of its findings. What became perfectly clear was that the BIC was mainly a caricature of a professional inquiry, and was conducted in a manner in which seriousness of purpose and accountability could not flourish. Ultimately, BIC’s work succeeded in making the issue of independence even more controversial. After months of allegedly carrying out its tasks, the BIC issued its report last September, provoking a wave of controversy over the body’s flaming lack of balance and undignified behavior.

One of the most egregious flaws in the preparation and release of the BIC report was its statement that the BIC had found no instance of a referendum being used to decide the issue of independence—which they later attempted to retract and minimize, by claiming that the statement was simply an editing error. In addition, the exclusion of any references whatsoever of the UBP’s own findings on the independence issue, signaled the inherent bias found in the commission’s report. Instead, it only incorporated the PLP’s submission. Former opposition leader Grant Gibbons said on September 16, “I was certainly surprised and disappointed to find that the UBP submission was not included in the final document whereas the PLP submission was.” The decision to entertain only the findings of one of the island’s two main political parties, at a time when independence is purported to be the major theme seizing the attention of the Bermudian public, is all but intolerable. The irony is further compounded, as Bermuda’s civil society is in the midst of a discourse centering on the promulgation of more democratic institutions, although the Premier’s response would hardly seem to validate this. His statement claimed that the UBP submission was withheld because it lacked pertinence, as it addressed the referendum vs. general election question, which according to Scott lay outside of the report’s purview. The BIC’s seemingly partisan approach deserves to be seen as a chilling omen for the island’s prospects of an even more open society.

Without equivocation, it can be said that the BIC failed in creating a benign and non-controversial information bank that the public could use to educate itself on what would be the optimum future political status for the island. Instead, in pressing for independence, local Bermudian authorities repeatedly provided the public with a stream of obfuscations, all carefully guided to provide a positive side to independence and attempt to convince the public that it should be accomplished through the normal political process and not via referendum. A prime example of this manipulation is the BIC’s declaration that the final cost of independence can only be accurately determined on the eve of its introduction, leaving the electorate with no basis to calculate the costs and benefits that might arise from achieving independence. Critics of this approach would say that the decision-making process in a democracy is invalid if key information is denied to prospective voters before they go into the voting booth.

Premier Scott and the Bermuda Independence Commission Report

Despite this smoldering controversy, and rather hapless performance, Scott is convinced that the commission has done a superb job at informing the public regarding the compelling advantages of independence, and he continues to quote from it, despite the fact that it is widely known that the document is mortally flawed and little short of being worthless. In the Throne Speech drafted by the government and delivered by the Duke of York on November 4, Scott laid out a plan of action aimed at intensifying public education on the benefits of independence, largely based on information produced by the BIC’s report. The goals of Scott’s public access program will include government-staged gatherings across the island, as well as the establishment of a system to distribute information and exchange opinions via the government-run TV channel. Scott does not propose any immediate action, noting that a timeline could not be given for when the independence issue would become the subject of a vote. In effect, Scott is saying that he will continue to roil the waters for independence for Bermuda, but will not take the plunge until he clearly sees victory at hand. The only definitive plan of action that Scott has promised, is the issuance of both a Green Paper (a discussion document) and a White Paper (a precursor to legislation), which would outline the government’s plan for achieving independence. Former UBP leader, Grant Gibbons, questioned the necessity of both and claimed that the PLP was simply using the information phase as a device to drag out the discussion for as long as possible in order to avoid a premature vote on independence, which at this moment would most likely fail. When faced with questions regarding the timeline for independence, Scott adroitly circumvents the matter, saying that he does not want to needlessly prolong the so-called information process, nor would he want to rush the public if it was felt that more time was needed. Such an approach gives a new definition to vertical self-interest in a democracy, and is certain to strain the coherence of the island’s stability if this kind of logic becomes the order of the day.

Manipulating the Cause

Scott’s passionate advocacy for the independence cause has taken him into the realm of the unacceptable. In public, he has demonstrated examples of intemperate behavior and, in order to make the semblance of a convincing case, he has been compelled to exaggerate the highlights of independence, while glossing over the unfavorable consequences of breaking formal ties with the U.K. What the PLP has done is to skewer balanced information on the independence question, while stressing tendentious interpretations and resorting to boorish and snarling intolerance when it comes to alternative points of view. Such deportment has raised questions about Premier Scott’s sense of balance and fair play. Some of his critics argue that there is good reason to believe that he is driven as much by personal ambition, political opportunism, and ego as by a prevailing sense of what is best for the island.

One would like to believe that this whole flap is not about a larger chauffeured limousine, jacked up travel vouchers, or a higher salary than at present. Even under the status quo, the perks received by the Premier and his governing colleagues are far from modest. In fact, they usually can amount to far more than their U.S. counterparts, and those to be found elsewhere in the hemisphere. The case for independence, and how to get there, has often been based more on propaganda and by repellent ad hominem attacks against his adversaries, rather than upon respectable research and responsible public debate. Bermudians are not unaware of this fact. After the issuance of the demonstrably-biased BIC report, a poll taken on November 5 shows that 66.3% of Bermudians opposed independence. The fact that this percentage did not immediately change after the release of the report demonstrates that the impact of its findings on the public was minimal.

Searching for a Way Out
Bermuda’s government must comprehensively address all of the new processes and responsibilities that would result from independence, and seek solutions that are specific and feasible, including both software and hardware inputs, political and technical consultancies that will be required, and the total score on the additional capital and operational budgets that independence will bring on. A cursory look at the Middle East, the now independent states of the former Soviet Union, and large parts of Asia and Africa, will vividly demonstrate that independence can bring on as many pains as blessings and sometimes bring on far more problems than it can solve.

Scott must do better than coming forth with such canned jargon such as “the educational system should initiate programs that foster understanding, acceptance, appreciation and celebration of all ethnic cultures represented in society.” The Bermudian Premier and his cabinet colleagues, many of whom feel that they are underpaid with their over $100,000 a year salaries (Scott in fact, all told, earns $146,728) see this amount as defensible. This figure, however, is roughly three times the figures earned by many of their counterparts outside the country. Scott might want to emulate recently inaugurated Evo Morales of Bolivia, who cut his salary in half to $1,800 a month in that nation of over 9 million, one fifth of what Scott is paid on an island of around 68,000. According to Bermuda-Online, “[Scott’s] annual salary as Premier in 2005/06 is at least $108, 452 plus at least $38,276 as a Member of Parliament (MP). He is paid about the same salary and benefits as the Governor of Massachusetts. His chauffeur-driven official car, provided free as one of his perks, with an unlimited gas (petrol) allowance, is an over-sized Peugeot (too big for the general public to own) with license plate GP1. His other benefits include no limit on calls made from home, credit card for overseas travel (no maximum), health insurance, generous pension.”
The failure of both Scott and the BIC report to address the fundamental tasks associated with independence, throws further disgrace on the current tortured progression towards independence.

The Vehicle to Reach Independence

If a murky scenario characterizes the political climate regarding Scott’s pro-independence campaign and his attempt to control public debate on the issue, an equal degree of doubt exists concerning the proposed methods for deciding the independence question. As a methodology for achieving independence, Premier Scott continuously has insisted upon a general election, which would involve the normal open selection of candidates for individual parliamentary seats, with the victorious candidates then debating independence as a regular legislative item. The Premier justifies the logic behind this strategy by arguing that the pattern around the globe has been to resolve the independence process by means of a general election. However, both the United Kingdom and the United Nations are on record as supporting the referendum approach. Following the September 2004 Overseas’ Territories Consultative Council meeting in London, the former Junior Minister responsible for the United Kingdom’s overseas territories [like Bermuda], Bill Rammell stated, “The move to independence is a fundamental step, and increasingly in the UK, major constitutional issues of this kind are being put to a referendum.” United Nation’s Resolution 1514 (XV) of 1960 states, “…irrespective of what constitutional option is chosen by a non-self governing territory in respect of its future constitutional status—be it free association with the administering power, or another state, by integration with another administering power or full independence—the decision must be determined as a result of a free and voluntary choice by the people of the territory. This must be clearly expressed through an informed and democratic process. The most transparent process is through a referendum.”

In 1995, when Former Premier Sir John Swan attempted to put the issue to a vote by means of a national referendum, a powerful PLP boycott led to a mere 58% turnout, out of that figure, 73% voted against independence and only 25% in favor. The PLP leadership’s chief motivation at the time appeared to be that of self-interest, namely whether or not the staging of a referendum would give tactical advantage or whether it would be of benefit to the party, instead of raising the question regarding which approach would be the proper vehicle to better sound out islander sentiments on the subject of going it alone.

The PLP’s blockade frustrated the referendum proposal, which then brought on Swan’s precipitous decision to resign. The former UBP leader, Gibbon, has noted that “The PLP believes that using a general election to decide this issue will help them reach their goals. What we don’t understand is how this benefits the people.” Yet for all the evidence of a widespread negative reaction to what his critics insist is Scott’s overt political opportunism, more Bermudians apparently would still vote in favor of the PLP candidate slate than for the UBP, if a general election were held tomorrow. This is the key to comprehending Scott’s stance on the referendum issue: The electorate is unable at this time to meaningfully distinguish the focus on independence from that of political party preference.

The UBP’s Stance for a Referendum
The UBP says it is not against the idea of a vote on independence, but it nevertheless strongly opposes the rancorous tactics utilized by the Scott-led drive to achieve it, and the plan to use a general election rather than an up or down referendum. Aside from many UBP members’ strong beliefs against the inadequate yield that independence will bring, why should they be against it, because they most likely will win the referendum on the question. For the UBP, independence rises above party politics and must be decided based on personal preference. From its own perspective, the UBP sees the referendum as a more democratic approach to the process, because the public will be encouraged to focus directly on a single burning issue.

While Premier Scott has presented anything but a compelling dialectic to support the necessity of a general election, the UBP has offered, for its part, a comprehensive defense for holding a referendum. Specifically, the UBP cites four benefits, which would derive from utilizing a referendum. First, voters can by-pass politicians and political parties. Second, a referendum is the purest form of electoral democracy, and as it directly expresses the will of the people is normally held only during critical events in a country’s history. Thus such a transformative issue as the adoption of a new constitution would seem to require a referendum’s use. Third, referendums are traditionally relied upon when the citizenry is being called upon to have a personal say regarding a fundamental question that will undoubtedly have a momentous impact on their own fate. Lastly, the choice between a referendum and a general election is the choice between an individual’s ability to decide upon an issue, rather than simply voting for elected officials to make decisions for them.

A potentially important new dynamic on the island’s political landscape occurred when Wayne Furbert took over as the new leader of the UBP. Several days after his January 16 selection, Furbert responded to a Bermuda Sun question regarding how he would vote in a hypothetical referendum, stating; “Right now I would vote ‘no’ to independence. That presumably might change if the U.K. became more intrusive in its policy towards Bermuda, if there was more interference. Right now, the country is satisfied with the status quo. If the people want independence, we will feel it.” Furbert might have addressed other areas of concern, such as the new expenses that would befall an independent Bermuda. These could be due, for example, to the island’s bond rating dropping, producing enhanced costs of debt servicing, and which could conceivably bring on a financial crisis where none existed before. His comments seem to misfire before a public which, to all outside scrutiny, remains vehemently opposed to independence and now prepared, if called upon, to make their voices heard through a referendum. Furbert offers continuity on the official UBP stance—that independence is an issue that should be decided based on conscience, rather than party politics. On February 15, Furbert called for a radical overhaul of Bermuda’s political system. His platform included fixed General Election dates, a referendum on independence, the installation of parliamentary recall mechanisms, and bipartisan parliamentary committees.

Civil society now figures in the debate as well, in the form of a relatively new group Bermudians for Referendum (BFR) group. On February 2, they succeeded in obtaining 15,523 signatures (301 more votes than the PLP received in the 2003 elections) — or 52.67% of the number of all valid votes cast in that election — on a petition requesting a referendum. At first, however, and in keeping with his indifference to the wishes of the majority on the island, Premier Scott found their request not worthy of public response. According to Mike Marsh, spokesperson for the organization, “Because the Premier has not responded within the time that we asked him to respond [7 days] my comment is simply that Bermuda is no longer a democratic society.” The group is prepared to bypass the Premier and proceed to press for a referendum. However, on February15, Marsh stated that a Constitutional change would be required in order to assure that the Government would be obliged to act upon it. “If we were to have a referendum on Independence we need to know how binding it would be. The law needs to be changed so people would have a voice in their own democracy,” he said. “It seems to be possible that the Premier could just ignore a referendum. He seems to think he has it all his own way.” Since the seven day deadline,the Premier has responded to Marsh’s claims, stating that he would respect the results of a referendum on independence, yet there has been no mobilization on his part for executing such a referendum.

Marsh commented in The Royal Gazette, that it would be foolish to hold a referendum on the same day as a General Election—an option being considered by the Premier—saying that the issue would get buried under party politics and spin. And he dismissed suggestions that more people would vote in a referendum if it were held on the same day as an election. He pointed out that, according to the Initiative & Referendum Institute, a referendum held over a number of days would give voters ample opportunity to get to the polls.

The Future of Bermuda
While it is not for us to try to do an explication de texte on whatever intentions may lie behind Premier Scott’s and his colleagues’ fervent pursuit of independence, particularly by means of a general election, there is more here than meets the eye. Two issues are particularly troubling in the face that Bermuda presents to the world. In examining the findings of Bermuda-Online, which is associated with The Royal Gazette, the overwhelmingly black PLP governing party has demonstrably made little effort to create in itself a biracial political force that accommodates diversity and pluralism on the island. At the same time, the opposition UBP, whose leadership position was recently awarded to Wayne Furbert (a black Bermudian), has done a much more credible job at integrating the party than has been the case with the PLP, as evidenced by the numbers furnished below.

According to Bermuda-Online, the PLP offered a candidate slate with 35 black candidates, and only one white candidate, while the UBP list included 23 black and 13 white candidates.

Before independence can even be reasonably considered, continued economic prosperity must be assured, and a dependable post-independence economic infrastructure envisaged, along with detailed plans for its implementation. Thus, Scott’s task is set: if you think you can make a winning case for your position, then bring about independence without killing the golden economic goose, and recognize that there is more involved with independence than enjoying being referred to as Prime Minister rather than Premier. In addition, a majority of the population must be assured that there exists a true consensus before the tiny island can seriously even consider undertaking any change of this magnitude. The success of the BFR campaign offers one approach to potentially solving the independence question once and for all. For the Premier, his time is running out. He must promptly reply to his constituents on the matter of a referendum. This may have to mean the end of the year of independence dialogue (also known as “buying time”), as Bermudians prepare to decide the future of their island, even if it means maintaining the status quo.