‘The UBP and the Forty Thieves had a firm, unhealthy grasp on our community’
Former Premier Alex Scott reflects on the PLP’s golden anniversary
By Ayo Johnson
The Progressive Labour Party has changed Bermuda for the better, according to former Premier Alex Scott.
Reflecting on the party’s 50th anniversary — celebrated this month — Mr Scott is confident that it will last another 50 years.
“God knows — Bermuda needed changing. And the United Bermuda Party and the Forty Thieves had a firm grasp, and an unhealthy grasp, on our community,” said Mr Scott of the early years of party politics.
Mr Scott returned to the Island after graduating from university in the 1960s and he and his colleagues were facing major challenges establishing their businesses and professions in an Island dominated by a racist oligarchy.
“I remember turning to my fiancee and saying ‘if I can’t make it in Bermuda as it is, then I will change Bermuda’. And in actual fact given the course of events, we did play a significant role in the changes that have taken place.
“And this is the time to play tribute. I prefer to say ‘we’ because there’s always someone else assisting. There’s always someone else prepared to play a supporting role. The PLP has become an institution. It is the political establishment — whether folks like it or not — of Bermuda.
“As a functioning party it is the longest serving political party in this country. The closest party is two years — the One Bermuda Alliance. The UBP ran its course trying to counter and contend with the PLP.
“And the PLP’s roots are solid and deep. Individuals may falter, we may have our ups and downs, but the principles of the founding fathers — I would like to think — are alive and well. And anyone who tries to move away from the founding fathers’ concepts and precepts find themselves in trouble.”
A pivotal moment in Bermuda’s history was the establishment of the Pitt Commission, a Royal Commission which had been insisted upon by the PLP to look into the causes of the 1977 riots.
“There would have been no Pitt Commission if it wasn’t for the PLP,” said Mr Scott. “Government didn’t want it because the PLP’s position was that the UBP had ignored for a long time the social ills of the community to the point where we were having what we called the riot season — riot after riot every five or ten years.
“Now we had this lethal event, this tragic event the assassination of a Governor which was unheard of.
“The point was made, publicly and to Government House, and the British acquiesced. The situation was considered serious enough for there to be an inquiry into the disturbances.”
Mr Scott was recommended to be one of the Commissioners by Eugene Cox, father of Paula Cox who would become Party Leader and Premier 30 years later.
“Every key Minister was required to come before us and give evidence. And we were empowered to request and receive any information that we thought appropriate to our task of getting to the root cause of the disturbances.”
The Pitt Commission recommendations called for wide-scale reform of Bermuda’s governance.
“It made it a more just society. Some would say we are still short of the glory. But the PLP really came into its own then.”
The party’s electoral chances improved considerably in the post Pitt Commission years, Mr Scott continued, and in the 1980 general election it won 18 seats — three short of an overall victory — in the then-40 seat House of Assembly.
Mr Scott fondly remembers the campaign slogans of those heady days — “Make it Happen”, “Send Jack a Message” and “Xchange Them”.
But by 1985 the party fell into disarray following internal wrangling and expulsions. Then Premier Sir John Swan took advantage of the situation by calling snap elections to consolidate the UBP’s control of Government. It lost another seven seats in the election of November 1985, but reorganised and reenergised under Frederick Wade gained eight in the 1989 poll.
Wilfred Mose Allen, Hugh Ryo Richardson, Albert Peter Smith, Edward DeJean, Walter NH Robinson, Austin Wilson and Dilton C Cann formed the Bermuda Progressive Labour Party in 1963, meeting in a garage to hammer out its positions and strategies.
But the party was officially formed on February 10,1963 when its first formal meeting was held in Mr Richardson’s office.
Mr Scott said it was important for the public to “take a moment’s pause and look at the PLP with fresh eyes”.
“Look at the fact that after 50 years in a hostile environment — it’s never been easy for the PLP — it remains a viable entity.”
He added that few would have imagined that the PLP would have survived 50 years and not the UBP.
“I think that point has to be recognised and applauded. Those five or six men who gathered in Richardson’s garage in the early sixties deserve a moment of silence and tribute.
“Because their idea, their passion in this country has created a vehicle in which all politics — it would be fair comment to say that all the politics in Bermuda could be stamped ‘made in Bermuda by the PLP’. The political narrative has either been created, shaped or is a reaction to the existence and policies of the PLP.”
Early leaders such as Eugene Cox, Lois Browne Evans and Frederick Wade made numerous sacrifices for the party, Mr Scott continued.
“I, for one, am humbled by the fact that I was able to make a small contribution in the presence of these political giants. They did not get into the PLP for how much they could make.
“They did not get into the PLP for the status. Some lost homes, some had their careers shortened. [For others] it became party over family — some were that passionate about their politics.
Three months after that first formal meeting of the PLP, it contested its first general election, with six of its nine candidates becoming Members of the Colonial Parliament.
Existing MCPs reacted to the new political entity by forming a party of their own, the United Bermuda Party, less than a year later.
A new Constitution in 1966 set the stage for the electoral contest between the two parties in 1968, but it enshrined the vote for certain non-Bermudian residents.
The PLP pushed for additional reforms in the Constitutional Conference of 1979 and succeeded in abolishing the non-Bermudian vote but did not get agreement on an equitable voting system.
Mr Scott began a relationship with the PLP in the early 1970s when he pitched public relations services to L Frederick Wade who, with Lois Browne Evans, was one of the two most influential leaders of the party at the time.
He was to work pro-bono for the party working closely with David Allen in shaping the party’s image.
But complaints from the membership about his growing influence as a non-member prompted him to join.
He subsequently served in various capacities — Chairman, Opposition Senator, Member of Parliament, Cabinet Minister and Premier — over the years.
Bermuda’s first political party was the first to air political broadcasts on television — a key part of Mr Scott’s recommended strategy as it fought a negative image being fostered by the media establishment.
Mr Scott is in early stages of writing his memoirs — tentatively titled ‘The Devil’s Forty’, referring to the Forty Thieves or the merchant class that dominated commerce and government.
“I don’t think Bermuda is going to realise its fullest potential until we have freed ourselves of the influence of that era and the policies those men put in place.”
He said there had been a widespread belief that only businessmen could run the country. “The PLP didn’t survive 50 years just by luck but we have to put paid to the notion that only businessmen can run the country.”
*The PLP is celebrating its 50th anniversary at its Founders Day luncheon tomorrow at the Hamilton Princess.
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