The shape of things to come?
Few issues on the Bermuda political agenda have been as assiduously avoided and talked around in recent years as independence.
For all practical purposes, the matter was filed and forgotten along with the final report of former premier Alex Scott’s 2006 Bermuda Independence Commission, the last official attempt to jump-start debate on the issue.
Despite the Progressive Labour Party constitution saying that one of its objectives is “to serve as a vehicle in moving Bermuda to independence”, the reality is this tenet has been honoured far, far more in the breach than the observance since Scott’s initiative.
Given the Independence Commission’s work was met by a lack of public interest, bordering on apathy, neither of Scott’s two successors as leaders of PLP governments so much as touched on the matter, save in the most casual and passing manners.
Independence remained a non-issue after the One Bermuda Alliance came to power in 2012 and was scarcely mentioned during the recent five-week election campaign, which culminated with the PLP being returned to office on July 18.
But things changed abruptly on Labour Day.
“We have to shift the conversation and remove ourselves from this colonial rule,” Bermuda Public Services Union president and newly minted government senator Jason Hayward told a rally of working people. “We have to now look at independence as a viable option for our people so we can set our own agenda, so we can create our own system and so we can see our people get ahead.”
The reaction to his remarks was instant, energetic and, predictably enough, deeply divided.
His defenders argued that Hayward, a longtime supporter of independence, simply made a rookie political error, given the emotion and excitement of Labour Day, overlooking that as a senator, his personal views were now open to interpretation as official government policy.
But some of his critics suggested Hayward had knowingly floated a trial balloon on independence on behalf of some in the PLP parliamentary group.
These insinuations were accompanied by dark mutterings about a hidden PLP agenda to manufacture a crisis with Britain that could provide a pretext for quickly moving Bermuda to independence despite the issue not featuring in the election.
These rumblings did not take long to cause muted concern in a number of quarters, including the island’s international business community. Given Bermuda’s offshore business clientele never takes well to uncertainty, it is hardly surprising that just the suggestion of a renewed independence campaign would fuel worries about the possibility of heightened social tensions and political instability.
Jamahl Simmons, the Minister of Economic Development and Tourism, was asked point-blank this week about the Government’s stance on independence by the moderator of a panel discussion at the opening of a major captive insurance conference.
“The position is this,” he said. “It was not in our [election campaign] platform. We have not discussed it.”
His answer was clear and unambiguous — and may yet get overtaken by unfolding events.
Its constitution notwithstanding, the PLP is a house with many rooms when it comes to independence: there are those who view sovereignty as the party’s supreme article of faith, those who pay lip service to the idea without having a strong position about the subject one way or the other, and those who are quietly but determinedly opposed for a variety of pragmatic or philosophical reasons.
The situation at Alaska Hall mirrors the broader situation throughout Bermuda. A passionate but relatively small segment of the community favours Bermuda cutting its remaining constitutional ties with Britain. But independence failed to ignite the public’s imagination either during the campaign leading up to the 1995 referendum on the subject or when Scott resuscitated the issue a decade later because the overwhelming majority of Bermudians viewed such a move as unnecessary: the costs and potential pitfalls of sovereignty were deemed to far outweigh any possible benefits.
But that long-established ambivalence on the subject of independence could well be about to change.
It would be patently wrong to describe government backbencher Wayne Furbert’s pending Private Members’ Bill aimed at rolling back protections afforded under Bermuda’s Human Rights Act as a Trojan Horse for independence.
But it would be equally wrong to discount the possibility of diehard independence supporters in the new government and their surrogates using the controversial legislation as just that — a stealth method for reviving the issue, the long-sought pretext that could provide new impetus for sovereignty.
While the new government did not mention independence in its election manifesto, it did campaign — and campaign hard — on a pledge to outlaw same-sex marriage in Bermuda. This is not, of course, an unpopular position here. Just last year the non-binding referendum on same-sex marriage and civil unions demonstrated strong public opposition to both — while it is true fewer than 50 per cent of voters participated, those who spend their days studying actuarial tables will tell you the sample size was sufficiently large to reflect broader community opinion on these matters.
The referendum results give a clear measure of prevailing popular sentiment on the question of gay unions. And the PLP’s recent landslide victory technically provides it with the mandate to pursue amending the Human Rights Act, as was promised in its platform: “technically” because selectively revoking human rights on the basis of a show-of-hands vote in Bermuda’s House of Assembly would almost certainly place Britain in breach of its obligations under international law.
So the outlines of a showdown between Bermuda and the British are beginning to take shape.
Whether or not Government House refuses to provide its assent to Furbert’s proposed amendment, given its almost assured passage in the House, a possibility floated by former attorney-general Mark Pettingill, this legislation will eventually end up before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, Bermuda’s final court of appeal. And it is almost impossible to imagine any circumstances under which it would be upheld there given recent British, European and international decisions bearing on human rights.
British interference with the will of the Bermudian people and its duly elected representatives will then almost certainly be cited, and exploited, by independence proponents as a justification for moving to sovereignty.
And given the number of people who oppose same-sex marriage, there will likely be a far more receptive audience for such calls now than there has been at any other time in recent history — or at least that will be the basis of the political calculus employed by those eager to use this issue to further another agenda.
Indeed, there seem to be some entirely reasonable grounds for believing that Hayward’s comments were not a one-off and the long period of independence being avoided and talked around in Bermuda is rapidly approaching an end.
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