A legacy worth emulating
With Walton Brown’s death, the Progressive Labour Party has lost one of its more thoughtful and cerebral leaders, and is the poorer for it.
Mr Brown, who was just 59 at the time of his passing, was destined to be involved in politics from an early age. His grandfather, Walton St George Brown, was a political activist and an inveterate writer of Letters to the Editor. And of course, Mr Brown’s wider family were also intensely political, including among its number Ewart Brown, the former premier.
Mr Brown began his professional life as an historian and a lecturer in political science, and retained the air of the academic; happily, after a long period of gestation, his thesis became a book — Bermuda and the Struggle for Reform: Race, Politics and Ideology, 1944-1998 — which is an important record of the second half of the 20th century in Bermuda, and especially of the labour movement’s role in political reform.
Mr Brown was also consistent in his views, and willing to support causes, even when they were unpopular or out of fashion.
Thus in the late 1980s, when the economy was strong, the American and British bases seemed to be here to stay and Sir John Swan and the United Bermuda Party appeared to be unassailable, he launched a campaign for independence that appeared to be hopelessly quixotic.
Less than a decade later, Sir John was throwing the dice on independence, and when the PLP decided to boycott the 1995 referendum, Mr Brown urged independence supporters to vote Yes. That the referendum resulted in a crushing defeat for independence is neither here nor there; Mr Brown stuck with his principles, even when doing so meant breaking with his party.
That spoke to Mr Brown’s character, although that independent streak cost him. He had a spell in the Senate and entered the House of Assembly by a narrow margin from what was supposed to be a PLP stronghold in 2012. In Opposition, he was one of the strategists who derailed the One Bermuda Alliance’s Pathways to Status policy and it was no surprise that he was handed immigration as part of the Home Affairs portfolio after the PLP landslide in 2017.
His portfolio also included municipal reform and the politically fraught question of same-sex marriage.
By the time Mr Brown was sent to the Cabinet Office as Minister without Portfolio, neither comprehensive immigration reform nor municipal reform had reached the point of legislation. That may have been because Mr Brown spent an immense amount of time attempting to achieve a compromise on same-sex marriage and used up a good deal of personal political capital in doing so. The passage of his civil unions’ legislation is now tied up in the courts.
There is a tendency in obituaries not to speak ill of the dead, and Mr Brown would be the first to admit he was imperfect. There were complaints about delays on work-permit processing when he was in charge of immigration and, earlier, his leadership of the attempt to shut down a Senate debate on immigration was ill-judged and set a dangerous precedent for Bermudian democracy.
However, in many ways Mr Brown’s tenure in the Ministry of Home Affairs epitomised the internal contradictions that the PLP faced after its big victory, and his struggles to square these circles should not necessarily be laid solely at his feet — they are more the inherent problems the entire Government is still struggling with.
Indeed, Wayne Caines has so far also failed to produce an immigration Bill since taking over that portfolio from Mr Brown. Walter Roban inherited the municipal reform segment of his portfolio and, after effectively removing the corporations’ democratic hearts by forcing through the Municipalities Act, failed to get the Bill through the Senate, although the Government can use its majority to drive it through next year.
These issues highlight the conflict between ideology and the reality of governing with which the PLP is grappling, but they also show how important individuals such as Mr Brown are to resolving that issue.
On immigration, the PLP faces the Gordian knot of fulfilling election promises — and, to be fair, this is embedded in the PLP’s DNA — to put Bermudians first while trying to achieve economic growth without offering would-be investors and overseas entrepreneurs more than a one-year work permit.
In the municipalities, Mr Roban used a great deal of political capital to remove the direct elections of representatives and replacing them with central government appointees — despite being a leader of a “progressive” party whose roots lie in the struggle for Bermudian democracy.
And on same-sex marriage, Mr Brown, an undoubted liberal and progressive, tried to present civil unions as a better alternative when, in truth, the legislation alienated liberals while doing little to satisfy the PLP’s fundamentalist Christian base.
But what is worth noting is that the many critics of the civil unions Bill were rarely critical of Mr Brown personally. While there may have been some disappointment that Mr Brown did not in this case put his personal views first, there was a recognition that he was trying to play a bad hand as well as he could.
And that is perhaps Mr Brown’s greatest legacy. He was able to move with some ease between white and black Bermuda, between rich and poor Bermuda, and between the Bermuda of the labour movement and the Bermuda of the business world.
That he could do this — and, sad to say, it is a rare thing in Bermuda — was because, as Patricia Gordon- Pamplin noted, Mr Brown could disagree without being disagreeable. Indeed, Mr Brown rarely descended into the personal attacks that have so lowered the quality of debate in the House of Assembly in recent years. Instead, his criticisms and advocacy of policies were usually based on facts and thought-through logic.
Perhaps more of his colleagues will now see fit to emulate him. That would be a truly great legacy.
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