Populist rhetoric falls short

  • Divide and conquer: David Burt, the Premier, took us more backward than forward in his much awaited address to launch the PLP delegates conference in place of the traditional Throne Speech (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

    Divide and conquer: David Burt, the Premier, took us more backward than forward in his much awaited address to launch the PLP delegates conference in place of the traditional Throne Speech (Photograph by Akil Simmons)


At the beginning of his speech to the Progressive Labour Party delegates conference on Monday night, David Burt warned the audience: “Fasten your seatbelts.”

In this, at least, the Premier was not indulging in hyperbole or exaggeration. Towards the end of the speech, he predicted it would be described as radical and he was happy to embrace that label. And indeed, much of the speech was just that — a full-blooded attack on Bermuda’s business establishment in the name of ending racial inequity and bringing economic parity to Bermuda.

According to the Premier — and this was a reversion, albeit more explicit, to the 2017 election campaign — Bermuda consists of two worlds. There’s the business establishment, implicitly if not explicitly white-dominated, and there’s everyone else, implicitly, if not explicitly, black.

In Mr Burt’s world view, the business establishment has done everything it can to get all of the economic privilege that exists, while everyone else is lucky to get a few scraps off the table. It has done so via a deliberately racist immigration system designed to deprive black Bermudians of opportunity and it has deliberately starved people of capital as well.

Mr Burt goes on to promise miraculous and easy solutions to these systemic problems — of which, more later.

But make no mistake. All of this is out of the populist playbook, the same one that US President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other equally unsavoury characters work from. They may play to different demographics, but the message is the same.

As with all populists — for that is what the Premier is, or has become — there is a germ of truth in what he had to say.

Bermuda suffers from economic inequality on the basis of race. A white person in Bermuda is likely to be wealthier than a black person. And the system, if left unchecked, is likely to be self-perpetuating. Only the blind or economically illiterate can deny this fact or the history on which it is based.

Indeed, Mr Burt was entirely right when he said: “It cannot be right that there are 5,000 uninsured or underinsured Bermudians and that 91 per cent of them are black. That is wrong, that is unjust, but that is the system we have in Bermuda. So when we are attacked for fighting for a better and fairer system for the people in this country, I wear that as a badge of honour because in the Bermuda that I lead, we must have fairness.”

But it’s one thing to diagnose the problem, however crudely, and another to find a solution.

Equally, Mr Trump appeals to a demographic of white working-class Americans whose traditional position has been eroded by the hollowing out of the United States’ industrial base. But rather than blame it on that, Mr Trump plays to that base’s worst instincts — it is the fault of elites and untrammelled immigration by people who look different from his supporters.

And the solutions are easy, according to Mr Trump. Build a wall. Start trade wars with yellow people.

Similarly, Mr Johnson blames his white supporters’ ills on the elites in Brussels and London, and on the immigrants they have allowed to flood Britain, taking jobs from white Britons.

Mr Johnson’s solutions are simple, too. Leave the European Union. Turn the waters surrounding Britain into a barrier to dark-skinned immigrants, even at the expense of cutting off Northern Ireland.

Mr Burt also presents simple answers to complex questions.

The solution to Bermuda’s problems lies in repatriating Bermuda’s private pension funds to Bermuda and then creating vehicles by which the holders of those funds can invest in companies — apparently created and backed by the Bermuda Government — which will take on the vested interests that own the island’s banks and grocery stores.

There’s a deceptively simple number as well. Just as the Mexicans were going to pay for Mr Trump’s wall and £350 million a week being sent to the EU was going to be freed for Britain’s National Health Service, so Mr Burt is promising that $3 billion will be brought home and set to work redressing the imbalances in Bermuda.

He said: “Follow me now, family: much of this money — now worth $3 billion — is invested overseas, creating jobs and economic opportunities for people in other countries and not for all of you. Yes, that’s right, I said the mandatory savings, less the fees that you are paying to Argus, Colonial and BF&M to manage your money, are being used to create businesses overseas, while you struggle locally.

“Tonight, I say that it is time to bring that money home. The hopes and dreams of entrepreneurs who wish to compete with the established generational wealth, to make our economy more efficient and to create wealth for them and future generations, can no longer be deferred. In Singapore — a country that many want Bermuda to be like — they allow their citizens to use their mandatory savings to put a down payment on a new home and invest in the shares of Singaporean companies. I want that for all of the people here, who have toiled hard and who want hope for the future.

“I have faith that Bermudians can look at what they have, assess the risks and decide, if they wish, to make a bet on their future. If they are confident in their plans, they should be given access to a small portion of their forced savings to benefit themselves and their families. If it is good enough for Singaporeans, it is good enough for Bermudians.”

After the 2017 election, there was a tendency to add a prefix to Mr Burt’s name. He was not simply David Burt, but “the brilliant David Burt” and few would deny Mr Burt’s intelligence, either as an election strategist or in framing a speech.

The two paragraphs above are brilliantly constructed. They contain an emotional appeal — bring the money home (“build that wall”, “take back control”), a promise to empower ambitious entrepreneurs, the targeting of greedy insurance companies, the use of a country admired by conservatives as a means of disarming his opponents, and a final compliment to the audience — Bermudians are naturally intelligent enough to invest well and are deserving of the same opportunities as people in other countries.

The catch, of course, is in the detail. The Mexicans refused to build Mr Trump’s wall. There is no £350 million for the NHS. And there is no $3 billion. There is instead “a small portion” of Bermudians’ mandatory savings. That’s not to say that this is a paltry amount. If Mr Burt is able to achieve this for 1 per cent of the pension funds, it would be $30 million, which won’t capitalise a bank, but is enough for a supermarket and a few other businesses beside. But it’s not $3 billion.

Beyond the sound and the fury, the implicit race-baiting, the deliberate attempt to set one part of Bermuda against another and the occasional moments of soaring oratory, this speech is an admission of failure.

In 2017, Mr Burt promised to re-energise the economy by turning Bermuda into the financial technology capital of the world. A revolution funded by cryptocurrencies was under way and Bermuda was going to be at its forefront.

On Monday night, financial technology was glaringly absent from Mr Burt’s speech. Having tried to turn Bermuda around for two years, Mr Burt has in effect given up. And having given up, his solution is that of the sore loser at chess — he wants to throw the board and all the pieces up in the air — because clearly the failure is not his fault. It’s the game’s fault or, in this case, “the system’s”, which must now be torn down.

Again, some of Mr Burt’s diagnosis is accurate. Parts of Bermuda’s status quo are holding the island up. The banks’ unwillingness to lend does hold back entrepreneurs, as does the lack of capital willing to take risk. The tendency to invest and hold in real estate restricts funds for other more short-term forms of investment. And, yes, some of Bermuda’s established businesses are slow to change and are myopic.

But the status quo has other faults unacknowledged by Mr Burt. One is the tendency, as noted recently by the Bermuda Tourism Authority, to say no first and then to ask for the question. Another is the island’s sclerotic bureaucracy, while it also suffers from financial regulators who make opening a business banking account the equivalent of getting the highest security clearance. And a public education system that too often is satisfied with mediocrity is at the root of many of our problems.

Finally, our politics do not help. Bermuda has not been well served by either political party in the past decade, and Mr Burt’s speech is only the latest that spends as much or more time blaming the other side for the island’s problems as it does looking for solutions.

Honest politicians on both sides of the aisle will admit that Bermuda’s problems are complex and do not lend themselves to easy solutions. We make them worse when we spend time apportioning blame instead of coming together to find answers.

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Published Oct 30, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Oct 30, 2019 at 10:03 am)

Populist rhetoric falls short

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