Our legislature: a voice for many, protector of the few
Last weekend, with very little ceremony, Bermuda marked the 400th anniversary of the first meeting of its legislature.
Part of the reason for the lack of pomp and circumstance was the impact of the novel coronavirus, which has hampered any kind of large public event. But a good deal of it has to do with ambivalence over the institution of Bermuda’s Parliament and its history.
This ambivalence is readily understandable. Until 1968, the House of Assembly was elected by a limited franchise, which effectively excluded the vast majority of black Bermudians. This same legislature then provided the legal restrictions by which first slavery and then segregation were enforced, meaning it could reinforce its own hegemony as an institution along with the relatively small group of wealthy whites who were represented in it.
It would be easy, therefore, to reject this legislature as illegitimate and undemocratic, and thus forgettable. But some care needs to be taken not to reject this history.
Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, often repeated the statement: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
The statement, first popularised by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, reminds us that although we live in an imperfect world, it is a world that can and does improve.
Care needs to be taken not to assume that this progress is preordained or inevitable. Indeed, as long as it is, the moral arc can be shortened through determined effort. The recently passed civil rights icon John Lewis was an exemplar of this. Bermuda’s history is replete with home-grown examples.
In the context of Bermuda’s parliamentary history, this statement reminds us that our legislature was imperfect, but it always contained the possibility of improvement; and indeed when change has come, it has come through this institution.
If we judge it solely by what it stood for in 1620, 1830 or 1950, we do not allow for the possibility of change or for it having changed in those years. For all the harm it may have done, it did good, too, and this reminds us that change through peaceful and democratic means is not only possible but has happened — and society is the better for it.
We should not forget that in 1772, the British judge Lord Mansfield issued his judgment, which established that slavery was illegal on the soil of the British Isles. Once issued, no legislature tried to change this ruling. Without this judgment, the Bermudian Mary Prince would not have been free to leave her owners when she landed in London, and not gone on to write her slave narrative, which helped to bring about the end of slavery in the British Empire.
We should not forget that in 1833, the Bermuda House of Assembly passed the Act of Emancipation, which ended slavery in Bermuda for all time. We cannot forget that at virtually the same time, the property requirements for holding the franchise were increased by the same House, thus effectively disenfranchising many black Bermudians for decades.
So, the road to liberty is uneven, and no one should excuse these acts. But it is also possible to discern progress as a result of representative government, and the triumph of morals over economics and the artificial construction of racial differences.
The miracle of democracy is its ability to change, to recognise where it falls short of its own ideals and to improve upon them. The United States was founded on the idea of achieving a more perfect union, which recognises the idea that the present is not perfect, but a point on the way to a better world.
One day, people will look back on Bermuda in 2020 and our flaws will be more obvious than our strengths. But that reality should not obscure that great steps were made by great men and women, driven forward by the desires of ordinary people, to make Bermuda a better and more democratic place.
These achievements in the 19th century included the elections of the first black Members of Parliament and, especially in the second half of the 20th century, the dismantling of voting and civil restrictions. These included the granting of the franchise to women in 1944 — a vote made possible by the vote of black MP Eustace Cann — in the wake of a decades-long fight, the legal establishment of trade unions, desegregation after the 1959 Theatre Boycott and in the 1960s the introduction of the 1968 Constitution, the establishment of the universal adult suffrage; one person, one vote.
Since then, progress has continued, especially in the field of human rights, and will continue to do so. All of these accomplishments were indeed brought about in Bermuda’s legislature, but often only after sustained efforts by the public outside of the Legislature.
That is because, by and large, the Legislature is a mirror of the general populace. Progress is often slow and the forces of resistance, the desire to leave things they are, often strong.
In a way, this is how it should be. Parliamentary democracy should be capable of change, but it should also be stable. Rapid change is reversible change, so it is right that when significant change occurs, it has been thought through and it brings the population with it. Even when in hindsight the need for change seems obvious, this is not always so at the time.
In that context, Bermuda can mark 400 years of representative democracy with cautious pride. There are few other places in the world that can say they have enjoyed a government that has continuously represented its public, however imperfectly it may have done so.
At times, the Legislature was an important restraint on the power of an empire; at others, a restraint on the rightful desires of the population for more freedom. But that is the nature of representative democracy — it does not always get it right, but it does not claim to be omnipotent, either.
Above all, it is self-correcting. Over the long course of events, it improves, getting closer to that ideal of providing justice for all and being a voice for the many and the protector of the few.
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