Constitution Order overdue an upgrade
It has been a while, Mr Editor, 50 years to the month in fact that the Bermuda Constitution Order came into effect.
The first point is that it is a Constitution Order, not a Constitution, and the point here is that it is a statutory instrument of the British Government — it is a piece of its legislation, not ours.
It is, however, ours in the sense that since adoption it is the document by which we have been governed for the past 50 years, and it is worth reflecting on this important anniversary just what it was that we adopted, whether it has served us well, and whether it can be improved upon.
The Constitution Order was heralded in its time as a great step forward. It was. The big breakthrough was an end to the plus vote and the introduction of universal adult suffrage. Bermuda was going to move from representative to responsible government. The promise was that this would usher in an era of sweeping and fundamental change in the way Bermuda would henceforth be governed — and it did.
It was widely acknowledged at the time that this new era of responsible government meant the dawn of party politics. The days of a government run by a narrow network of independents, predominantly white, was over. Political parties were regarded as the most effective means to carry out a legislative agenda that has been approved by the electorate voting in a General Election.
That was the theory — and still is to a large extent. But, 50 years on, it begs the question: has it enabled us to progress as a community of people, comprised principally of two races, black and white, living together on 21 square miles of rock in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean?
Here, it is worth bearing in mind some critical issues that went unresolved with the adoption of the 1968 Order:
• The size of the various constituencies and their boundaries and that they were clearly unequal in size, giving more weight to white voters and less to those who were black
• Voter registration, which was voluntary and not automatic
• The residency vote.
It is interesting and instructive to reflect on how these contentious issues were addressed at the time by the British Government. They were regarded as matters for the Bermuda legislature and government of the day.
Let me pause here to say that British debates pretty well mirrored all the points that were being made in Bermuda. Some Members obviously went out of their way to be informed and today, some 50 years later, their remarks are there to be enjoyed on the electronic Hansard of the House of Commons.
Sadly, there was no Hansard in Bermuda back then, although The Royal Gazette did try to provide fairly extensive coverage of parliamentary debates, certainly far more so than in recent times. The National Library has those newspapers and reports available on microfilm along with copies of the Bermuda Sun and the Recorder; although with respect to the latter, it was a disappointment to find no copies for the year 1968. A very significant omission of the perspective that the Recorder brought to the political narrative, whether it was news, or Weary Willie and Tired Tim, for those who can remember.
The British Government made it clear that it was not going to interfere with what it regarded as local, internal matters. It may have been a matter of convenience. Or a matter of principle. Or both.
The official position was that this was a negotiated settlement, arising out of a constitutional conference, which had featured representatives from the two political parties, the Progressive Labour Party and United Bermuda Party, as well as a selection of independents, elected and non-elected. It was also thought to be a big step forward, notwithstanding some of the criticism, for which there appeared to be great sympathy on the back benches of the House of Commons.
Not surprisingly, Bermuda’s relative economic success also featured in the debates and a concern expressed that nothing be done that might jeopardise progress on that front.
The end result? The UBP’s promise of great integration through a black/white partnership meant that dual-seat constituencies, but still of unequal size, won the day when the UBP won the government. The PLP’s push for equal votes of equal value took a back seat.
Gradualism — my word, my view — prevailed.
But the door was decidedly left open to come back for further change.
The point was made repeatedly, but best summed up by Judith Hart, the British Minister of State for Commonwealth Affairs, who piloted the 1968 Order through the House of Commons:
“Any constitution is an interim constitution. I think you must regard constitutional development as a steady process. Bermuda’s new constitution is a very big advance on the previous one. It will be a good thing if people are interested enough to discuss how it will evolve further. If there is a demand for further change, then further change will no doubt occur.”