Independence Day: if not now, when?
The following is a repurposing of the Premier’s speech to the House of Assembly on the 50th anniversary of Universal Adult Suffrage in Bermuda:
Mr Speaker, Madame President, Honourable Members of the House of Assembly and the Senate, former premiers, former Members of the Legislature and the distinguished “Class of 68”, good morning.
It is indeed an honour to address this special joint session of the legislature on the 50th anniversary of the first election to be held under Bermuda’s Constitution Order. Historians have described 1968 as one of the most tumultuous years in history.
Last month we recalled the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr and next month will mark a similar milestone that brings to remembrance the slaying of Robert Kennedy.
There were student protests around the world, from Columbia University in New York against the Vietnam War, to the Latin Quarter of Paris against systems of economic injustice.
Decades before NFL players knelt in solidarity, two African-American Olympic medal-winners bowed their heads and raised gloved fists in a Black Power salute as their national anthem played in Mexico City.
Amid all of this unrest and more, an Order in Council was brought into force on February 21 of that year.
In language that has now become familiar, the Bermuda Constitution Order attempted to codify the very ideals that were stimulating the protests around the world.
“Fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual” begins chapter one of a story that 50 years later is still unfinished. It is a story that was meant to be co-authored.
The Bermuda Constitution Order was largely the British contribution to this narrative, and the intent was that we, the people of Bermuda, would finish the story by writing our own chapter called “Independence”.
The constitution of the party that I am privileged to lead states that the Bermuda Progressive Labour Party is to “serve as a vehicle in moving Bermuda to independence”.
So it can and should be no surprise that as Premier, I have no fears about repeating that ultimate aim.
The fits and starts, the passing flirtations with independence have never taken hold in the hearts and minds of the people.
This is perhaps because we, as politicians, have been consumed with managing Bermuda and all its disparate interests, and have never turned our collective energies towards establishing the vision required to lead Bermuda into the next chapter of her constitutional development.
This constitution has been tested, from within our island and without. Every meaningful test of the 1968 document teaches us that it is imperfect, unfinished and stands ready to be better cast in the image of the Bermuda of today.
It is unacceptable in a modern democracy to have decisions made thousands of miles away that impact our customs, our institutions and our livelihoods.
Likewise, it is not acceptable that decisions made closer to home reflect London’s desires, but bear no resemblance to our own desires as expressed at the ballot box.
The year 1968 began a slow move towards electoral justice and parliamentary dignity for Bermuda.
The elimination of the property vote and the extension of the franchise to all those of age eligible to vote was only a beginning.
That fact makes all the more extraordinary the sacrifice of those men and women who put their names forward as candidates in that first election under the new constitution then. This was new ground and the trail they blazed set the stage for further victories in democracy that culminated in the 2001 constitutional changes and the 2003 General Election, where true universal adult suffrage was achieved: one man or woman, one vote; each vote of equal value.
Over these 50 years, we have comforted ourselves with small victories, and the knowledge that the Bermuda Constitution Order gives us more protections than those of our sister Overseas Territories.
Occasionally, the tenets of the Constitution seem to work in our favour. But, make no mistake, it does not take much for us to be reminded that the elegant strands woven together by its eight chapters, 108 sections and two schedules can be easily converted to stifle growth, legitimate aspirations and the manifest will of the people.
Although we may be referred to now as “Overseas Territories” — it is just the politically correct way to say that we are a colonial possession of the United Kingdom; a country with a parliament that still thinks it is right to legislate for its colonies from Westminster; a place where we have no voice; a place where we have no vote; and a place where our people’s futures are treated as convenient political punchbags without regard for the lives that are impacted by the UK’s domestic political squabbles.
Just yesterday [Monday], the Palace of Westminster witnessed a debate where the residents of the colonies were treated with disdain, and where peers spoke about the contingent liability of the colonies, with Members who may have never set foot here, purporting to have the right to make laws for this colony.
Mr Speaker, Madame President, Honourable Members of the House of Assembly and the Senate, today’s observances are a critical part of understanding our past and using that understanding to chart this country’s future. Although some may not agree, it is not “independence at all costs” that will serve us well in writing the long-awaited next chapter in this island’s story. As the former Honourable Member and Premier, Dame Jennifer Smith, said on an August night in 1995:
“Independence alone and of itself will not solve the many problems that face us today and that threaten our children’s future. For independence to mean a better future for Bermuda, it must be based on a solid foundation of electoral and constitutional reform.”
Our charge after this commemoration of the unfinished story is to collectively build that solid foundation. It is to lead the movement to those reforms necessary to assure the people of Bermuda that when the inevitable question on independence is asked, the answers are clear and the people are properly equipped to uniquely finish the work that was started in 1968.
Fifty years on, the story awaits an ending chapter. The question is will today’s teenagers have to wait until they collect their pension cheques to read that chapter? It is my hope that while Bermuda is challenged by the neocolonialism from Westminster that all Bermudians, white and black, PLP and One Bermuda Alliance, can relax our political tribalism long enough to realise that if we do not meet the threat posed by the British Parliament’s latest actions, that we in Bermuda may not have the means by which to write that final chapter.
Mr Speaker, the Class of 1968 taught us to be bold, and their example should be an inspiration to all of us: to finish the work that was started so that democracy in these isles can be hailed with a song that does not end with the word, “King” or “Queen”, but pays tribute to our island home that gave us the present and departed kings and queens of the Class of 1968, the pioneers of Bermuda’s imperfect but yet unfinished democracy.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
•David Burt is the Premier of Bermuda, Minister of Finance and the MP for Pembroke West Central (Constituency 18)
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