A steady hand in uncertain times
Lord Waddington’s stewardship of Bermuda did not get off to a particularly auspicious start.
Eager to familiarise himself with the workings of our governmental system after he was appointed governor in 1992, he stopped off at the Foreign Office to collect a copy of the island’s constitution.
Only no one there could find a copy.
Lord Waddington saw this as an unmistakable sign of just how remote Bermuda was both geographically and conceptually from its disinterested bureaucratic overseers in London.
When it came to far-flung possessions such as Bermuda, the Foreign Office, in his opinion, had remained unswervingly true to the 19th-century dictum, which had resulted in the construction of the massive, Italianate Government House on Langton Hill that he was soon to occupy — “The keeping up of an outward appearance of power will in many instances save the necessity of resort to the actual exercise of it.”
But the Oxford-educated British barrister turned politician was never going to be content with simply keeping up appearances.
He was a man of action as well as a man of deeply held convictions, one who had risen to prominence during the “Thatcher Revolution” of the 1980s, which had shaken Britain’s political culture, economy and wider society out of a chronic state of postwar inertia.
A former Chief Whip and Home Secretary for Margaret Thatcher, and one of her most steadfast allies until a Tory backbench revolt toppled her in 1990, he had no interest in simply being a figurehead in Bermuda, mechanically going through the official and ceremonial motions of his new office.
He intended to fully discharge his important constitutional role in Bermuda and to be an active participant in the little society he had been appointed to steward.
Some of his recent predecessors at Government House had shared the Foreign Office’s sense of apathetic detachment from local affairs, viewing the Bermuda posting as a grace-and-favour appointment requiring minimal effort or exertion.
But Lord Waddington never wanted to be viewed by Bermudians as just another ostrich-plumed, peacock-proud bird of passage simply marking time on the island. He intended for the door at Government House to be open to all and he hoped to work on behalf of every Bermuda resident.
To this end his wife, Gillian, encouraged him to draw on his many years of on-the-ground constituency work as a Member of Parliament, when he attempted to make a difference in people’s everyday lives, far more than his front-bench experience when he took up his Bermuda post.
This was, he said, the best and most pragmatic advice he ever received on how to execute the role of governor. And it was also a natural transition for him. For even at the height of his career in the Thatcher Government, he was never happier than when he was at home in his Lancashire constituency with his family and among the people he represented in the House of Commons. Being part of the community whose interests he was responsible for, rather than standing as one-remove from it, was something intrinsic to his character.
Before embarking for the island, he supplemented briefings from the Foreign Office with what he described as “visits to numerous important personages” with business or personal ties to Bermuda to further his understanding of our unique social, cultural and economic dynamics.
Consequently, he arrived better prepared and better qualified to take up his position than any governor since the formidable Sir Peter Ramsbotham, the one-time British ambassador to the United States sidelined here in the 1970s after some shameless nepotistic string-pulling led to him being replaced on Washington’s “Embassy Row” by the son-in-law of Prime Minister of the day.
Unfailingly scrupulous and principled, he was also decidedly unshowy and found some of the pomp and pageantry associated with his role fairly risible — he privately referred to the uniforms and feathered hats he wore on official occasions as looking like “discards from the wardrobe of an amateur Gilbert & Sullivan Society”. But loyal soldier that he was, he kept with tradition no matter his private misgivings about parading in ornate ceremonial uniforms and plumed helmets.
Immediately upon arrival, the Waddingtons threw themselves into a whirlwind of official duties, public engagements and philanthropic activities with obvious and unfeigned enthusiasm. Inactivity was anathema to Lord Waddington; accordingly, his daily schedule was a long and demanding one.
As his friend, former Gibraltar Governor Lord Richard Luce, has said his constituency experience did indeed stand him in good stead here and “David was consequently very interested in the 70,000 or so people of Bermuda and mixed with them in a relaxed fashion.
“He was sensitive to the mixed racial background on the island and handled with [great] care” matters that might touch on racial or cultural sensibilities.
As has been said of him more than once since his death, he possessed a gift for putting even the most complex issues across in a way anyone could understand while also being able to put almost everyone he encountered immediately at ease in his presence. There was nothing regal or overbearing about this plain-spoken son of a Lancastrian solicitor born David Charles Waddington and created a life peer in 1990.
Lord Waddington was immediately struck by what he described as “the enormous pride the people had in their tiny but prosperous island home” and ensured he crossed paths with as wide a cross-section of Bermudians as possible.
He took a particular interest in stalwarts of the community he encountered whom he felt had never received official recognition commensurate with their contributions.
For instance pioneering black Bermudian entrepreneur Vernon Jackson, who became a hugely popular newspaper columnist and author in later life, declined the offer of a significant Queen’s honour from Lord Waddington because, with characteristic modesty, he didn’t believe he actually merited it.
Happily, the Governor did help to persuade educator Marjorie Bean to accept the honour of becoming Bermuda’s first female knight — he later arranged for Dame Marjorie to take part in a tree-planting ceremony at Government House to commemorate the event.
Some hugely consequential international matters appeared on his docket during his tenure here. The US, British and Canadian military bases in Bermuda, strategic mid-Atlantic outposts throughout the Cold War, were all mothballed in rapid succession after the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1991 as Western countries sought a “peace dividend” in the wake of years of escalating defence outlays. Because his constitutional responsibilities included external affairs, and given that he was far more hands-on than his three immediate predecessors, some friction ensued between Lord Waddington and Sir John Swan on this topic.
The Premier of Bermuda had pursued what amounted to a quasi-independent foreign policy with the consent of the Thatcher Government while negotiating the landmark US/Bermuda Tax Treaty in the 1980s and still maintained a network of extremely high-level contacts in Washington DC. In fact, the immediate past US President, George H.W. Bush, was a close personal friend who had held two summit meetings in Bermuda with British premiers before Lord Waddington’s arrival, largely as a result of Sir John urging him to revive the old tradition of using the island as a venue for such Anglo-American talks.
So Sir John felt confident he could better represent Bermuda’s interests directly, given the closure of the American bases, in particular, would have significant ramifications for both the economy and the continuing operation of the airport — until then run on Bermuda’s behalf gratis by the US Navy.
That a certain tension would develop between the two men on this matter was unavoidable. Lord Waddington regarded Sir John as “a man of considerable stature” and a “very able leader”, but stood his ground when it came to his office, and by extension the Foreign Office, having the ultimate say over negotiations for the base closures. Lord Waddington believed Sir John’s discomfort with this was primarily a result of “previous governors and others [encouraging] him to believe he was in entire control of Bermuda’s affairs, which was nearly, but not quite, true”.
Aside from the base withdrawals, there were other significant political developments on his watch that Lord Waddington was required to play roles in: the wholesale restructuring of the police service; the so-called Stubbs Amendment decriminalising homosexual acts between consenting male adults; and, of course, the vexed question of independence, which abruptly re-emerged as the major issue of the day after the near-defeat of Sir John’s United Bermuda Party in the 1993 General Election.
What was intended to be a bold political masterstroke on the UBP’s part — depriving the Progressive Labour Party of what was then its policy trump card and consequently, it was hoped, many of its voters at the next election — ended up, like so many other seemingly infallible plans, unravelling almost immediately. There followed, in Lord Waddington’s words, an “extended period of scheming and feuding” over the issue, with the UBP riven into rival factions for and against independence, while the PLP, with no intention of sitting idly by and allowing itself to be politically marginalised, did its best to disrupt the whole ill-considered exercise.
Lord Waddington adhered to the longstanding British position that the island could go to independence if it was what the majority of people wished. But he worked industriously behind the scenes to ensure the issue was fully debated, with the 1995 referendum to be held on sovereignty properly constituted.
In the event, the independence initiative was defeated by a 3-1 margin, Sir John Swan as premier and the UBP stumbled on towards electoral ruin in 1998.
Although he sometimes worried his beloved Norfolk terrier, Basil, was more popular among Bermudians than he was, both Lord and Lady Waddington were well liked and respected for their high-profile community involvement and public spiritedness.
She was particularly noted for her tireless charitable work, which went well beyond serving as honorary chairwoman of various fundraising boards or hosting functions at Government House, traditional roles often associated with governor’s wives.
When an unsuccessful attempt was made to slash the Governor’s salary during a teapot political tempest in the House of Assembly, The Royal Gazette acidly remarked in an editorial: “There is now a long tradition of Bermuda paying the salary of a governor and getting two hard workers for the price of one. Governors’ wives have made an enormous contribution, especially to Bermuda’s charities. In the charity world, it was estimated recently that the present Governor’s wife had raised funds the equivalent of seven times the Governor’s salary every year she has been in Bermuda ... Bermuda should have remembered all that when there was a recent suggestion to cut the Governor’s salary”.
At a formal Cabinet Office ceremony to mark his departure in June 1997, Lord Waddington witnessed first-hand just how much he was appreciated.
This outwardly reserved figure was moved very nearly to tears by the large number of residents who turned up to bid him and his wife farewell — politicians, civil servants, charity workers, personal friends they had made here, along with dozens of ordinary Bermudian wellwishers.
“When given the chance of being Governor here, I did not doubt that I was being very privileged, and as I prepared to go, quite overwhelmed by the warmth of the leave-taking ceremony,” he later remarked. ”I knew what a lucky man I am to have spent the best part of five years in such a place. Bermuda and its history, quite apart from its present, will never cease to fascinate me.”
What had begun so discouragingly for Lord Waddington at London’s Foreign Office three years earlier ended on an altogether more uplifting note on the Cabinet Office lawn that fine summer day.
— TIM HODGSON