The visit of Britain’s Minister for Overseas Territories, Henry Bellingham, has given every appearance of success.
Mr Bellingham said all of the right things, citing the Island as a model for other Overseas Territories, and pledging to develop a true partnership between the territories and the UK.
Mr Bellingham also rightly said he wanted a full and broad dialogue with as much input as possible as his Government prepares a White Paper on the Overseas Territories which would lay out the future relationship following the “Partnership for Progress” paper in 2001 which led to the granting of full British citizenship for all OT citizens.
That decision now constitutes the foundation of Bermuda’s relationship with the UK, given that few Bermudians would be willing to give it up, and Mr Bellingham has pointed out that OT citizens want to continue the relationship with Britain, a valid point, and one that carries responsibilities for both sides.
Mr Bellingham also reiterated the UK Government’s stance on Independence, namely that if a clear majority of Bermudians wanted Independence, then it would take place. Britain has been consistent on this point now for some 20 years, but its affirmation is important.
The Minister was also complimentary to Premier Paula Cox, both on governance and on her handling of the Island’s finances. That will not sit well with the Opposition, but will no doubt be welcome to the Premier. It may be that the Minister was “snookered” on this, given the unique nature of Bermuda’s economy, but he said it, and will now have to stand by it.
Overall, Mr Bellingham’s position is welcome. He seems genuinely to want to improve relations between the UK and the Overseas Territories and to enable them to flourish and grow. New airports at St Helena and in the Turks and Caicos are evidence of this.
But he also made very clear that Britain had no wish to see a repeat of the shambolic government this newspaper’s words, not his in the Turks and Caicos, and that was one reason why he welcomed Ms Cox’s governance initiatives.
Mr Bellingham also raised the intriguing possibility of allowing Bermuda to benefit from the proceeds of the UK lottery, which must make grants to worthy causes such as charities, culture and sports. This could be of real benefit to Bermuda if it comes off.
Mr Bellingham also gave assurances that Britain would represent Bermuda fully in international affairs. And he also said he would defend the Island against accusations that it is a tax haven. All of that is welcome, given the current fragile state of the Island’s economy and the threats to its status as an international business centre.
To be sure, Bermuda would benefit from having a more robust tax treaty with the US, given that this is one of the reasons given for companies redomiciling elsewhere, and especially to Ireland and Switzerland. Bermuda’s current tax treaty was ably negotiated by Bermuda with the agreement of Britain.
Times have changed, and Mr Bellingham issued several reminders of Britain’s own straitened circumstances. But an improved tax treaty would do much to assist Bermuda, and even though the timing is not propitious, there is no harm in starting to lay the groundwork now.
Mr Bellingham’s visit may well go down as one of the more successful by British Ministers in recent years. The visits of several of his predecessors tended to be longer on ceremony than substance, while Mr Bellingham clearly wants to reshape and improve relations between Britain and its OTs. He has asked for the public to contribute to the debate ahead of the White Paper, and the more information Britain has about conditions in Bermuda, the better informed the White Paper will be.