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Burt does not need to pick a fight to pursue independence

Governor Rena Lalgie (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Many persons were of the opinion that David Burt's slight against the Governor over the assent of the Cannabis legislation was a prelude to the long-held dream, if not commitment, of the Progressive Labour Party to lead the country to independence.

Studying its history, the promise the PLP held in its formative years was that as soon as it gained the government, it would lead the country to independence. Certainly much has changed since then, including a referendum and the fact of almost 20 years of governance, but there should be no quibbling over whether they should or should not approach the subject. I am not proposing they should, but there is enough to indicate that this issue of independence lies with Mr Burt, not the Governor.

After centuries of imperial rule, and a very costly Second World War, the appetite and ability of the British to continue to rule over its empire was exhausted. India, one of the largest of its territories, went independent in 1947 and with others seeking their sovereignty on many fronts of the Empire, the 1956 British Caribbean Federation Act began the process for 10 of the English speaking territories in the region. By 1958, the Federation of the West Indies was formed with Honduras and Belize having observer status.

The Federation was a great opportunity to develop a very strong regional bond between the English speaking islands and this also appeared to be a more manageable arrangement for the British. Unity would never be easy to achieve among islands of various sizes and strengths. That disparity ultimately led to the demise of the idea, although other less ambitious structures, including Caricom, have been tried since.

There was particular consternation over which country would hold the seat of government. Jamaica was the largest of the islands but Trinidad was chosen as the capital and Grantly Adams, of the significantly smaller Barbados, was voted in as the first leader and premier of the Federation. Jamaica became uneasy with the arrangement and held a national referendum in which 54 per cent of the population voted against staying in the Federation. Jexit, to steal a later phrase, followed. Jamaica’s departure prompted the famous statement by Trinidad's Dr Eric Williams that "ten minus one equals zero" followed shortly thereafter by the exodus of Trinidad. The remaining eight small islands attempted to form a mini-association but with the secession of a couple of islands and a squabble again over the capital, dissolutions soon followed.

The collapse of the federation left Britain still holding responsibility for the islands, but lacking authority after ceding much of it to the failed organisation. Having refused associated statehood, the islands were divided between those who wished to remain as colonies with self-governance and those aspiring towards full independence. The British responded in 1963 by telling the territories to either take independence or remain a colony with no intermediary position. The PLP has often repeated this British position since.

Britain then established three doorways through which independence could be attained. Referendum was one such method and the other was a general election that had independence in the platform as a specific item. The third option was an "Order in Council" provided that political parties all agreed on independence.

Bermuda has already had a referendum and many polls and the result to date has always been a resounding no. It is most unlikely that there will be an order in council when some parties like the OBA are committed to a referendum on the subject of independence. The other option is to call an election on the subject.

The issue of sovereignty is no small matter and must be put to the general public. The Premier of Bermuda always has the option of dissolving parliament and calling a general election based on independence. This option has been available since 1963. As a result there is absolutely no need to provoke a dispute with Britain which would more than likely welcome Bermuda’s decision to pursue independence, but only if it were seen as the will of the people. Independence is squarely a Bermuda issue. If Britain herself is to be an example, it had a referendum on Brexit, and therefore would support any method that will gain the clear expressed will of the majority.

The recent spat over the cannabis legislation and testing the Governor over her authority to give assent to something beyond her powers was the proverbial "storm in a tea pot" particularly when the keys to the door to independence are in the Premier’s hand. In any event, there is no need to kick at a door that is wide open.

The question remains: How committed is the PLP to independence? With a super majority in parliament, all they need to do is fulfil the steps laid before them. There is always a hybrid in any situation. For example there could be a mutual agreement by both parties to test the issue of independence by way of a general election.

If there is a need for clarity over independence so the country, business and everyone else can go about their business, nothing prevents the Premier from putting the motion on the floor of the House to dissolve Parliament in order to hold a general election on Independence. With a 30 to 5 advantage it would pass and could only fail in the Senate if the opposition and independent senators rebelled against the arrangement. If the Senate rebelled, they could delay dissolution for a year after which time it could be advanced to the Governor who "may" if no significant protest, or the other party hasn't changed its position and demanded a referendum, allow the parliament to dissolve.

The country could then go to the polls with a test of who governs and whether supporters or opponents of Independence would form the government. Naturally they also would need to present their platform on how to govern from then onwards.

There would probably need a turnout of say 70 per cent of the electorate for the election result on independence to be binding. Still with this option, even as a hybrid, in a contemporaneous period where the tide of national decisions like this has shifted almost universally towards referendums, under the proper context it could be possible to test the question in a general election instead.

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Published March 26, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated March 25, 2021 at 6:49 pm)

Burt does not need to pick a fight to pursue independence

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