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End of the road for political parties?

People do tend to go off on political parties from time to time. They have their fierce critics, and not always from the same quarters. Former Speaker Sir John Cox, from back in the days of independents, was dead set against, and latterly social and racial justice activist Eva Hodgson was no fan of them, either. Generally speaking, detractors decry the discord and division parties seem to sow in the wider community.

House of Assembly (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

But there can be no question that parties spawned the dawn of a new era back in the 1960s — first with the formation of the Progressive Labour Party, followed quickly by the birth of the United Bermuda Party in response. In what was widely regarded back then as “The Great Advance” , Bermuda moved off from representative to responsible government with the adoption of the Bermuda Constitution Order 1968.

While the order contains the constitutionally protected right of freedom of association — which would, of course, include the right to form political parties — there is in fact very little mention of political parties in the order.

In fact, key provisions do not even rely on the existence of political parties.

For example: the Premier is appointed on the basis that they appear to the Governor to be the person “best able to command the confidence of a majority of the members” in the House of Assembly. There is no reference to the leader of the party that won the most seats in an election — which, of course, make the choice pretty clear.

Ditto for the Leader of the Opposition, except it is here in the order that we find mention of the word “party”. The order specifically provides that the Governor is to select as the official Opposition Leader the person who appears to them to be the leader in the House “of any opposition party whose numerical strength of greater than that of any other opposition party”.

The order goes on to define what opposition party means: it is that “group of members of the House of Assembly in opposition to the Government who are prepared to support one of their number as their leader”.

Still, there is no requirement that for there to be political parties. They do not underpin the 1968 Order. It appears to have been crafted so that our system of government can work with them or without them.

Some more examples:

Cabinet ministers are appointed by the Governor “on the advice of the Premier” (the elegant way of saying it’s the Premier’s call). There is no requirement that they be members of the Premier’s party or any party for that matter. There is the requirement, however, that all but two must be elected members of the House of Assembly. The other two can be Senate appointments.

Senators, too, do not have to be members of any political parties. Five are appointed by the Governor “in accordance with the advice of the Premier”; three “in accordance with the advice of the Opposition leader”; and the final three by the Governor “acting under his discretion”. Note: the absence of any express requirement that the Governor’s selections be “independent”.

But we all know how these appointments have evolved over the years since 1968 and how our system of governance has come to work.

Naturally, there were high hopes and great promise from the start. Responsible government was going to transform the political landscape — it did — and to make possible long overdue and much needed advances in social reform. Which it did as well.

The debate today is whether we came far enough fast enough, and, for some, whether political parties are still the best vehicle to take us farther along on our journey.

Meanwhile, In the Caymans, we have seen a departure from the norm: the election of a Government that professes to be a coalition, that is a mix of independents and some party crossovers. Yet while they may have campaigned as a broad coalition of sorts, upon election it very much appeared from a distance that they had to start to operate as a party when they put together a Cabinet and government. There will also now be the added burden of maintaining the collective responsibility that is required of a Cabinet in a parliamentary system.

If nothing else, it should be both interesting and instructive to see how their politics evolve — whether this change will be transformational, or transactional, or some combination of both.

Keen students of politics will be watching.

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Published June 04, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated June 03, 2021 at 4:56 pm)

End of the road for political parties?

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