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The struggle for independents

Daunting prospect: independent candidates in the 2012 general election on the steps of Parliament. From left are Cornell Fubler, Gershwyn Smith, Roderick Simons, Cindy Swan, who spoke on behalf of her husband, Kim Swan, David W Burch and David Petty. None were successful in the ensuing general election

The issue of independents for Bermuda continues to surface from time to time. Mostly online, and often in reaction to the politics of the day, making it difficult to gauge whether there is any serious, growing groundswell for just such change or whether it’s no more than the fanciful expression of a shared romantic notion.

I am inclined to believe it is more the latter than the former.

There is little evidence that actual steps are being taken. Not surprisingly. It will require hard work. Voters will need convincing that a collection of independents will serve us and Bermuda better, and more effectively, than what we currently have, which is essentially a choice between two political parties and whomever they put up for election.

The irony is that a move to independents will also require organisation and co-ordination — two of the very attributes that are a distinguishing but key feature of political parties and which help to determine their success, or not, at the polls.

Sound daunting? It is — absent a more widespread political will to make it happen.

First, there is the weight of history. The advent of political parties in Bermuda in the 1960s and their organisation led to long-overdue advances on so many critical fronts. Change followed when Bermuda moved from representative to responsible government under the 1968 (and current) Constitution Order. Progress was made possible largely through sheer organisational push, first by the formation of the PLP and latterly by the UBP in response.

This leads on to the second point. Organisation is also required to run a government. Political parties, for all their imperfections, have by and large proven themselves effective decision makers. It is a strength not to be overlooked or taken lightly.

Take the current pandemic, for example. Some tough decisions had to be taken, and taken promptly, and they were. It proved a definitional time for the PLP administration. Yes, there was dissent in the face of those decisions, along with decidedly disgruntled constituents who considered that their differing views were without influence or voice, and thus were without representation. But circumstances of Covid-19 demanded otherwise: a unified approach.

The strength to responsible government was thus highlighted. The drawback was also underscored. But just how a collection or loose network of independents might have responded in similar circumstances will remain a matter of conjecture.

For sure, earnest, early assembly is required to make it even possible — and well before an election rolls around. Here I am going to borrow a line from comic George Carlin, a caustic but delightful wit in his time. “If you cannot beat them,” he said, “arrange to have them beaten.”

No easy task that. Both parties are pretty well entrenched in our political and parliamentary structure. It is hard to envisage any position being given up or given away.

That’s not to say there cannot be change — even from within. It will fall to individual members to begin to forge a new path.

I think of the words of the 18th-century political philosopher Edmund Burke, who also served as an MP for 30 years in the House of Commons. He was a Conservative, yes, but also an abolitionist, ahead of his time, who was not afraid to buck his party’s whip. He even went so far as to introduce a Bill to prohibit slave owners from sitting in the Commons.

Here is what he famously had to say to his constituents about his role as their MP: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment, and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Imagine that, if you can. Surely, and ultimately, like so many things in life, it is a question of balance.

A quick postscript this week on the Senate where there are three so-called independents. There are so called because they are not required to follow a party line. The question has been raised as to whether there is a Government House line, each of them owing their appointment to the Governor of the day. I am not aware. But I am aware of multiple occasions when they have not voted as a bloc.

There have also been those rare occasions when they have joined with the three opposition members to defeat a government Bill, cannabis legislation and before that the municipalities. Another also comes to mind: it was way back in the 1990s when a similar alliance thwarted the Government’s legislative plan for telecommunications reform. The underlying thought then was that the Bermuda market was too small to sustain competition and that cell phones would not catch on. I kid you not.

Checks and balances are all well and good, but cases like these prompt the question of whether it is right that an unelected body can thwart a democratically elected government — even if it is for no more than a year.

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Published December 08, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated December 07, 2021 at 4:04 pm)

The struggle for independents

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