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The Independence referendum: a watershed moment

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Sir John Swan
Frederick Wade

Some readers will remember, with widely different perspectives, the events around the independence referendum of 1995.

Some may remember it as the beginning of the end for the United Bermuda Party and certainly the end of the premiership of Sir John Swan. Others may view it as an indicator of the sentiments for Independence as reflected by the low turnout and negative vote it received. Few will know many of the connecting details that feature intrigue, characters with double roles and saboteurs.

Around 1994, a report costing $500,000 was ordered by the hierarchy of the UBP to advise them politically on what their re-election status looked like. For starters, the report was paid for by a couple of banks and two law firms. Five hundred thousand dollars was not just sitting in the kitty of the UBP, it needed some heavy hitters or deeply vested interest to produce that kind of money almost on demand.

I learnt all of this from the person who co-ordinated all the meetings and who later vanished from the political scene, never to return, with good reason. It was not the amount of money or even the money that was concerning to her, it was the chain of command that the money came through that opened her eyes from the innocence she once felt about her political activism.

What disturbed her, was that the initiative, as she recounted, did not begin at the party headquarters, it began with a prominent lawyer/politician in a private non-partisan committee meeting with a couple of banks and two law firms. After they had affirmed what they would do with their group's commitment to sponsor this report, then the Premier and a few top individuals including that original lawyer/politician were invited into the picture. This was followed by the full cabinet and then the full UBP caucus in a combined setting. The order of those three steps really disturbed her.

They hired a US firm to conduct the survey and make party recommendations. In my view, the recommendations were good, frank, and truly disclosed where the UBP and the electorate were. Perhaps it was too frank and too real for some. The report called for an honest dialogue with the electorate, no pretences, and leadership drawn from the bottom up, which meant identifying with existing efforts and leaders already in the community rather than props given to the people as leaders. In short, take on the community’s agenda.

I could not have been happier with their analysis and it generated a good debate. However, I recall in that debate, it was not all going one way, as one stalwart (accountant) nearly shouting, said: "Blood will flow to the horse's bridle before this party will be led by any other than ourselves". He then went on to say: "We are here to lead and not be led." If nothing else could shock me into awareness of the intensity of energy by the conservative element in the party to maintain the status quo, that gentleman's outburst certainly did.

As it turned out the $500,000 report was rejected and another firm hired who gave them what they wanted. Essentially, they took all the bullet points of the previous report, but in the format of "smoke and mirrors". Instead of a real plan, you would have heard the term "blueprint for success" and that's about all it was, a glorified blueprint. In the previous election of 1993, they had led and won but only by an "inch" with advertisements like "There is a quiet revolution taking place in the room" trying to give the electorate the perception if not promise that things were about to change. By the next General Election of 1998, they had virtually squashed anything that resembled a revolution in the room. The events of 1995 saw to that.

Sir John Swan, in my opinion, knew the writing was on the wall after seeing how these reports were treated and the right wing’s resistance to change.

So he sought the most drastic of approaches to win back the hearts and sentiments of those who had put their faith in him as a real champion of the people, in particular the majority Black population. He saw the issue of independence as the key to this, hence the gamble of the 1995 referendum.

History records that the strategy backfired. He faced "double jeopardy" - opposition from within the UBP on the one hand and from the PLP leadership on the other. It was foreseeable that there would be opposition from within, but I don't think Sir John expected the complete sell-out of the PLP, which since its inception preached the gospel of independence.

The group from within the UBP managed to stage a coup and set unattainable conditions for a decision by way of a referendum. Meanwhile, Freddy Wade, the leader of the PLP, saw as a real target the possibility of winning the government if they could get rid of Sir John Swan.

Behind the scenes

A group within the UBP, mainly its Black parliamentary members including some ministers, signed a declaration, which was taken to Mr Wade. The declaration was essentially a sworn statement agreeing in advance to any conditions that the PLP under Mr Wade desired would be supported by them provided he supported independence. It was signed, so that Freddy at any time could have embarrassed either or all of them if they went back on their promises.

There were two camps within the UBP, the anti-independence group being the stronger. The anti-independence group funded operatives within the PLP and paid for anti-independence paraphernalia such as T-shirts. Some former giants and pro-independence stalwarts were co-opted into carrying water for the anti-independent group. Ominously, two writs appeared in the papers for huge sums against two of the most prominent leaders within the PLP, only to mysteriously disappear once they took the anti-Independence stance. We saw the most unlikely pairing of UBP MP Ann Cartwright DeCouto on the same stage as Dame Lois Browne Evans in a forum, with both decrying independence together.

Mr Wade did not yield and stayed the anti-independence course. While on public television (ZBM), when a caller asked him (live) about having the sworn support of many UBP members of Parliament, he said on air: "I won't accept or entertain any back door diplomacy. If John Swan wants to go independent, then he should declare it publicly, not through the back door.“ He knew Sir John as party leader could not openly take a stance having already committed the party to a referendum where it was the electorate's decision. The UBP would have fractured before attempting to go independent, as Mr Wade well knew.

Whether or not the country should have gone independent then is another topic, but this was indisputably a watershed moment for the PLP and the UBP. The UBP lost the leadership of Sir John, causing a lasting fissure, which they were never able to bridge. The PLP won the election of 1998 although Mr Wade died before that date and was succeeded by Dame Jennifer Smith.

I do also recall the statement in a caucus meeting where one terribly frightened MP pleaded to the floor to stand together and take independence off the table.

I also recall the rebuttal: "Either you take the country towards independence yourselves while your hands are near the handle, or this matter will seal your fate in the next General Election and instead of leading, you will be dragged by your toes towards it.“

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Published January 08, 2022 at 8:00 am (Updated January 07, 2022 at 4:19 pm)

The Independence referendum: a watershed moment

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