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Bermudians have been invited to write to Whitehall to ponder the future relationship with the United Kingdom (Photograph by Andrew Parsons/PA)

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of the British House of Commons has invited members of the public in Overseas Territories to tell the committee what they think of the status of their respective relationships with the United Kingdom. Submissions have been invited so that the committee can assess whether those relationships are satisfactory and appropriate in today’s modern world — and, presumably, to entertain what steps may be taken to improve those relationships. Former MP and columnist John Barritt has penned a series of columns that will form the basis of submissions he intends to share with the British parliamentary committee. The series will appear in The Royal Gazette over the coming weeks, starting today. Readers are invited to share their views on the matters that he raises and on any other matters you think should be taken into account. Your comments and suggestions will be forwarded to the committee, along with those of the author. You may submit them in the online comment sections at the end of each column or e-mail jbarritt@ibl.bm.

The first thing Bermuda could use is a clear and unambiguous expression from London on where His Majesty’s Government stands on the matter of constitutional reform.

We last left off — officially and formally — with the 2012 White Paper The Overseas Territories Security, Success and Sustainability. Two lines of thought stood out:

1, It was said that a decade of constitutional revision was coming to a close and that “the time is not right to embark on a further round of constitutional change”

2, It was acknowledged that it was not unreasonable to “expect constitutions to evolve and require adjustment in light of circumstances”

The Bermuda Constitution Order 1968 is more than 50 years old. Mind you, there have been any number of amendments since, the most significant of which came at the turn of the century. A mechanism was put in place that led to the adoption of 36 single-seat constituencies, each constituency having — in so far as it was possible — equal numbers of voters, without regard to parish boundaries.

These amendments put paid to the notion — widely held in some local circles — that London would entertain constitutional changes only as a prelude to independence. Independence has not followed, and at last report a December 2022 poll confirmed that there remained a strong majority decidedly against independence for Bermuda — this one putting it as high as 83 per cent.

It has been some 20-plus years since the last set of amendments to the Bermuda Constitution Order and more than ten years since the 2012 White Paper pronounced that the time was not yet appropriate for further changes.

But that was then and this is now.

Our government commissioned and released late last year a study on Bermuda’s status, which was given the rather long title Assessment of Self-Government Sufficiency in Conformity with Internationally Recognised Standards — which serves as a very good clue as to what the report was all about. It was prepared by Carlyle Corbin PhD, who is regarded as an international adviser on matters of governance and who has conducted similar studies elsewhere.

It is worth drawing the attention of the UK committee to the report, as it probes the relationship of OTs with Whitehall. It provides some insight into the thinking of the present Bermuda Government and what the Progressive Labour Party is prepared to explore. This is the same party that formed the last government that evinced both the appetite and the political will to have London amend the Bermuda Constitution Order. That work was undertaken not long after the PLP won its first term as the Government of Bermuda in 1998.

The import of this latest study is that Bermuda suffers from a democratic deficiency and, significantly, that we have not yet achieved preparedness for the full measure of self-governance.

However, a democratic deficit does not mean that independence is the only cure. On the contrary. The finding can be taken also to mean that there are further advances that can be made — and should be? — to better position Bermuda for total self-governance; ie, independence, should voters at some point decide that is the way to go.

On this issue of independence, the British position has been always that London would not stand in our way and that independence, according to the 2012 White Paper, would be entertained “on the basis of the clear and constitutionally expressed wish of the people of the Territory [Bermuda]”.

Fair enough. But how best to ascertain the will of the people? Self-determination means voters will decide and it is widely thought today that the best means of ascertaining their will is by way of referendum. We have had one before on the issue (1995), so the precedent is there. On this, clear and unambiguous confirmation from London that a referendum is the official British position would be helpful as well.

But in the meantime there are steps that can be taken to improve governance in Bermuda, and some of those steps may entail amending the Bermuda Constitution Order.

This is not an unreasonable approach and is one that seems to marry up with what appears to be the existing official position of Britain dating back to the first White Paper of 1999 — that the people of the OTs should exercise the greatest possible control over their lives — and a position that was reconfirmed in the White Paper of 2012. While the people of Bermuda may not desire independence at present, there really is no good reason why we ought not to be taking steps towards what has been fairly described as “decolonisation”. Which is how constitutional reform reasonably might be regarded, here and in London — and tackled.

NEXT: What steps should be explored and how?

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Published July 04, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated July 04, 2023 at 8:20 am)

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