Same today as yesterday
A Speech from the Throne sounds impressive — it is meant to be — and far less ceremonial than the ceremony in which it is wrapped. It is the centrepiece of a longstanding parliamentary tradition that marks the opening of a new legislative session; also a wonderful and memorable occasion for those legislators who are joining for the first time, their families and friends.
It is usually a hit with the viewing public, too, with plenty of pomp: the Royal Bermuda Regiment along with the Band, and a governor in plumed hat who arrives and departs in a horse-drawn landau, weather permitting.
This year the spectacle will be even more so as it moves to St George’s, St Peter’s Church, site of the first meeting of the island’s first representative assembly some 400 years ago.
Back then, the emergence of representative assemblies of any kind were not very popular with the reigning monarch. But the Bermuda Company was within its rights to instruct the governor of the day, Nathaniel Butler, to establish a representative assembly on the island, “the still-vex’d Bermoothes”, as Shakespeare so eloquently reported to the folks back home in his play, The Tempest.
Historian W.S. Zuill in his book The Story of Bermuda and her People describes the establishment of the assembly as the Bermuda Company’s “great gift”; and so it was, a parliament of sorts — my words.
There were two representatives per tribe, of which there were eight. Additionally, it was believed that there were representatives from the Common Lands (St George’s and St David’s). With an estimated total population of 1,500 people, of whom only white males aged 21 years and over would have had a vote, there started a trend that has continued to this day: pretty strong representation for the numbers of eligible voters. Overrepresentation, some call it.
One other trend that has its origins some four centuries ago: those early Bermudians were given the power to make laws, but only providing that they were not contrary or repugnant to those of the home country.
Of course, constitutionally, that is still the position today. Indeed, even in recent modern times, there have been the occasional threats to bring laws in line with those of Britain; either that or London will change them for us.
The Bermuda Constitution Order 1968 makes the position clear. It does not give us a parliament. The word does not feature anywhere in the document.
“There shall be a Legislature for Bermuda which shall consist of Her Majesty, a Senate and a House of Assembly.”
By another parliamentary tradition that also dates back centuries, neither the monarch nor her representative is to set foot in the people’s representative assemblies — unless, possibly, by special invitation.
Hence the tradition that the Throne Speech that is read by the Governor is read anywhere but in the House of Assembly. It started out in the old Upper House Chamber in the Cabinet Building, a room far too small and cramped for the occasion. The Progressive Labour Party upon its first election in 1998 came up with the idea of a reading under a tent on the lawn of the Cabinet Office, a welcome and still dignified break from the cloistered confines of the Senate.
There is no need to get stuck on tradition, either. The pandemic and digital age will no doubt prompt further changes.
A couple of things that probably won’t change.
First, the style and content of the Throne Speech, written as it is by the government of the day. This time, coming so soon after a successful election, it will likely contain few, if any, surprises, featuring and tracking closely platform promises. It is after all a tall agenda.
The Opposition gets its Reply a week later, usually as long as or longer than the Throne Speech. But it shouldn’t be. At least not this time. People may be thinking: new leader, new direction? Coming so soon after a crushing defeat, a helping of humble pie and something a little more appealing than their election platform might be in order.
Debate resumes in earnest next week.
Finally, on this the occasion of the 400th anniversary it may be worth remembering words from the very first Throne Speech:
“… we come not hither for ourselves only, and to serve our turns, or any man else’s in particular, but to serve and regard the public. We are, therefore, to rid ourselves of all base desires of gain; we are to despise all private interests, thus far at least, as to cause them to give way to the general”.
Some things never change: same today as yesterday.