John Barritt

Happy 400th: a long and mostly uphill journey

  • Enshrined: stamps that marked the establishment of Bermuda’s constitution in 1968

Every cloud has a silver lining, and the same may be said to be true of hurricanes that we have had to endure over the years — and now the Covid-19 pandemic.

Whatever our differences, we find a way to come together and confront the challenges that come our way, whether it be on the ground where we live and work, or up and down the Hill where our government conducts its business.

I exaggerate not. The Premier and his team have done an impressive job to date in tackling Covid-19 and a muted Opposition has appeared supportive on combating the pandemic when and where it counted. You may have noticed less spin, less noise and less partisanship. Not that it is or will be all sweetness and light. As has been notably said elsewhere: we may be all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat.

Our capability to collaborate when it is needed says something about us as a people, yes, but it also says something about the way that we are governed — that it can happen and does happen.

Here we are on the 400th anniversary of the Legislature of Bermuda, which is of course a significant achievement, and one worth celebrating. No question that we have come a long way from those early days when the Legislature first met in St George’s, then occasionally in Flatts for a period of time, and finally on that Hill in Hamilton.

The distance travelled may have been short, but the journey has been long and mostly uphill.

The biggest leap forward came in 1968, a mere 52 years ago, when we entered the so-called modern age of responsible government with the adoption of a written constitution, the Bermuda Constitution Order 1968.

It brought to an end what may be generously described as an era of representative government, which featured independent members of the Legislature who really were not that independent and who, for the longest time, governed loosely as a like-minded coalition of predominantly white men and largely on the premise that:

1, Voters were best seen and not heard from

2, Black Bermudians should have no say, then a limited say in the government of their island home

It would be wrong to say, however, that 1968 simply ushered in party politics. Party politics had started five years earlier with the formation of the Progressive Labour Party in a concerted effort to challenge the status quo in the 1963 election; subsequently followed by the creation of the United Bermuda Party in response.

These developments were part of the push that led to a Constitutional Conference, which ushered in the adoption of government under a written constitution. Independents, who were represented at the Conference in London where they held little sway, were about to go the way of the dodo bird.

With this change came the promise that elections would be henceforth fought no longer on personalities but on platforms that promoted policies and programmes. Fat chance that, you may think: while the latter goal has to a large degree become the norm, it is a little harder to accept that in a community as small as ours, personalities have come to play no part in our politics. But I digress.

A new system of governance also meant further refinement of our Westminster form of government, a form of government that is decidedly adversarial in nature and in practice: 40 members representing 20 dual-seat constituencies, narrowed down to two political parties, each seeking to have and to hold the ultimate prize — power.

Yet this was also a time of great expectations, coupled with the hope that there were better days ahead for white and black Bermudians. It was widely thought that Bermuda had made considerable progress in its move to responsible government and that further progressive changes in the form of reforms could and would follow — if this is what the people of Bermuda wanted, and that there would be the political will to make it happen.

Today, with the benefit of hindsight, it can be also said that we adopted a framework of governance that was not only predicated on division but one that encouraged exploitation of that division — and not just on political lines but on racial lines as well, making possible the continuation of what is loosely referred to today as two Bermudas.

John Barritt was a member of the House of Assembly for 18 years

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