Thursday, December 22, 2011

UK Responsible for Base Clean-up

Addressing Bermuda’s House of Assembly in 15 January 1942, on his way home from Washington, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke of the agreement for the leasing to the United States of bases in Bermuda. He told the Members of Colonial Parliament that “you in Bermuda happen to be called upon to play a part of especial importance and distinction. Everybody has to do his duty to the cause—first to the British Empire, but above that to the world cause.” Sir Winston went on state, “I wish to express to you my strong conviction that these bases are important pillars of the bridge connecting the two great English-speaking democracies. You have cause to be proud that it has fallen to your lot to make this important contribution to a better world.” He concluded his remarks by expressing his “profound gratitude.”

For more than 50 years the special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States was manifested, as far as Bermuda is concerned, in the gift of this lease—not part of the bases for weapons swap that characterized other UK-US base deals.  With the Cold War over and the military need for the bases eroding, the United States made the decision in early 1990s to close the base and return the land to Bermuda well ahead of the 2040 lease expiration date.

One of the residual issues is the base cleanup, now estimated to cost over $70 million. This should not be a cost borne by the Bermuda Government. In recognition of the UK’s “profound gratitude” for the sacrifices made by Bermudians as well as the fact that Bermuda had no role in the decision to grant the US a base on the island, it cannot logically, morally, even legally, be a Bermuda responsibility. Minimally, the UK must bear responsibility for this and the Bermuda government needs to revisit the matter and attempt to persuade the UK to act responsibility. If moral suasion proves inadequate we must consider and pursue other options.

The second residual issue is the matter of a formal apology to the residents of St David’s Island. With the grant of the base lease, about half of St David’s Island was handed over to the Americans and in so doing deeply weakened and deleteriously altered the distinctive culture and life of the residents of this isolated community. Anyone seeking a detailed description of this culture before the base should have a look at E A McCallan’s Life on Old St David’s Bermuda. The residents of St David’s paid a higher price than most Bermudians since their entire way of life was affected. For this they are entitled to an apology from the United Kingdom who acted, no doubt, with a firm resolution and focus on defeating the destruction wrought by Fascism and who did not have the luxury of time to reflect on the damage done locally. 

The US bases issue is an excellent example of why history matters. We did make a sacrifice to assist the UK, US and other Allied powers to defeat the Axis powers in World War II; indeed, we helped the struggle to regain democracy in Europe even though Bermuda remained an oligarchy until 1968. For our contribution we should not be expected to pay for damage left by a guest invited to our home by our head of the household, so to speak; and our head should certainly acknowledge the impact of their decisions.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

UK's Interests are not Bermuda's

 The United Kingdom government has launched a review of its relationship with its colonies, the Overseas Territories, and plans to publish a new position paper next July. In an ostensible gesture toward greater democracy the public have been invited to submit their views and concerns directly to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This invitation, though, has been framed by the UK vision for its colonies which includes strong communities, increased opportunities for the people and, importantly, territories “proudly retaining aspects of their British identity”.

It is telling that of the three elements comprising the UK vision for the OTs, retention of “British identity” is so important to Mr Cameron’s government. On the one hand, many aspects of British identity as manifested in colonies have been synonymous with either oppressive or paternalistic practices; on the other hand, British identity in the UK is evolving along with the greater diversity of its citizens. 

By limiting the review to that which is consistent with its vision, the UK has demonstrated it is not seriously interested in having an honest dialogue about the future relations with its territories. In bestowing British citizenship on the OTs in 2002 after having taken it away in 1981 with the British Nationality Act the UK has placed the Bermudian, Caymanian and all other OT citizens on the same footing as the UK citizen living in London. But this right to citizenship is an individual right and does not in any way alter the UK—Bermuda relationship. 

This current review does not countenance any change in the structural relationship—neither constitutionally closer nor farther apart. Given the rapid changes taking place globally, Britain’s own relationship with the European Union and the trend toward regional positioning, it borders on irresponsible to avoid the question as to what the best political structure and relationship is to meet the global challenges we can all clearly see today.  

Prime Minister Cameron’s government uses populist language to talk about partnerships, dialogue and consultation in the preparation of the new white paper, replacing the ironically named Partnership for Progress white paper published in 1999. But in a fundamentally unequal relationship—where the UK has all the political power and the OTs have none—there can be no reasonable expectation that the OTs will be treated fairly or respectfully. The 1999 white paper set the precedent by imposing a series of unilateral decisions on the OTs and devolving power back to the UK; back then the retrograde actions by the UK were indirectly validated by the OTs since the governments all sat by passively while this occurred. 

Today, the OTs have a moral and political obligation not to cede further power to the UK.  Democracy needs to be enhanced, not pushed back. The seemingly innocuous language “to strengthen good governance arrangements, public financial management and economic planning” opens up a wide door of British intrusiveness. There are some in the OTs who will welcome such involvement. But consider this: the UK is in no position to credibly advise or direct us on either public finance or economic planning; the UK competes with Bermuda in our all important insurance sector; and the above matters are all currently beyond the UK constitutional remit, at least as far as Bermuda is concerned.

Britain’s vision for its colonies will not necessarily run in tandem with the interest of the OTs and their governments. As this review evolves it is critically important for the public to be involved in this process but not solely in the way imagined by the politicians and civil servants at the FCO. We must ask if the right questions are being asked; we must challenge the parameters of discussion framed in London; and we must do so if we are to take greater responsibility for charting our own future.