29 December 2011

Bermuda political analyst critiques U.K. dependency policy

by Walton Brown

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 has 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 Bermudian, Caymanian and all other OT citizens on the same footing as the UK citizens 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 the 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 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.
Walton Brown is a social and political commentator and a Progressive Labour Party candidate for the House of Assembly.

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