11 January 2012

UK responsible for military base clean-up in Bermuda

Walton Brown

Walton Brown is a social and political commentator and the Progressive Labour Party candidate for Pembroke Central. 

Morgan's Point: Britain should assume responsibility for the environmental clean-up, says Walton Brown

Morgan's Point: Britain should assume responsibility for the environmental clean-up, says Walton Brown

Addressing Bermuda’s House of Assembly on January 15, 1942, on his way home from Washington, Britain’s 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 to 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 characterised 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 bases 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 responsibly. 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 the Second World War; 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.