Bermuda: Sun may finally set on the oldest part of the Empire

After 400 years, Bermuda is considering cutting its ties with Britain, reports Andrew Buncombe. It continues the domino effect of neighbouring colonies turning away from the mother country
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It has been almost exactly 400 years since Admiral Sir George Somers and his crew, shipwrecked en route to Virginia, were fortuitous enough to be washed up on the shores of Bermuda.

It has been almost exactly 400 years since Admiral Sir George Somers and his crew, shipwrecked en route to Virginia, were fortuitous enough to be washed up on the shores of Bermuda.

In the ensuing centuries Britain's oldest remaining colony, named after the Spanish captain Juan de Bermúdez, who first sighted the uninhabited islands, has developed as a hub of international business and tourism - equally famous for its offshore banking as for its miles of beaches. Part Atlantic and part British outpost, visitors are as likely to be confronted by bright red Victorian post boxes as they are by a policeman wearing the obligatory Bermuda shorts and long white socks.

But change may be on its way. Having long benefited financially from its close links to Britain and its geographic proximity to the US, there are some on the island who think Bermuda would be a lot better off by completely cutting its ties to the Crown and standing by itself. This demand for independence is being led by no one less than the island's leading politician - Premier Alex Scott.

While there has been talk of a free Bermuda since the 1960s, when Britain was granting independence to many of its colonial possessions, Mr Scott, leader of the Progressive Labour Party (PLP), took the issue to a new level in December when he announced the establishment of an independent commission to investigate the possibility of independence and to report back.

Addressing the House of Assembly in the capital, Hamilton, he said: "Independence is an issue that must be discussed by all of the people of Bermuda. Bermuda is long overdue for a reappraisal or review of its position on independence. The Bermuda Independence Commission (BIC) will be responsible for carrying out that review."

The motivation for Mr Scott's call for independence appears to be a mix of black nationalism and anti-colonialism, closely linked to the racial divide of the island, which is 60 per cent black. In a recent online commentary, Sir Ronald Sanders, a former Caribbean diplomat who served Antigua and Barbuda, wrote: "For the most part the white population opposes independence while a significant number of the black population ... support it. The PLP obviously feels that there is some political mileage to be derived from an independence platform."

Bermuda already enjoys a high degree of autonomy from Britain. Some observers point out that the only official positions filled by British appointment are the chief of police and the Governor, Sir John Vereker.

But the PLP believes it is vital that the island completely cuts its ties. Mr Scott and his colleagues believe such a move is long overdue. When he addressed the House of Assembly in December, he referred to Bermuda's 1968 Constitution, which he said was "drafted in contemplation of Bermuda moving towards independence or self-determination in the then not too distant future".

No one from the PLP was available for comment yesterday, but Warren Jones, the acting cabinet secretary to the government of Bermuda, said Mr Scott had not called for independence, even though that was the PLP's official position. He said he had established the commission to educate islanders on the topic. "It has a mandate to explore the issue," he said.

One of the largest hurdles to Mr Scott's dream of independence appears to be public opinion. Recent polls suggest more than 60 per cent of people are opposed to independence while estimates as to the number of people who favour such a move range from 20 to 30 per cent. The most recent official referendum, held in 1995 and in which 74 per cent voted against independence, was somewhat meaningless because the PLP boycotted the vote and there was only 59 per cent turn-out.

The position of the PLP's opponents, the more conservative United Bermuda Party (UBP), is that there are more important issues facing the island. Jamhal Simmons, a spokesman, said: "Our position is that people are telling us it's not a priority. They say they're more interested in affordable housing, jobs and healthcare for the elderly than they are in independence."

Another member of the UBP, Christian Dunleavy, who writes a weekly column for the conservative daily newspaper The Royal Gazette, said he believed the calls for independence were coming from a hardcore of the PLP leadership, but that many in the party did not share such views. "It has been an article of faith for a long time," he said.

There are undoubtedly many who are doing well in Bermuda and are opposed to any sort of change. The island enjoys a per-capita GDP of $36,000 (£18,700) - equal to that of the US and one of the highest in the world. The economy, mainly based on financial services and to a lesser extent tourism, grew by 2 per cent in 2003.

Philip Wells, a Briton married to a Bermudan woman and who hosts the internet blog Limey in Bermuda, which is a lively forum for debate on independence, said he believed few people saw any economic benefits from independence. "Many people are concerned what might happen. Some people think it might not have a bad impact but why risk it? Why change a good thing?"

Others have also pointed out that there could be substantial costs associated with independence, such as establishing foreign embassies and appointing representatives to bodies such as the UN. The PLP said that such costs could be as little as $3m annually, but other bodies said they could be up to $20m.

At the same time it is clear not everyone enjoys Bermuda's wealth and that the island faces considerable social issues. A recent report by US authorities suggests that 19 per cent of the population lives beneath the poverty line while the average cost of a house is $1m. The island also faces the challenges of water pollution and preserving its open spaces.

Mr Scott must hope his call for independence will appeal not just to those struggling to get by but also to those who are doing very well from an economy that derives more than 80 per cent of its wealth from financial services. Some believe the ace up his sleeve is his party's request for independence to become an election issue when Bermudans next go the polls. As the country is so polarised between the PLP and the UBP - in 2003, the election was decided by less than 100 votes - Mr Scott could see his dream achieved if he can keep the issue from being decided by referendum.

Meanwhile things are happening on the ground. While the UBP is campaigning for the issue to be decided by referendum, an inspection team from the UN's Special Committee on Decolonisation is due to arrive in Bermuda next week to assist the BIC. The chairman, Julian Hunte, said: "The mission is not going to close a deal on independence, or commit the UN or represent the secretary general," he said. "It is going to provide information, inform the population and evaluate the situation... as they make an important step towards a full measure of self-government."