Bermudians vote to stay British

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The Independent Online

Hamilton, Bermuda

The islanders of Bermuda overwhelmingly rejected independence from Britain, by a margin of three to one, in the hurricane-delayed referendum on Wednesday.

The Premier, Sir John Swan, who had pushed for independence for Britain's oldest colony, said he would fulfil his promise and leave office as soon as his United Bermuda Party (UBP) chose a successor, expected within days. He has been in power for almost 14 years, and announced his resignation yesterday.

Jim Woolridge, best-known as the islands' leading cricket commentator, led the UBP's anti-independence faction and is the favourite to succeed him.

The size of the margin surprised even the anti-independence camp yesterday. It brought sighs of relief from local and foreign businessmen.

The vote had threatened to turn into a racial issue. The minority white population was firm in its determination to remain British but there were fears that the majority blacks, mostly middle-class, might have expressed what had been perceived as a growing sense of black nationalism. In the end, fear of change, of giving up the comfortable lifestyle, appeared to rule the day.

The abstention rate was unusually high, reflecting both a call from the opposition Progressive Labour Party (PLP) and the fact that many Bermudians saw the referendum more as a political power-play than as a true vote on independence. Apart, perhaps, from the most diehard pro-British white Bermudians - who make up 30 per cent of the population - most islanders agree independence is inevitable.

The referendum confused many - one columnist described it as the referend- umm-umm - because it was called by Sir John after his last re-election two years ago despite the fact he had never mentioned the word independence in his campaign. His move split the UBP and redrew traditional party lines. In a famous speech only a few years ago, Sir John had said: "With the Americans to feed us and the British to defend us, why on earth would we want to be independent?''

The PLP had always pushed for independence but found itself forced to back off to avoid supporting the Premier. Instead, the PLP fudged its stand, saying constitutional changes must first be made and that the issue should be decided in general elections.

Of the islands' 37,841 eligible voters, 22,236 - 58 per cent - turned out. Only 5,714 people voted "Yes" to independence while 16,369 rejected it.

While that margin was 25 per cent to 75 per cent of votes cast, a more significant figure was the fact that the "Yes" vote was only 15 per cent of eligible voters. Under the referendum law, a minimum 40 per cent of eligible voters, or about 15,000, would have had to vote "Yes" to set independence in motion.

Breaking away from Britain would mean taking control of defence, foreign affairs and internal security, at present controlled by the governor, Lord Waddington. He echoed a statement by the Queen that Britain would have respected an independence vote but also respected a majority desire to remain a dependent territory.

"It's obvious the matter has been defeated," Sir John said after the results were announced outside the Wesley Methodist Church hall in Hamilton, where counting had taken place.