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Premier's autonomy bid just not cricket

Bermuda referendum: Colony likely to reject independence in poll due to take place as Hurricane Felix reaches islands
Jim Woolridge is not your average Cabinet minister. How many ministers are best known to their countrymen as "the Voice of Cricket''? And how many will tell you on the record that their boss, the chief of government, has "flipped''.

As Hurricane Felix rumbled towards Bermuda, delaying the British colony's long-awaited referendum on independence, the Minister of Tourism demonstrated the same priorities as most of his 60,000 countrymen. He followed the cricket.

In that unique Bermudian mix of American and Oxbridge English, from a scaffolding by the boundary marker, Mr Woolridge kept the island informed, "live" on AM radio, on the progress of Southampton Rangers versus Willow Cuts in the Western Counties' cricket league. Like most of those listening to him on AM radio, he also kept half an ear on the England-West Indies Test match beamed live on the BBC. The approaching hurricane was distinctly secondary.

After pushing aside his microphone Mr Woolridge said he was sure his countrymen would reject independence in the referendum scheduled for tomorrow but under threat of postponement until Hurricane Felix has passed.

"I think the guy has flipped," he said of his boss, Premier Sir John Swann, who pushed the referendum idea, wants independence and has pledged to resign if the 38,000 eligible voters opt to remain a colony.

"It's going to be a `no' vote," Mr Woolridge said between overs as ``The Yellowheads'' (Willow Cuts) tried to bowl out the Rangers at the Somerset Bridge cricket club on the main island's western tip. "You have to ask yourself `independence from what?' I'm already Bermudian. I couldn't be any more Bermudian than I am now. I'm not interested in a new flag or anthem.''

Opinion polls suggested most Bermudians agree with the Tourism Minister. Sir John, black like Mr Woolridge and 60 per cent of Bermudians, had assumed the black vote would swing the referendum his way. But the latest polls indicate even a majority of blacks will reject breaking away from Britain.

The 40 per cent white population is firmly in favour of the status quo that has given Bermudians a standard of living among the highest in the world with a per capita income of around $28,000 (pounds 18,000) a year. Blacks and whites alike are at pains to tell the visitor that Bermuda is not in the Caribbean, which they usually refer to as "the islands farther south'', but in the Western Atlantic. Not in the Third World but the First is the message.

Opinion polls, of course, can be way off beam. A walk up Hamilton's Court Street, where homeless blacks sleep in doorways only yards from the glitzy shops of Front Street, reveals a certain degree of anti-white sentiment in comments from young black men. Court Street is their territory and they make sure white visitors know it.

In bars such as the Elbow Beach Surf Club Bar, the music is Bob Marley, the fashion is dreadlocks and white tourists are warned that any show of aggression would be very unwise.

The sense of black identity appears to be growing and may be why Sir John, after a Thatcheresque 13 and a half years in power, risked his career and reputation on a vote he is likely to lose. Since even most opponents of independence admit that it is a logical and inevitable step, the Premier (that's his official title - only independence would make him "Prime Minister'') may wish to go down in the history books as the man who led the independence movement.

Inevitable it may be but "not quite yet, we're doing quite nicely, thank- you" appears to be the majority sentiment in a country where black taxi drivers routinely send their children to the United States or Britain for higher education, poverty is minimal and most people own their own homes.

To most Bermudians, the independence vote is less one of principle or nationalism and more one of simple accounting: the cost of independence to the taxpayer. How would the country afford embassies abroad, a UN mission and so forth?

There are more companies here - 70,000 - than people and the country's traditional white elite (locals call the leading families "the 40 thieves'') believes independence, even though it would be a largely symbolic move, could frighten such companies off.

The authorities in the Cayman Islands are already using Bermuda's independence "threat" in brochures aimed at diverting business from here to there.

Meanwhile, while still tuned to the Test Match, the locals began boarding up their shops and homes yesterday as Felix, potentially the worst hurricane ever to hit here, approached with winds of 125mph.

The last serious hurricane to hit Bermuda was Emily in September 1987, which injured scores of people and caused $55m (pounds 35m) in damage. Felix is already bearing stronger winds than Emily.