Politically stable and largely self-governing, Bermuda has the oldest Westminster-style government outside of Britain. Established by the island’s English governor and colonists in the 17th century, the first legislative assembly met on August 1, 1620; among the 15 laws passed in its inaugural session was a ban on “idle and unprofitable persons” being shipped to the colony—a credo that has paved the way for Bermuda’s capitalistic pursuits ever since.
One of the last remaining British Overseas Territories, Bermuda nevertheless manages most of its own affairs—including the passage of all laws. Despite the island’s significant autonomy on national matters, the Queen of England remains the titular “head of state,” and responsibility for Bermuda falls to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London, which appoints a resident governor, approved by the Queen. As the Crown’s voice on security, defense, and international issues, the governor—who lives in Bermuda at Government House, a grand, rambling old property with a towered mansion on the North Shore in Pembroke—acts as a liaison between the Bermuda and U.K. governments. He also appoints the judiciary and police service, though these positions are truly selected by the government; the governor’s signature, over the last century at least, has been nothing more than a rubber stamp. While many of the governor’s day-to-day duties are purely ceremonial, he is a key diplomatic figure as a go-between for Bermuda and London, particularly as the island wrestles with the notion of cutting ties with Britain.
Bermuda participates in the United Nations through British delegations, and the Bermuda government is consulted on all international decisions affecting the island—though relations between Government House and the pro-Independence Progressive Labour Party (PLP) have been frosty at times. Bermuda’s interests in the United States are represented by the United Kingdom via its Washington, D.C., embassy, but the U.S. Consul General in Bermuda is also very active in the area of United States–Bermuda diplomacy. Gregory Slayton, who has held that post since 2005, hosted senior U.S. politicians on the island and organized annual visits to Washington, D.C., for local politicians—even engineering an Oval Office tête à tête between Premier Dr. Ewart Brown and former president George W. Bush in 2008. In recent years, Bermuda’s government has demonstrated some autonomy in international relations, controversially signing a cultural friendship treaty with Cuba in 2003 and becoming an associate member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) the same year.
The Bermuda Constitution was drawn up on June 8, 1968, and updated in 1989 and 2003. The island’s government, in the Westminster tradition, is three-pronged, with executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The executive hierarchy is headed by the Queen of England, whose role is carried out by the governor; followed by a premier—leader of the party winning the most seats in a general election—and a 13-member cabinet nominated by the premier from among members of parliament. The 36-seat Legislature or Parliament has two legislative chambers: the House of Assembly, whose members are chosen by eligible voters in general elections held at least every five years, and the appointed 11-member Senate, or upper house of Parliment. All laws must be passed by the House of Assembly and approved by the Senate and the governor. The Senate’s 11 members are named by the governor, the premier, and the leader of the opposition.
Bermuda’s legal system is its own, dating back to 1612, though it is based on English common law. The judiciary, which enforces laws, is three-tiered: Magistrates Court, or lower court, rules on lesser criminal offences; Supreme Court, or high court, decides more serious criminal cases, as well as civil issues; and the Court of Appeal. Judgments have the right of final appeal to the House of Lords in London. A chief justice, appointed by the governor, heads the Supreme Court, where English tradition goes full-tilt with judges in robes and powdered wigs. All judicial entities are based in Hamilton, with the largest Supreme Court room and the House of Assembly sharing separate floors of the Sessions House on the hill overlooking Parliament Street. Magistrates Court sits below it.
Two political parties, the governing Progressive Labour Party (PLP) and the Opposition United Bermuda Party (UBP), are represented in Parliament. The government is headed by the premier, Dr. Ewart Brown, a Bermuda-born Howard University graduate, former California resident, and medical doctor who also serves as Bermuda’s minister of tourism. The PLP won its third consecutive election victory—24 to 12 seats, or 52.5 percent of the popular vote—in the December 2007 polls; the next general election must be held by 2012. The UBP, as the largest minority political party, is the current opposition, with its own shadow leader (former professional golfer Kim Swan) and shadow cabinet. Bermuda’s government is the island’s largest employer, with an estimated 15 percent of the population working in its various ministries and departments.
Bermuda has nine parishes—St. George’s, Hamilton Parish, Smith’s, Devonshire, Paget, Pembroke, Warwick, Southampton, and Sandys—each further divided for electoral purposes into 36 single-seat voting districts (Pembroke North, Devonshire South) that each elect a Member of Parliament (MP). These constituencies measure roughly half a square mile and hold about 1,000 voters each. The Corporations of Hamilton and St. George’s run the affairs of their respective municipalities, based in Pembroke and St. George’s, and parish councils acts as local advisory groups. All Bermudian citizens over the age of 18 have the right to vote.
British-style pomp and pageantry accompany the official convening of a new Parliamentary session every November (MPs break for three months over the summer). MPs decked out in lounge suits and Ascot hats ascend the steps to the House for the reading of the Throne Speech—Prince Andrew was the guest of honor in 2005—a rundown of the government’s policy plans for the coming year. Visitors can visit Parliament every Friday when in session (upstairs in the Sessions House, on Parliament St.) to watch island politicos harangue each other over issues ranging from serious (the lack of affordable housing) to purely trivial (whether to allow personalized vehicle license plates). In a society where appearance tops nearly all else, the latter motion was easily passed.
© Rosemary Jones from Moon Bermuda, 2nd Edition