This last week saw the opening of Parliament in Bermuda marked by the “Throne Speech” from the Governor, George Fergusson. I don’t know whether the Queen writes her own speeches for opening Parliament in UK, but I learned today that the Governor doesn’t, rather he is given permission to read it from the Government in power at the time. This year the speech talks about the “wisdom of our ancestors” and “deep rooted community spirit”, an altogether more positive approach than last year’s one that used terms such as “shore-up”, “revitalise”, and “most challenging”.
Bermuda’s Parliament was established in 1620 – the Throne itself was made in 1642 from Bermuda cedar and the gavel is the same one used in the 1600s made of cedar from a tree in St Peter’s churchyard at St George’s. The tree was apparently the one under which the first governing body held meetings, or so the Government website claims.
The political system mirrors that of UK with the Queen as Head of State, a Governor, who represents the Queen on the island, and two houses – the Senate as the upper house and the House of Assembly equivalent to the House of Commons. The constitution was re-introduced in 1968 and since then Party Politics has been the method of ensuring representation. Today there are two main parties: One Bermuda Alliance (OBA) and Progressive Labour Party (PLP). The PLP has been around since 1963 and has long passages giving detailed history on the website, while the OBA was newly formed in 2011 but as with many political groups it was formed by a conglomeration of other ideals and the two main groups of United Bermuda Party and Bermuda Democratic Alliance. So its no wonder that the current population are uncertain who is in power – PLP,OBA,UBP or BDA (that last acronym is also the one used by international airport naming group for Bermuda Airport – see previous post) It is, I am told, the OBA and that, I am also told, is a good thing. I refuse to enter the very scary world of political blogs so that is all I am going to say on it.
Last winter I joined a tour around Sessions House, the building where the House of Assembly sits or holds its sessions. It is one of the prettiest buildings in Hamilton, standing just a little shorter than the Cathedral. I heard somewhere that no building in Hamilton is allowed to be taller than the Cathedral. The original building of 1879 was a simple 2-storey affair but less than 10 years later a clock tower was added along with considerable elaboration of the interior.
The upper storey houses the main Chamber, an oak-panelled wall matched by chairs and desks in old English oak. Two large portraits watch over proceedings – King George III (1760-1820) and Queen Charlotte, copies of the originals – I didn’t quite follow if the copies were done by Sir Joshua Reynolds or just the originals – presented to Bermuda by Governor Sir James Cockburn. So that sets the bar high for a leaving present when George Fergusson returns to the home country. I wonder if Bermuda gives the outgoing Governor a present? A cedar tray made by prisoners? A pottery gecko? No, don’t worry, I think he is due a knighthood when he leaves here – sends me hurriedly to wikipedia to check he hasn’t already got one – he’s apparently an Honorable so far, pretty amazing family history, definitely born into the job.
The other portraits decorating the chamber are of past Speakers, but they have run out of space so a new speaker will oust the old timer who currently has been there since 1864 (which I don’t believe as the building was’t even there then). The Speaker is apparently chosen from among the 36 elected members and thenceforth has to denounce party politics and be impartial – seems a bit of a waste of an MP, if you vote on the back of one of his policies then he gets given the job of speaker, he can no longer act on behalf of his constituents. Voters clearly not deterred in the last election – that saw a 71% turnout. I suppose there are advantages of being on a small island the size of a town, there aren’t all the extra council elections where you have usually absolutely no idea who they are and end up casting your vote on the fact they have a kitten, or a child at your child’s school etc.
The Upper House consists of 11 Senators (some American influence has crept in there), all reportedly appointed by the Governor, but when you look at the small print, he has to choose 5 from the 5 preferred by the Premier, 3 from the 3 names proposed by the Opposition and only has his own say in the final 3.
The Mace is the symbol of authority of the speaker. It is carried in by the sergeant-at-arms when the speaker enters at each session. The current Mace came from London in 1920. It is silver gilt, a term I had to look up – I had no idea that an Ormolu Clock was made of gilt-bronze, can’t wait till the next Antiques Roadshow to impress my family – silver gilt is actually cheating, just a thin gold covering, but it sounds posher if you use the term vermeil and The White House has a lot of it.
The other formal piece is the Black Rod, like the British version this is both a rod and a person, representing the Crown. In Bermuda the role falls to the Senior Police Officer and he leads the MPs to the Senate Chamber for the Throne Speech – this is actually in a building across the road so one hopes it isn’t raining. If you read the local paper reporting on this process you could be forgiven for checking you aren’t reading Vogue – the reporter gives comprehensive detail on each members dress / suit / earings / tie – check for yourselves! Anyhow, the Bermuda Black Rod was again a gift, made by the Crown Jewellers and topped with a silver coat of arms.
So now the Parliament is in Season (that doesn’t sound quite right but you know what I mean) and we can look forward to …. well, the Budget comes next, February, I can’t wait.