Swan, Sir John William David

Swan, Sir John William David
▪ 1996

      In August 1995 Bermuda did what no other British colony had done during the 20th century: it voted against independence—and by a three-to-one margin. In so doing, Bermuda's voters delivered a sharp rebuff to their premier, Sir John Swan, who promptly resigned.

      Swan was born in Bermuda on July 3, 1935. Educated in Bermuda and West Virginia, he entered Bermuda's parliament in 1972. As minister for home affairs from 1978 to 1982, Swan played a key role in introducing social reforms following race riots in 1977. Coming from the black community himself, Swan achieved widespread popular support for a series of housing and education initiatives while at the same time reassuring Bermuda's mainly white business leaders.

      Swan received his reward in 1982, when he became Bermuda's premier. Few political leaders around the world could have enjoyed a better inheritance: prosperity, low taxes, and little crime. Although Bermuda remained a British colony, London exercised its powers with the lightest of touches. Britain's governor-general retained theoretical responsibility for external affairs, defense, internal security, and the police. In practice, successive governors-general had intervened little.

      Yet for some Bermudans, especially in the black community, the idea of independence remained a potent one. Swan sought to harness this and called a referendum for August 1995 to seek public support. His move backfired badly. The opposition Progressive Labour Party, seeing its chance to unseat a man they accused of wanting to amass power for himself rather than for the people of Bermuda, called on voters to either abstain or oppose independence. Swan's own party, the United Bermuda Party, belied its name by dividing along racial lines.

      In the event, just 58% of Bermuda's 38,000 registered voters took part in the referendum (compared with a normal turnout of 70% in general elections), and they divided 74-26% against independence. More than 310 years after becoming a British colony, Bermuda voted to remain so for at least a few years more and to retain its status as an offshore tax haven, within the political orbit of the British crown and the economic orbit of the U.S. dollar. Opinion polls showed that not only had white voters opted overwhelmingly against independence, but so had a majority of black voters. Swan announced on the radio that "I'm satisfied with the result"; he implemented his promise—or threat—to resign and return to his family business. (PETER KELLNER)

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Universalium. 2010.

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