More than 1,000 British Virgin Islands residents took to the streets to protest the United Kingdom on Thursday, the same day Queen Elizabeth II gave royal assent to legislation that forces British Overseas Territories to implement public company registers by December 2020.
The sounds of marching bands and other festive music rang through the BVI’s capital, Road Town, but the dozens of signs on display carried a more serious tone, with slogans such as “No imperial legislation”; “You chained us, didn’t sustain us, now you constrain us”; and “Racist U.K.”
While officials in Cayman have said that the U.K.’s law may hurt, but will not cripple the territory’s financial services industry, the consequences could be much more damaging in the BVI, which has a financial sector primarily based on company formations.
Some at Thursday’s protest said the U.K.’s decision amounted to colonialism, and even modern-day slavery.
The protest’s organizer, bishop John Cline, recounted the territory’s history, mentioning the notorious slave holder Arthur Hodge, who was hanged in the BVI in 1811 for beating a slave to death.
“Today we don’t fight Arthur Hodge. We fight another Hodge and company: Her name is Dame Margaret Hodge,” said Mr. Cline, referring to the Labour MP who introduced the bill. “Some 200 years later, they’re still tryin
g to put us back on the plantation.”
BVI Premier Orlando Smith expressed dismay at the fact that the U.K. is forcing the BVI to implement a public registry even though his government has spent vast resources implementing numerous regulatory reforms over the last several years, including US$2 million on developing a beneficial ownership platform accessible by U.K. law enforcement authorities – similar to the system implemented in Cayman.
Mr. Smith’s deputy premier, Kendrick Pickering, was blistering in his rhetoric, saying that the BVI has “declared open war against the U.K.”
“We recognize that while we stand here today, we have declared open war against the U.K.,” he said, adding that the territory is in the midst of a “divorce from the U.K.”
Protest organizers circulated a petition calling on the U.K. to “stay the decision” requiring public beneficial ownership registers until the U.K. government could reach a fairer agreement in line with the territory’s 2007 Constitution, according to the The BVI Beacon newspaper.
At the conclusion of the march, the petition was reportedly delivered to BVI Acting Governor David Archer. BVI Governor Gus Jaspert is in the U.K., on a trip that was scheduled before the march.
Mr. Jaspert stated on his Twitter account that he will read the petition upon his return and “forward it to London.”