Voices of discontent over British rule are growing louder across the U.K.’s overseas territories in the wake of the controversial decision to mandate public beneficial ownership registries.
In the British Virgin Islands and Bermuda, as in Cayman, the decision is seen not only as a threat to the islands’ economies but as an affront to their right to self-government on domestic matters.
While there is no immediate push for full independence from the U.K., representatives from Bermuda and the BVI told the Cayman Compass that the beneficial ownership controversy had accelerated the conversation in those territories.
In the Cayman Islands, where there has traditionally been little political appetite for independence, politicians are seeking constitutional reform. Premier Alden McLaughlin met with U.K. government representatives and legal advisers in London earlier this month, to push for changes that would remove the U.K.’s reserved powers to legislate for Cayman.
The Cayman Islands, in effect, is asking for what Bermuda already has.
While in Cayman for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference, Thomas Christopher Famous, an MP from Bermuda, told the Compass that Bermuda’s constitution puts it in a stronger position than other territories when it comes to challenging the U.K. over beneficial ownership.
“We have said no, we are not doing it. We are not going to take orders from England. We will open up our books when everybody else does, when it becomes a global standard. Our constitution is a little bit different to the Cayman Islands. It is 50 years old and provides for self-government. We can’t be governed by Westminster,” he said.
He believes similar leverage is unlikely to be granted to the Cayman Islands before 2020 – the deadline set by the U.K. for its territories to introduce public beneficial ownership registers or have it imposed on them through an order in council.
“Let’s be realistic,” he added.
“If Britain is telling the overseas territories, we want you to open up your books, they are not going to give you a constitution that allows you to say no. They may give it to you afterwards, but not by 2020.”
He warned that even with a stronger constitution, Bermuda would have to fight, potentially through the courts, to defend its right to self-governance.
“If Britain really wants us to open the books, they are not going to back off. We will have to fight and say our constitution doesn’t allow it, but that is still going to be their desire.”
Mr. Famous believes Bermuda and other overseas territories will ultimately have to push for independence if they want to control their own destinies.
“I personally feel Bermuda is heading towards total sovereignty because the U.K. will, in one way or another, continue to impose its will on us,” he said.
Though independence is a stated long-term goal of Mr. Famous’s party, the Progressive Labour Party, the island’s Premier David Burt has indicated it is not on the immediate agenda.
Mr. Famous said the population was still split on the issue, but he believes more people are beginning to question the relationship with the U.K.
“People realize the days of being dictated to by England need to come to an end,” he added.
A similar atmosphere of discontent is fermenting in the British Virgin Islands, where residents boycotted the Queen’s Birthday celebrations in a show of protest against the U.K.
Many were already unhappy at the level of support they received from the U.K. in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria last year.
Ingrid Moses-Scatliffe, the speaker of the House in BVI, who was also in Cayman for the conference, said the U.K. law on beneficial ownership was another “direct hit” on the island, and had prompted new discussion on independence.
“I call it Hurricane U.K.,” added Alvera Maduro-Caines, another BVI politician in attendance at the conference.
She said the U.K. had given BVI a $400 million loan, which would have to be repaid, to help with rebuilding after the hurricane.
“Now they are trying to shut down the industry that would have helped us be able to pay it back,” she said.
The BVI derives 60 percent of its government income from financial services. The islands’ leaders have indicated they will oppose any move toward introducing a public beneficial ownership registry until it becomes a global standard.
Ms. Moses-Scatliffe said the BVI had a constitution which guarantees autonomy on domestic matters and was preparing to challenge the order in court.
She said independence was a difficult issue in the BVI, but many now feel it is something that has to be discussed.
“We haven’t had a serious discussion on self-determination but all these matters have come together and that is starting to happen. We have to have a conversation so that persons are not afraid of what they don’t know,” she said.