HAMILTON, APR 5 (IPS) - Bermuda's premier John Swan appears to have moved a step closer towards achieving his dream of taking Britain's oldest self-governing colony to independence but the price for this progress may be too high for his political party.
Last week, after a long drawn out debate, the House of Assembly voted by a slim two-vote margin to pass the highly contentious Independence Referendum Bill. If the bill is adopted by the senate Bermudians could be voting in July whether to go it alone or stick with Britain.
Swan's victory was hard fought and the fall out could cost him his political career. He was forced to make concessions to back- benchers in his United Bermuda Party (UBP), to appease dissidents in his cabinet and party caucus as well as the strong anti- independence lobby comprising leading bankers, lawyers and executives servicing international company business.
Originally the bill required a ''yes'' vote from 33 percent of the eligible electorate for it to be binding. But for the sake of party unity Swan was forced to raise the binding requirement to 40 percent.
Swan surprised his party more than a year ago when he raised the prospect of independence and announced he would be pushing for it. His resolve to go for independence against the advice and wishes of many of his closest political allies has caused deep divisions within the country and his party.
Moreover it has aggravated racial tensions among the population of 60,000, two-thirds of whom are Black and who for the most part are keen to shed their colonial status.
Swan is a millionaire black businessman who has led the historically white, conservative UBP through five general elections since he became premier 13 years ago. But his successful track record has not been sufficient to curb angry calls for his resignation.
During the year long independence referendum debate, Swan has been subjected to a torrent of abuse with clear racial overtones, carried out mainly in the newpapers and on radio talk shows.
Some observers here believe it is only a matter of time before Swan's political career ends.
But the Premier appears to be ready to go down fighting. at last week's voting session he chided his opponents for trying to engender fear in the hearts of ordinary Bermudians over the prospect of independence.
''The problem of Bermuda is that it's a small community, restricted in terms of opportunity and people get locked into conditioning by threats ... the end result is that they get switched off and don't do things for the right reasons they do it because of fear.''
Scare-the-electorate-silly is the strategy being employed by Swan's opponents. The business community, led by Chairman of the Bank of Bermuda Eldon Trimingham has warned repeatedly that Bermuda's attraction as an international financial centre will be hurt by independence and is in fact already being damaged by the prospect of the territory becoming a sovereign nation.
''Independence means little more than new obscure flags, passports and song and all it would take is one major player to say it is leaving Bermuda because of the possibility of independence, for a run from Bermuda to begin as happened in hong kong,'' Trimingham said.
He angered many Bermudians when he charged that corruption and dictatorships often accompanied independence.
The Bermudas is a string of 150 islands off the Atlantic coast of the United States. The territory, a British possession since 1684, is heavily dependent on tourism and offshore commercial and financial services.
In 1992 tourism accounted for 40 percent of its hard currency earnings and provided jobs for 60 percent of the labour force. Offshore financial services in 1993 brought in an estimated 42.6 percent of the territory's foreign exchange earnings.
Opposition leader L. Frederick Wade said that while his Progressive Labour Party (PLP) failed to kill the bill, the disarray in the ruling party and compromises wrung from Swan amounted to a moral victory for the opposition.
The government's position has been complicated by the fact that the UBP dissidents have openly boasted that having saved the day for Swan by voting for the bill in the lower house, they will now mount a vigorous public campaign for ''no'' votes when the referendum takes place.
The PLP has long fought for independence but objects to the current thrust to go it alone because it says the government does not have a mandate to raise the independence issue and it fears that Swan's move is a ploy to further entrench the UBP in power without having to alter racially drawn dual-seat voting districts which favour the white minority.
''We are for independence,'' Wade says ''and want the issue determined through a general election after wide public education and discussion as opposed to a simple ''yes'' or ''no'' in a referendum.''
The referendum bill is now in the Senate, where the three independent members are expected to side with the government and allow voting to take place in July.