Leading article: How fares the Empire now, Mr Cook?

NEW LABOUR has got around to modernising that most unpromising of subjects, the British Empire. The publication yesterday of the White Paper "Partnership for Progress and Prosperity - Britain and the Overseas Territories" marks a welcome change from the benign neglect that most of these Cinderella communities have suffered. With the exceptions of the Falklands, Gibraltar and Montserrat, we have paid them scant attention.

They are a mixed bag. Bermuda, the largest by population and the wealthiest, is what must now pass for a jewel in the imperial crown. Empire loyalists will be interested to learn that we still retain sovereignty over Ascension Island (population 1,100), the aptly named Inhospitable Island (population nil, part of Tristan da Cunha), Oeno (population nil, part of the Pitcairn Islands), and, of course, the Chagos Archipelago, also known as the British Indian Ocean Territory. They are a curious collection.

By far the most important move in the White Paper is the return of full British citizenship, with the right of abode, that was restricted to the residents of Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands. There was more than a whiff of racism about this, and the removal of the opportunity to work, train and study in Britain caused hardship and impeded economic progress, most notably in St Helena.

Sadly, this is not recognised by all. The Shadow Foreign Secretary Michael Howard has raised the spectre of immigration. Perhaps it's just as well he's taking early retirement. It is, of course, extremely unlikely that the wealthy citizens of Bermuda will be swapping their shorts for raincoats and heading for Bermondsey. Even if the entire populations of the poorer micro-communities turned up in Britain, the numbers involved would be minuscule.

The promised improvements in human rights and financial regulation in the Overseas Territories are laudable, provided they are implemented sensitively. But one important question has been ducked. When we entered the 20th century we ruled over a quarter of the Earth's surface and nobody bothered to ask why. As we enter the next century it is curious that even this latest White Paper fails to answer that same question. The Empire remains a thoroughly unmodern affair.

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