The Empire turns its back again

Britain preferred to focus on Hong Kong, where the time for action was past, while ignoring the tragedy unfolding in Montserrat
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Fans of the empire must be weeping with joy into their cornflakes this morning. The United Nations has decided to put an end to the remnants of colonialism before the turn of the century. On the UN's past record of success, this might well herald a full-scale process of recolonisation across the planet.

There are many among the formerly colonised who would rejoice, of course - toadies, creeps and lickspittles all over the globe have secretly lamented the loss of their masters for nearly half a century now.

Here at the centre, there is the usual post-July the Fourth gloom; people still wonder how the inbred idiot George III managed to mislay the greatest prize in the history of colonialism - the United States. In just a few weeks, Indians and Pakistanis will also celebrate the 50th anniversary of their escape from the clutches of civilisation. And you would have had to be in the Falklands to escape the handing over of Hong Kong.

As ever, the nation's imperial past not only provides an occasion for a great deal of nonsensical posturing, it also exposes continuing hypocrisy. When it came to the issue of colonial possessions, only one political principle has ever stood still long enough to be spotted: bugger the natives - what does London want? In the post-war period, Enoch Powell, the scourge of immigrants, argued that Caribbean immigration was good for Britain, because it filled a labour gap, and neutralised the drive for independence. Just a decade later he was thundering that the black tide threatened to cause a race war triggered by competition for jobs.

The left made the same journey in reverse. Labour, which condemned Powell in the Sixties, spent much of the previous decade arguing that immigrants would be better off fighting for the independence and development of their own countries, instead of driving down the wages of British workers.

This week, we saw colonial hypocrisy on a grand scale. While all eyes looked east to Hong Kong, a desperate human tragedy was being played out in the west, on the island of Montserrat. As ever in Britain's colonial past, it proved convenient to focus where we have no power, while ignoring our responsibilities in an arena where we might, with courage and firmness of purpose, make a difference.

The hypocrisy over Hong Kong has been well-rehearsed. Having promised the Hong Kong people that come what may they would not be abandoned to tyranny, we did just that. The people have been led to believe for the past 50 years that should the territory return to China they would be offered a choice: stay and live with the new regime, or a passport to the motherland. As we now know, the campaign by Lord Tebbit and others stymied that promise. They turned a historic debt of honour into a nasty little skirmish about immigration. Thus though the handover was marked by a pointless row over China's human-rights record, Peking will now do as it pleases, and anything the British say or do is just a shadow play. The time to act has passed, and we failed the test of nerve. Despite the ethical policy devised by Robin Cook, it seems that we will co-operate with the largest market in the world; we cannot afford to do otherwise.

Yet, half the globe away, six and a half thousand subjects of the Queen are watching the death of their island in abject poverty and hopelessness, while our government appears to be paralysed by a fear of offending a few local politicians. Montserrat has suffered two blows of fate in the past decade. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo destroyed nearly all buildings on the island, thus wrecking much of the island's principal earner, tourism. Within months, the population started to drop. In 1985, there were 12,500 islanders. So far, 6,000 have packed their bags and gone, many to neighbouring islands, which are themselves unlikely to offer a new life. The rest remain on the edge of disaster, devastated by the two-year-long eruption of the island's volcano, which now threatens to make Montserrat uninhabitable. Four thousand people have no homes to go to.

Conditions there are all but intolerable. The island's hospital has been turned into communal housing, even though it has no inside toilets. The two police cells have now been filled, and the local library has been turned into a prison, inadequate to cope with the inevitable violence and burglary that arise in such situations. Schooling is close to collapse; many of those evacuated from the island are teachers.

Above all, there is still a real risk to life. Many of the island's farms lie in the danger zone. If farmers neglect their land, they will starve; if they do not, they may forfeit their lives. The toll is already heavy - eight dead, 10 missing, presumed dead, and a further eight disappeared.

Yet in spite of pressure from the likes of the MP Diane Abbott and the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Hamwee, our government does not seem to appreciate the urgency of the situation. Some funds have been made available, expertise has been lent, particularly by the Royal Navy, and Baroness Symons, the Foreign Office minister, paid a visit to examine the scene. But funds remain limited; there is not yet, as I understand it, a proper liaison system with the government of Montserrat; and the parliamentary record suggests that Labour ministers, like their predecessors, remain more concerned with not having to extend entry rights to the UK to Montserratians than in giving them the wherewithal to survive.

Fundamentally, a decision has to be made: can Montserrat be saved? If the conclusion is that it cannot, we should tell the Montserratians now and make plans for their resettlement. But if the island can be saved, then the Foreign Office has to decide if the colonial power will open its purse, just as it did for the Falklands.

Preservation of the British way of life had all-party support in the South Atlantic; is there any reason why the principle should be different for this corner of the Caribbean? The muttering in Whitehall is that, though the Foreign Office would like to help, its hand is somehow stayed by disagreements between local politicians. This is a sorry excuse, reminiscent of every colonial administrator's effort to blame the natives for his own incompetence. When it mattered to Britain, the views of colonial peoples never stood in the way of London's will. Whether it does now could be the first real test of Robin Cook's commitment to ethics and human rights in foreign policy. As long as Britain remains a colonial power, it should act like one, and exercise responsibility to rescue its subjects.