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Imperial relics cling to British rule

`We wouldn't stop them becoming independent but most of them don't want it'
Britain's age of empire is long over, but the remnants of imperial glory have forced it in recent years to fight a war against Argentina, to risk severe damage to its relations with China and to endure constant friction in its dealings with Spain.

The Falklands campaign of 1982 enshrined the principle that the inhabitants of a British dependent territory, as the colonies are referred to now, have the right to remain under British rule as long as they wish. Unless, that is, they live in Hong Kong, which has all but a fraction of the 6.2 million people living in Britain's 14 remaining dependent territories.

Britain agreed more than a decade ago to hand the colony back to China in 1997, when its 99-year lease on most of the territory expires. But its attempts to entrench the rule of law and a measure of democracy have infuriated the Communist leadership in Peking. The thought of millions of Hong Kong people seeking refuge in Britain caused the citizenship laws to be changed; British passports are available only to the political elite, and to those wealthy enough to make a significant investment in Britain.

While Hong Kong prepares for Chinese rule, there are no plans to return Gibraltar to Spain, which since 1713 has failed to recapture the colony militarily or through border closures. The dispute bedevils European Union business, and Spanish indignation has been heightened recently by alleged money-laundering, drug-running and cigarette-smuggling from the Rock.

These are not typical British colonies, however. The average dependent territory is a tiny island or group of islands, some of which, such as Pitcairn or St Helena, among the most isolated on earth.

Several, including the British Antarctic Territory and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, have no permanent population, while the population of the Chagos Islands, in the British Indian Ocean Territory, was cleared away to build the Diego Garcia military base.

The largest concentration of these micro-colonies is in the Caribbean, where Britain holds sway over the Cayman Islands, the Turks and Caicos, the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla and Montserrat, in the Leewards chain. Offshore banking and tourism are almost the sole sources of income, but London incurs a net economic burden in keeping money-launderers and would-be drug smugglers at bay, and in coping with the natural disasters, including hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, to which the islands are prone.

Bermuda may choose to go its own way, but for most of Britain's remaining colonies this is not an option, although the mother country might like it to be. "We wouldn't stop them taking independence if they wanted it," said one colonial master, "but we know most of them don't."