Chaos as the sun sets on the British Empire: Once it ran half the world, but now the Foreign Office has only a handful of territories to look after. George Drower argues that lethargy is failing them

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The Independent Online
WHEN Hong Kong becomes part of China, Britain will still possess the world's largest overseas empire, consisting of 13 dependent territories: Anguilla, Bermuda, British Antarctic Territory, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Diego Garcia, Gibraltar, Falkland Islands, Montserrat, Pitcairn, St Helena, South Georgia, and Turks & Caicos Islands. They are determined to remain loyal to Britain. Yet they are increasingly disenchanted with how they are run by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

In the Caribbean, where many of Britain's small island territories are located, the main threats to stability are fraud and drug smuggling. Sometimes Whitehall appears not to have a clue what is going on. Only when Norman Saunders, the Chief Minister of the Turks & Caicos Islands, was arrested in Miami for narcotics trafficking in 1985, did Whitehall seem to realise the depth of corruption in his government. Again by chance, the extent of money-

laundering in the British Virgin Islands came to the FCO's attention only as a result of police investigation of the Brinks-Mat robbery at Heathrow airport.

London could help, but often can't be bothered. It is refusing to provide the Virgin Islands with a helicopter for drug interception. An FCO review concerning the security of the Caribbean territories offended local governments because they were not trusted to participate in it. When the FCO announced at the beginning of 1991 that capital punishment was being abolished in the West Indies possessions, there was disquiet, as it had neither carried out thorough local consultations, nor made plans to enlarge the islands' prisons.

The rot took hold in the Sixties, when the Colonial Office was disbanded and responsibility passed to the FCO. Without consultation, the term 'Empire' was abandoned and the 'colonies' renamed 'dependent territories'. The change of wrapper provided no constitutional alteration, but signified the official wish to have the territories marginalised.

At the FCO, lethargy has become institutionalised. Administration is carried out by a byzantine assortment of six geographical departments. They have no formal contact with each other, no official is in overall charge, and they report to three different junior ministers. The FCO has been briefing Chris Patten for weeks, but Bermuda's new governor, Lord Waddington, will be much less fortunate. Even the Governor of Gibraltar gets sent to his posting with only the vaguest of instructions.

The desks in London dealing with Hong Kong, Gibraltar and the Falklands are usually well regarded. But there is seething anger at the high-handed attitudes prevalent in other departments - particularly those dealing with the West Indies and St Helena.

To the territories, the advantages of being a British possession are considerable: the kudos benefits their tourist trade; it denotes valuable stability for their banking and insurance customers; they are given technical support for the development of their shipping registers; their defence is guaranteed; and this year they will be receiving some pounds 31m in aid from the Overseas Development Administration - despite the fact that they have only a small number of inhabitants.

Too small for independence - and under no pressure from Britain to opt for decolonisation since the Falklands War - they are seeking a maturer form of modus operandi with London, based on partnership rather than control. Gathering favour is a proposal advocated by the government of the British Virgin Islands for a Lancaster House-type conference to define the relationship between London and the colonies - its outcome perhaps enshrined in a Dependent Territories Charter.

The territories' striving for more autonomy, and Britain's continuing wish to avoid power without responsibility, will continue to strain the FCO's managerial resources and tolerance. Yet, within the next five years, the remaining Colonial Service personnel, on whom the FCO has relied for much of its imperial expertise at home and abroad will have all retired. Merely substituting them with diplomats would be unwise, as the latter - particularly when they serve as governors - are often found to lack the required administrative skills.

A necessary reform is the creation within the FCO of an autonomous agency responsible for the existing geographical departments. Its purpose would be to develop a cadre of specialists dedicated to the ethos of good governance for the territories. Led by a high-ranking official and answerable to one minister, it would recruit its own personnel and provide them with a career structure.

MPs should prepare to assert themselves when Parliament reconvenes in the autumn. By examining the FCO's administration of the dependent territories, and ensuring the overdue reforms of it are made, the Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs would do Britain much credit.

Dr George Drower is the author of 'Britain's Dependent Territories: A Fistful of Islands', published by Dartmouth at pounds 32.50.