Leading Article: A vote and voice for every British citizen - not just here but overseas too

Share
Related Topics
The Independent has recently had its problems with Robin Cook, but yesterday he did a good thing. The Foreign Secretary made a brave start at addressing the problems of Britain's remaining colonies; now he must go further.

The Dependent Territories, a clutch of far-flung possessions strung across the globe, are the last morsels of the empire which Britain bit off and then spat out over the course of four centuries. Most are islands, the remnants of a naval strategy that dominated the world for most of the nineteenth century. Gibraltar, the Falklands and St Helena only had meaning for Britain as coaling stations and fortresses. Once naval supremacy was gone, after Britain lost its other colonies, and as submarines, nuclear missiles and aircraft redefined military strategy, they lost their point as far as the metropolis was concerned.

But as far as their inhabitants are concerned, they are still home, and they are still British. We may sometimes feel that it is slightly surreal or anachronistic that the United Kingdom has dominions in the South Atlantic, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean or the Pacific. But it does; and the inhabitants of these territories often feel that they are neither understood, nor well treated, nor accepted.

None of these places wants independence; most couldn't cope with it. That means, as the Foreign Office has at last grasped, that we have to come up with a plan for looking after places as diverse as the Falkland Islands and Anguilla.

Mr Cook started in the right place yesterday when he addressed the Dependent Territories Association in London. He began by talking about mutual trust and respect between Britain and the dependent territories, something that has been all too lacking - notably in the dealings of Labour with Montserrat. Symbolically, renaming them the United Kingdom Overseas territories will help put the relationship on a fairer footing (and it is better than calling them the British Overseas Territories: that name only served to make their inferiority complex worse). Allocating to them a new sub-department in the Foreign Office might not sound much, but it will help clarify administration and ensure that the territories have a closer relationship with the bureaucracy.

In return, the territories will have to clean up their acts in a few, specific areas. Financial regulation has been a big problem, though many of the Caribbean islands have acted already. Respect for human rights - including the abolition of the death penalty, and the establishment of gay rights - is only reasonable if these places are to continue to have close ties to Britain.

The main nettle still to be grasped is passports. In a noble gesture of post-colonial reconciliation, Britain took their British passports away in 1981, and handed out second-class documents in their place, shabby passports that do not give a right of abode in the UK. The motive was solely to stop the people of Hong Kong from coming to Britain once it became clear that the former colony would return to Chinese sovereignty. This piece of monstrous hypocrisy was then topped off with another: even when Hong Kong had been handed back, the Government refused to give back the passports to the 150,000 people remaining under British rule. The reason, apparently, was that it would look bad to act so soon after Hong Kong had gone.

This pathetically poor piece of reasoning is still being used to deny the people of St Helena and elsewhere their right to a proper passport. Gibraltar and the Falklands have them already, which also raises some big questions. These two territories are, of course, subject to rival sovereignty claims, which is the main reason why their inhabitants are privileged. But it is also worth pointing out that most of the people of Gibraltar and the Falklands are white; most of the others are not.

Racism? Quite possibly. The main opponent of handing out passports is the Home Office, where plenty of ignoble spirits still find a home. Even if it is not racism, it does not look good for Britain. Nor does it fit with Mr Cook's arguments about mutual trust and respect. And it won't help the Government when it presses its claims over financial regulation and human rights if it is, in effect, offering little in return. The Foreign Secretary realises all that and is trying to change things: which is a moral, but also practical thing to do, and he deserves all the support he can get.

There is one further step the Government needs to take. The territories have, at present, little in the way of democratic representation in London. It would be difficult to give them, say, a seat in the Commons. But in a government where radical and innovative constitutional thinking is encouraged, it shouldn't be impossible to find a way to give every British citizen - at home and overseas - a vote and a voice.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire, Britain’s largest Immigration Removal Centre  

Thanks to Channel 4 we now see just how appallingly Yarl’s Wood detention centre shames Britain

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
 

If I were Prime Minister: I’d ensure ministers took mental health in the armed forces as seriously as they take physical wounds

James Jones
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor