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

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The Independent Online
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.