Leading Article: Dereliction of duty in the shadow of a volcano

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Ah, the burdens of Empire. The weary Titan may have shed most of its far-flung possessions, but still come the complaints from those who are left as beneficiaries of British rule. The inhabitants of Montserrat, forced to abandon their island because of volcanic activity, have taken to the streets to accuse the British government of political inactivity.

And, of course, they are right. We retain, through a mixture of historical accident, economic circumstance and political deadlock, a number of what it calls Dependent Territories, and we are not always very good at running them. We owe the people of Montserrat a better deal.

The Montserratians, whose island is now all but uninhabitable, are dismayed with the small amount of money they are being offered to relocate. Most want to go to Britain, not to Guadeloupe or Antigua, which is what they have been offered. Those who will stay want proper emergency accommodation, not the ramshackle and poorly organised shelters they have been given so far.

These are all reasonable demands. They are demands made upon their government in Montserrat; but by extension, since Britain is the responsible power, they are demands made upon this government, too.

The last Conservative government cannot be blamed for the eruption of volcanoes, but it can be blamed for a lot of other things. That government had a responsibility for the well-being of the people of Montserrat. Its ministers were well aware that the volcano was threatening to blow again, and they could have acted earlier to secure the lives of the islanders. This they signally failed to do. The present government is working hard to catch up, but the overall impression is that there is little time and less concern for Montserrat in Whitehall. This has upset the Montserratians, irritated the neighbouring islands, who now have to bear the burden, and angered the many people of Afro-Caribbean origin who think they smell racism.

They quite possibly do. This country was prepared to spend billions of pounds and lay down lives for the Falklanders, and a good thing too. But it is not, apparently, ready to do much more than send a ship and a few million pounds to the people of Montserrat. It has also, by the by, allowed the Falklanders to have British passports, something that is denied to all the other Dependent Territories.

Behind all this lies a much larger structural problem. We have what still amount to colonies in a post-colonial era; now that Hong Kong has gone, what do we do about those that remain? It's not only Montserrat that's unhappy. The 5,000 people of St Helena, stripped of their British passports, have been dispossessed of their history and their rights. Other colonies have also felt unloved, or maladministered. The remaining colonies represent an administrative burden for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which it is ill-equipped to handle, and for which our diplomats in London receive little thanks and plenty of brickbats. We must, for instance, ensure that anti-money-laundering legislation in the Caribbean dependencies is up to scratch, while fending off complaints of interference from local residents.

To misty-eyed liberals and hard-edged realists alike, the solution to this problem may seem simple: give these people the independence which they must surely crave. But it's not that simple. Montserrat doesn't want to be independent, and couldn't survive on its own. The idea of a West Indian Federation (supposed to solve the problem of the smaller Caribbean dependencies) failed almost at its inception.

Colonial rule, in the absence of better solutions, still has its attractions. Two of the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean have decided they want to reverse their independence and rejoin France. The Marquesa Islands, part of French Polynesia, also want to tighten their links. They are not doing this through any great love of France, but because economically they think it makes sense. The advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

This may seem like a one-sided deal for Britain, but there is no alternative for the moment. While Montserrat remains a dependency, we have heavy moral obligations towards it. We owe the islanders an apology, and action. Britain may not have the resources, the expertise or the will to run these places, but it has, in most cases, no choice.

Both the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development have tried to move fast to help Montserrat, but the machinery seems to have been pretty inefficient. And on the broader question of how to accommodate colonies in a post-colonial era, Whitehall is well behind the curve. There is a pressing need for Labour to develop a plot.

This Government has, so far, only one idea: it wants to call the Dependent Territories something else, on the basis that the title is patronising. Name-changing will solve nothing. We are talking about only 130,000 dependent people in these territories - but the Government declines to revise their constitutional status, or to give them full British passports. The rationale is that it would look hypocritical, when we refused to extend that privilege to the people of Hong Kong. This is a bizarre piece of Foreign Office logic: how will it help Hong Kongers to leave St Helenians in the lurch?

We need to accept that the Dependent Territories are British, and will be for the foreseeable future. We have a responsibility, not merely a hazy debt of history, but a practical, political, here-and-now responsibility, towards people who live under our flag; Montserratians should be treated with the same respect and care as our citizens living in Monmouth, or Manchester, or Metroland.