Why the Dependent Territories are like a virgin ...

From Here to St Helena
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The Independent Online
In the Department of Revisionist History, there are few more fertile areas of invention than sex. There are lessons for politicians here. In both sex and politics, the urge to stretch the truth to enhance your reputation is almost irresistible. Who has never been tempted to make the account of a past romantic experience longer, stronger and more exciting than it really was? After all, in most cases there are only two competing accounts of the events concerned; and most of the time it flatters both parties to paint the encounters in Technicolor. But up until now, I had always believed that there was one piece of history that women would not be able to embellish: either you are a virgin or you aren't. There should be no risk of ambiguity - Clintonesque definitions of sex notwithstanding. Trust the Dutch to make fools of us all.

According to the British Medical Journal, doctors in the Netherlands are "reconstructing" the hymens of young brides-to-be, particularly among minority communities. The reason is that the women - and their families - are terrified that should their new husbands find out the truth, the young women will be shunned, abandoned and worse. It seems a small thing to do to prevent a lifetime's humiliation and unhappiness; but is it right to subject women to such grotesque treatment in order to satisfy male vanity? Or to put it another way, would any sensible woman choose to marry a man who is so wound up about this part of her past that he would regard her previous sexual partners as a personal insult?

I thought that sort of no-brain nonsense was reserved for members of Europe's royal families, who seem to care so deeply about these things that their sons can be forced into spectacularly unsuitable marriages. It really isn't an issue for a grown-up society. There are cases where previous intercourse has been "forced"; but surely the young women are hardly to blame.

However these matters aside, this kind of surgery raises another fundamental, maybe metaphysical question: is a reconstructed virgin the same as the original article? That is to say, after you have had the experience, even if you are eventually returned to the original physical state are you actually the same person, or are the changes simply hidden? And should it matter to your new spouse? In physics, it is well known that if you pass an electric current through a magnet, and then remove the current, the magnet looks and feels the same but that it never behaves in quite the same way again. There is even a peculiarly appropriate name for it: hysteresis, from the Greek word for "coming late"; 'nuff said.

All of this takes us quite naturally to Mr Robin Cook who being a man of the world will understand the problem of distinguishing the real thing from the manufactured article. This week he announced the Government's plans to reconstruct the connective tissue between this country and the so-called Dependent Territories scattered all over the world. They include tiny places with romantic names like Anguilla, Pitcairn Islands, St Helena, the South Sandwich Islands, and naturally enough, the British Virgin Islands. These were all formerly part of the great empire on which the sun never set, their presence on early maps of the world largely justified only because British navigators needed to know where to find water, and after the first few colonists settled, where to drop the supplies. Otherwise they were simply rocks in the sea. Of course, we came to know and love the Falklands 15 years ago, but for the most part these places have hardly ever figured on our consciousness.

That is why, back in 1962, the then Conservative government was able, through the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, effectively to rupture their relationship with the UK, remove these British subjects' rights to come to the mother country and to cast them adrift in unfriendly seas. The break took place at the height of the era of decolonisation, when both main parties could argue that it was the colonies that demanded their freedom, and that whatever they lost from London's economic support would be made up for in international aid. But there was never any real intention of a quid pro quo. The French held their colonies close even after independence; the British waved goodbye and closed the door. Granted, those that proved to be valuable staging posts for the Navy have been well-treated; and Bermuda, the Caymans and Gibraltar have built brilliantly on that base to create economically self-sufficient countries. However, many, such as Montserrat, were virtually destroyed after being abandoned by the imperial power. They remain pitiful, clinging wretches, hoping constantly for a smile of approbation from their former sponsor, cadging an extra dollar in aid here, a new hospital there.

Mr Cook's decision to bring these territories back into the warm embrace of the former power is a noble one. There are no votes in it, and some of his colleagues are as always fearful that people will say that Labour plans to swamp us with people who still carry spears. It is unlikely that there will be a flood of new applicants for entry; the maximum number who could apply to settle in the UK is about 160,000, and as far as those territories around the Caribbean and Atlantic are concerned, the preferred destination now is the US, where West Indians are remarkably successful immigrants. In any event, Cook's alleged arrogance is serving him well; in this case he is dismissing silly, fearful nonsense about immigration in order to do the right thing. In particular, he is rightly holding out for these people to have British passports; it is the least we can do for people who helped Britain to project its military power across the globe at vital moments.

However, Robin Cook and Baroness Symons need to be aware that however well they repair the break, the 36 years since 1962 have changed both sides in this relationship. The Dependent Territories that I know still feel culturally British, but they no longer have the automatic deference of colonial people. They no longer believe that every pound of aid money and every diplomatic concession is a boon from the Crown; their leaders are men and women steeled in politics, and loyal to their own people rather than the majesty of a far-flung empire. And they will not be shy about asking for some share of the wealth that they helped to create as vital strategic links in the map of British naval power. It is right to revive the relationship; but after 36 years, these renewed virgins may not be as soft and yielding as the first time around.