The end of an empire? Not quite

With the handover of Hong Kong to China only a handful of colonies will remain. We begin a series on the dependent territories which want to stay British - but under new terms

David Usborne@dusborne
Monday 26 May 1997 23:02

There are rumblings in the colonies. Or rather, there are rumblings in the dependent territories, the term by which the patches of land still run from London are known.

All bar one are specks of colour on the map, where once whole swathes of continents were red. After the vast wave of decolonisation that began with India in 1947 and finishes with Hong Kong on 30 June, a mere handful of territories remain. Only British Antarctic Territory (BAT) is of any great size. The largest by population is Bermuda.

They are, apart from BAT and Gibraltar, islands; most are relics of the days when the Royal Navy ruled the waves. Only two (Ascension Island and Diego Garcia) have any military significance now, and that is mainly for the Americans, not Britain. Many have been linked to Britain for centuries. Each has a governor, who will (from time to time) put on his plumed hat. He is the representative of the Queen; government is mostly run by him with a group of local representatives, with the precise balance of power different everywhere. Foreign affairs and defence rest with London, which can also use reserved powers to block, pass or supersede legislation.

None is likely to part company with Britain any time soon, which is why this probably is the end of Britain's long retreat from Empire. Yet that leaves the problem of ruling a very disparate and far-flung group of territories.

Three (the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and Gibraltar) are claimed by other states (the first two by Argentina, the last by Spain) and the inhabitants are fiercely intent on staying British. The remainder value the link for other reasons, whether because of old loyalties, commercial or political advantages or aid and trade. None of that means that the dependent territories (DTs) are entirely happy, though. The primary cause of unhappiness is the British Nationality Act of 1981, which stripped them of full British citizenship and created the hybrid of British Dependent Territory Citizenship. Many see this as a second-class citizenship. Significantly, many point out, both Gibraltar and the Falkland Islanders were exempted from it; and both are populated largely by people of European stock. It seems to many people a straightforwardly racist piece of legislation.

The principal reason for the Act was to prevent an influx of immigrants from Hong Kong; but after June, that ceases to be an issue. Pamela Gordon, the Premier of Bermuda, acknowledges that debate about immigration rules before the handover of Hong Kong sparked fears in Britain of an invasion of Hong Kong Chinese. Such anxieties should not apply to Bermudians, she said, implying that few would actually feel tempted by British life.

"It is not as if every Bermudian is going to get up and go over to England; England is a country with many of its own problems. When you are in a country that has one of the best per capita incomes in the world, the likelihood of scores of Bermudians picking up and emigrating to Britain would be slim to none".

None the less, all of the dependent territories that were affected by changes in British nationality law will want some revision in their status. The rules particularly badly affect St Helenans. There is very high unemployment on St Helena, yet the inhabitants still have to obtain work permits before they can work in Britain, the Falkland Islands or Ascension island, their main places of outside employment. "Saints," inhabitants of one of Britain's first colonies, feel badly let down. Though reports earlier this year of riots were untrue, there is a lot of bad feeling.

The remaining territories feel that they get important benefits from the Union Flag, despite the fact that many of the Caribbean dependencies are increasingly closer to the US than to Britain. Bermuda voted in a referendum only two years ago to stay British.

They are very geographically dispersed, with one group in the Caribbean, a scattering in the Atlantic, Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and tiny Pitcairn island in the Indian Ocean. Four (Gibraltar, Bermuda, the Falklands and the Cayman Islands) have representative offices in London. It is difficult to see how policymaking towards them can be anything but inconsistent.

The dependent territories all feel, to varying degrees, that they are misunderstood, neglected or misused by the Foreign Office, which administers them. "They don't always think when they're dealing with the DTs," says one source.

None the less, all resent the idea that they might be transferred to the new Ministry of International Development, seeing the FCO as a higher- profile home. "They would feel insulted" at a transfer, one source said.

All of them would like to have more a voice in London, and especially with the Commonwealth. Though each is recognised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which ties together the group's legislatures, none has any representation with the Commonwealth itself. The Government will be asked to press the issue ahead of the Commonwealth summit in Edinburgh in October. It is, as officials admit, a small point; but it is symptomatic of the neglect and ignorance from which the dependent territories feel they have suffered.

Tomorrow: Bermuda

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