Remnants of empire: Britain's remaining 'territories' can be a real headache in a post-colonial age

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What should Britain do with its last outposts of Empire?

The 14 "Overseas Territories," are the far-flung islands that never made it to nationhood when most of the colonies became independent.

Some (the Falklands and Gibraltar for example) still cling to the mother country. More British than Britain they are terrified of being swallowed up by the foreigners (Argentina, Spain) lurking nearby.

Others grudgingly accept U.K. passports (and financial support) but feel little real affection for the British -- especially when we start bossing them around.

That is the case today in the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean. There, on a sweltering hot day, I recently watched the British governor open a new radar station as a choir of local school children sang "God Save the Queen."

The Turks and Caicos are a string of flat, rocky islands atop stunning reefs south of the Bahamas. The white sand beaches stretch for miles, the turquoise sea is warm, calm and crystal clear.

The politics, however, are a lot murkier.

The islands have been plagued by jaw-dropping corruption allegations and chronic mismanagement for years. Resources have been plundered, certain officials have gotten very rich. (Corruption trials begin this month.)

Until the financial crash in 2008, London took a hands-off approach. It had given the islanders more autonomy, encouraging the governor to take a back seat and let local politicians grasp the reins.

But when the global economic crisis hit, North American tourists disappeared. A condo building boom came to a shuddering halt and the mismanaged island finances collapsed.

Eventually, cries of despair from Turks and Caicos residents reached the U.K. A parliamentary committee visited and demanded an inquiry. A British judge uncovered "systemic corruption."

So the U.K. threw out the elected government and took complete control. For the past three years, Britain's governor has been in charge, supported by local advisory bodies whose members he has selected.

The Turks and Caicos Islands have been a full-fledged colony and the islanders have hated it.

"They can't just come in when it suits them and rule with an iron fist," says a young tourist guide.

The British have "a big-stick approach" says a local politician echoing the most common complaint from residents -- that there is no consultation with the ordinary people.

Islanders complain that the governor forced on them a very unpopular value-added tax. Even more unpopular is an equalities law designed to meet European Union standards and rumored to require recognition of same-sex marriage. (It does not but that has not stopped the angry protests in this devoutly Christian territory.)

The governor insists his administration consults widely. People always grumble about government, he says -- and it just so happens that for the past three years he has been the government in the Turks and Caicos. But the problems run deeper than the islanders' relationship with one man.

On Friday, elections were held --the first step in restoring local government. With little to be proud of in their own past behavior, many politicians rounded on the British as a common enemy during the noisy campaign.

"There will be resistance when these parties take office," said one candidate ominously. Another islander said that because the governor will retain significant powers -- with an effective veto over legislation -- "the politicians will get frustrated and then they'll mobilize the masses" (40,000 of them in total, at least half of whom are Haitian immigrants).

And what would they do once mobilized? The former premier, Michael Misick (currently on the run from an international arrest warrant) used to talk of independence for the islands. But there's never been a formal request for it.

There is little support amongst the locals for giving up the benefits of British citizenship (which include visa-free visits to the United States). Plus they all know potential investors are reassured when they arrive in the hot, scruffy airport and see a picture of the queen.

And what is in it for Britain? Nothing. We British don't want the Turks and Caicos Islands. We did once, centuries ago when they were the center of Caribbean salt production. But that industry is long gone. Now they are a political embarrassment costing U.K. taxpayers millions in bailouts and loans.

They also are a reminder of an imperial past modern Britons would rather forget.

Many islanders are the descendants of slaves. They arrived with their British owners, loyalists fleeing the revolution in the United States. From his hiding place, former Premier Misick plays on that with barely disguised accusations of racism. The British, he said in one email to the local press, were not bothered when white business people were doing well. They only started investigating when black islanders got their hands on the islands' resources.

One should take Mr. Misick's rantings with a large pinch of the salt that used to be raked from the islands' vast salinas. But he has struck a nerve.

London says its officials are there to clean up the government and sort out its finances. But in doing so, they take on the role of old fashioned colonialists. And that just does not work in this post-colonial age.

opinion_commentary

Claire Bolderson, a longtime correspondent and anchor for BBC News, is a freelance journalist (claire.bolderson@gmail.com).


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