Tuesday, 12 February 2013

What Should We Do With St Helena?

The sun never sets on the British Empire even though it is now reduced to the Crown Dependencies (The Channel Islands and Isle of Man) and some 15 Overseas Territories (some of which have Dependencies of their own - Tristan da Cunha is a dependency of St Helena)). Many of them are more or less permanently in the News:

- The Falklands and Gibraltar because other countries lay claim to them;
- The Caymans and Channel Islands because, courtesy of legislation in the UK parliament, they have been able to develop careers as Tax Havens, sheltering money which otherwise would be taxed in, er, the UK

One of the first questions which a modernising British political party would ask is simply, How do we get rid of them? In contrast, all existing parties are committed to hanging on to them, through thick and thin.

This is bizarre. Some of these (generally) small places impose significant direct outlays from  British tax revenues, notably the Falklands where we have installed an awful lot of bored squaddies. A long list of them, headed by the Caymans and the Channel Islands, deprive the UK Treasury of very significant revenues thanks to their licensed Tax Haven status. Others are more or less criminal, favoured and maybe controlled by money launderers and those who need money laundered. Gibraltar seems to be in this category. One of them is a haven for sex crimes (Pitcairn). Some are just remote and rather depressed (Tristan da Cunha, now a Dependency of St Helena, comes to mind). A couple are the stuff of Mastermind (Name the Overseas Territory situated on the island of Cyprus. Answer: The Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia).

How would I get rid of them all?

They have to be looked at case by case.

The simplest case is that of the Channel Islands and Isle of Man. These should be offered the choice of independence or incorporation into the United Kingdom sending MPs (2) to Westminster, living under UK laws and paying UK taxes such as VAT. If they chose independence, then we could impose sanctions on them if and when we decided we no longer wished to lose so much tax revenue from their activities. They could be squeezed and, if necessary, invaded (something we are quite happy to do in other parts of the world).

For many of the others, a simple strategy would be to renounce the (Imperial) claim to sovereignty - really a claim to the Freehold - in conjunction with an application to the United Nations for a twenty or fifty year Mandate (a Lease) to look after their interests. Such an application would have to be supported by evidence that the local populations wanted us to look after their interests.  This we might not always get.

For example, in the case of the British Indian Ocean Territories (BIOT) we would have to take the views of the Chagos Islanders we evicted when the United States told us they wanted a military base there. The Chagos Islanders might prefer some other country to look after their interests.

Other territories, offered the chance to live as Mandated territories under UN supervision might decide to change their allegiance. Some of them are a very long way from the UK and might prefer some large power closer to hand to look after them.

The Mandate could also work for the Falklands and Gibraltar, since Argentina and Spain would be put in a difficult position if they laid claim to the Freeholds at a time when the UK was inviting the United Nations to accept Freeholder status.

An alternative in relation to the disputed territories would be to sell the Freeholds to Argentina and Spain, respectively, in return for a long leaseback at a peppercorn rent.

The trouble with this is that it still leaves us hanging on to these dysfunctional outposts of Empire. Better just sell them outright. They are more trouble than they are worth and somebody else badly wants them. It's a no brainer. There are plenty of precedents: Russia sold Alaska to America - I don't recall that anyone had to be consulted.

As for the British Antarctic Territory, this is part of a big (and not so big) power carve-up. There is no local population to protect or consult, so really we should be pressing for the Internationalisation of the Antarctic. We should probably offer to throw South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands into any Internationalisation deal.

Last but not least, we have no business claiming Sovereign Territory in Cyprus. If we must have bases in Cyprus (mainly I guess to serve the Americans) then we should be leasing them from Cyprus itself. The bases already use the €uro as their currency (uniquely within the British Empire).

I am trying to think responsibly. There is another option. We could just walk away. It's what we do when we invade foreign countries and lose, so the precedent is clearly there.


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For a full list of the remains of  Empire, go to www.fco.gov.uk









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