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The Kingdom

Overseas Territories

Britain's Overseas Territories (formerly "Dependencies") fit uneasily into Britain's democratic structure. They are the scattered remnants of the former British Empire, which once covered a quarter of the Earth's surface and upon which the Sun never set. Since the "Winds of Change" decolonisation of the 1960s, however, which saw most of Britain's African possessions given independence, and the loss of Rhodesia, Belize and Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s, the size and importance of Britain's Empire has been vastly diminished.

The remaining territories are concentrated in the Atlantic and the Caribbean. The British Indian Ocean Territory is (naturally) in the Indian Ocean and the Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific. These remaining possessions outnumber those of a former European colonial power, the Netherlands. But they are smaller than those possessed by the France. It is now dated to refer to such territories as "possessions" and definitely un-PC to refer to them as colonies. Following the election of the Labour government in 1997, the Foreign Office (which retains day-to-day responsibility) renamed the British Overseas Dependencies as British Overseas Territories ("dependencies" was seen as dated and derogatory). It also gave some of them a greater degree of autonomy. However, they remain colonies in all but name.

Five British overseas territories, Gibraltar, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, the Turks & Caicos Islands and Montserrat, were included in an Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development draft "blacklist" of tax havens with inadequate financial supersion published in June 2000.

The justification for the retention of these Overseas Territories is that under UN protocols they cannot be given independence unless the people of each territory demand it under the principle of self-determination. Moreover each territory is too small and insignificant on its own to become a sovereign nation. So whilst these territories are relics of an imperialist era in Britain's history, there remains no option but to retain them so long as their populations want the British connection.

Although few dispute the right of each territory to self-determination and therefore their expressed wish to remain attached to Britain, there is a considerable democratic deficit under the current arrangements. Although the residents of the territories have now been given full British citizenship (as opposed to their former status as quasi-British citizens), this newly-acquired citizenship is diluted by their lack of representation at Westminster. As in the colonial age, the Foreign Office imposes a Governor on each territory. The Governor has considerable executive powers and whilst these are balanced by locally-elected legislatures, the territories have no formal means of redress vis-à-vis the British state - i.e. they have no right to Parliamentary representation at Westminster.

This is a contrast to the French situation. Since the creation of the Fifth Republic in 1958, all France's overseas possessions have been treated as Overseas Departments. They are therefore entitled to representation in the French National Assembly and Senate.

One means of achieving a similar representation for the people of the British territories would be to create seats for the territories in the House of Commons (and any reformed second chamber). This could be achieved as follows.

Assume that the formula for representation at Westminster is one seat per 60,000 (or thereabouts) of the electorate. Representation would then be something like this:

One seat for Bermuda - 63,000*.

One seat for

One seat for

(The other territories have no permanent resident population).

(Key: * = 1994 UN estimate. ^ = 1997 estimate)

This would create only three more MPs and be of little cost or consequence to the balance of the parties in the House of Commons.

The Crown Dependencies

If the British Overseas Territories' position within the "United Kingdom" is anomalous, the position of the Crown dependencies is positively bizarre. "Crown dependencies" is the collective title for the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, both of which are situated off the British mainland. These islands became possessions of the "Crown" by historical accidents. The Dukes of Atholl gave the Isle of Man to the "Crown." The Channel Islands are remnants of the Duchy of Normandy. The term commonly used to describe them is somewhat misleading as it is merely the collective term for the Bailiwick of Guernsey and the island of Jersey, which are constitutionally separate.

This status as Crown dependencies is rather like that of Puerto Rico and Guam vis-à-vis the United States, as they are not colonies, yet are not integral elements of the "United Kingdom".

The bi-cameral legislature of the Isle of Man, the Court of Tynwald, may be the oldest parliament in continuous existence. It has met since the tenth century. Candidates for the House of Keys (its lower house) must stand as independents, not on a party ticket. The laws of the island are notoriously backward, however. For instance the long insistence on retaining corporal punishment and the refusal to legalise adult homosexual acts. The British Parliament applied pressure to force legislative changes in both areas.

The legislatures of Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney (a dependency of Guernsey) are the States, that of Sark (another dependency of Guernsey) is the Court of Chief Pleas. These legislatures have a similar conservative approach. Sark is a fief of a hereditary dame and women legislators must cover their heads during debates!

The role of the British Parliament is merely to provide defence and foreign relations for the dependencies, which are not considered to part of the European Union. The British Parliament can legislate for them and can rescind any law or government action of any of the dependencies' legislatures. However, it has rarely exercised this power and has merely placed pressure upon the legislatures to themselves change objectionable laws.

Each dependency has its own financial system and postal system, despite the relatively small number of people who actually reside in them (69,788 on the Isle of Man, 84,082 on Jersey and 61,839 on Guernsey and its dependencies. 1991 census figures). The "Crown" or Executive is represented in each dependency by a Lieutenant-Governor. However, this is a somewhat more ceremonial post than the Governors who administer the Overseas Territories.

The dependencies have a rather anomalous position in relation to the international community. They do not belong to the European Union. And they are not regarded as de facto overseas territories of the "United Kingdom" by the international community (despite their national sporting teams and distinct currencies) and therefore the principle of self-determination does not come into play. So far the British Parliament has sought to maintain the status quo, partly to meet the wishes of the residents and partly because it is not a contentious issue.

Yet all is not well. The desire to maintain the status quo on the part of the residents of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands can be attributed to the success of their economies and the relatively high standards of living enjoyed there. However, aside from tourism, much of this is attributable to the financial services industries that are encouraged by the low tax rates and weak regulations. The distinct taxation systems facilitate the opening of accounts by firms wishing to avoid paying higher taxes in the "United Kingdom" and by criminals with cash to launder. Many of Britain's leading companies have opened subsidiaries in the islands, allowing them to reduce their British tax bills by 25 percent. This is because of low tax rates and the special treatment that the islands' authorities offer to British firms sheltering there. This puts the interests of islands at variance with those of the rest of Britain in some important respects.

There is yet another aspect to the status quo that raises serious questions. The residents of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are considered to be British citizens. Yet like the people of the overseas territories they are not entitled to vote for representatives at Westminster, nor be considered as citizens of the European Union. Their opting out of the European Union may provide a haven for businesses that wish to avoid EU regulations. It also allows the local governments to insist on work permits for British citizens who are free to work in other European nations such as France or Italy without such hindrance

One means of addressing this anomalous situation would be allow each dependency an MP in the House of Commons (and representation in any reformed second chamber) and to encourage their accession to the European Union. This would not diminish the role of their legislatures but merely allow their citizens the recourse at Westminster that they are currently denied. It would go some way towards ridding Britain of an anachronistic remnant of feudalism and internal-colonisation.

October 1999. The British government announced that it will close a loophole in the law that has allowed British companies to avoid paying as much as £1 billion a year in tax through "designer rate regimes" in the dependencies. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, also said that he would put pressure on the financial authorities in the islands to alter tax rules which allow multinational companies to avoid British taxes.

PointerRead what the Centre's constitution says about the territories

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