Our op-ed column at Latitude News is a space where people from all walks of life and professions can share their opinions on the links and parallels between the U.S. and the rest of the world.
Puerto Ricans should consider themselves lucky. November’s badly phrased referendum may be open to interpretation, but it at least offered the option to turn Puerto Rico into a fully-fledged U.S. state.
Britain’s Overseas Territories have no such choice in relation to their motherland. The 14 islands scattered around the globe are all that is left of the once vast British Empire. Though their residents have full British citizenship, the Territories are not in any way equal or integral to the UK, and London’s attitude is a mix of over-bearing paternalism and disgraceful neglect.
The Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean are prime examples.
American paradise, British land
Just over five hundred miles southeast of Miami, the islands are virtually unknown in the UK. Tourists strolling on the bright white sands and diving the stunning coral reefs are far more likely to be from the U.S. than Britain. A quarter million Americans vacationed in the Turks and Caicos last year, and another half million dropped in on cruise ships. Many Islanders hold dual U.S.-British citizenship, send their children to schools in the U.S. and head to Florida when they need medical treatment.
And yet, for three years – until elections last month – the Turks and Caicos were run exclusively by a Governor appointed in London. (That’s another matter on which Puerto Ricans might thank lucky stars: they at least choose a Governor from amongst their own. While Overseas Territories have elected legislatures, the British Governors maintain considerable executive powers).
Corruption woes trigger direct rule
In 2009, the Governor (who had arrived one year earlier after diplomatic service in Africa and Eastern Europe) dismissed the Islands’ parliament on instructions from London and suspended the constitution. The move followed allegations of corruption which led to a Commission of Inquiry under a British appointed Judge. It found that local officials had been selling Crown (government owned) land on the cheap to hungry developers in exchange for cash bribes. Money was also alleged to have changed hands so that planning permission would be granted. The scale of the practice was so wide it was hard to believe. In fact, the UK Foreign Office didn’t believe it for years.
Or maybe it chose not to believe it. That is certainly what many Islanders thought as they pleaded with London to act.
Britain likes to talk about having “partnerships” with its Overseas Territories. But the old tensions between ruler and colonized run deep, especially when slave history is involved. The Islands’ first settled population included descendants of slaves, many brought by Loyalist plantation owners fleeing the American Revolution.
No wonder successive Governors were reluctant to tell the locals how to behave. The former Premier Michael Misick took full advantage of white discomfort. (Misick, suspected of masterminding the corruption, disappeared from the Territory earlier this year. After months on the run from an Interpol warrant, his arrest in Rio de Janeiro was announced Friday). One former British official remembers that when she joined a meeting, the Premier would warn his ministers to hush because “the enemy is here.”
Hence the years of UK neglect. Then in 2009, when corruption finally threatened to destroy the Islands’ economy, paternalism kicked in. London simply took over.
It worked. By the time elections were held to restore local government last month, most of the mess had been cleaned up. Thirteen people – including former cabinet members – had been indicted (they go on trial in April) and the economy was recovering.
Another revolutionary tea party – this time in the Caribbean?
But the locals were not happy, complaining of lack of consultation and imposition of unpopular new laws. The decision to introduce a Value Added Tax caused an outcry. There was even more uproar over equalities legislation that many in the conservative, Christian territory feared would legalize gay marriage (it won’t).
Throughout the election campaign, politicians with little to brag about in their own records, joined in the chorus of anti-British sentiment, much of it aimed at the Governor.
Now the ones who got elected have to work alongside him. Photos have been issued of the beaming Governor Ric Todd shaking hands with newly installed parliamentarians. London has issued statements wishing the Islanders success. But it is notable that one of the new government’s priorities is to plan a path to independence.
It may take time but with a status akin to statehood out of the question, independence is the only obvious option for the UK’s former colonies.
Britain has to face the fact that it no longer rules the waves.
Claire Bolderson is a former BBC foreign correspondent and was host of the BBC World Service’s flagship current affairs show, Newshour, for many years. She has covered every U.S. Presidential and Congressional election for the past 18 years and has also reported extensively from Africa, Asia and Europe. She lives in London and her “letter from the UK” blog can be found at clairebolderson.com.