The Ends of Empire

By Aldrich, Robert; Connell, John | The World Today, February 1998 | Go to article overview

The Ends of Empire

Aldrich, Robert, Connell, John, The World Today

Several remarkable constitutional and political developments took place in 1997 in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and in the `other realms and territories' over which Elizabeth II reigns. Some of the Queen's remaining territories are small, and far from seeking independence in this Decade of Decolonisation, prefer more protection rather than less.

ON 1 JULY, HONG KONG, Britain's most populous dependent territory, was ceded to China. Only months later, electors in Scotland voted overwhelmingly for the establishment of a Scottish parliament for the first time since the union of England and Scotland in 1603; in Wales, voters approved, by a narrow margin, plans for a Welsh Assembly.

The Labour government heralded the decisions as paths to greater representation and the advent of the new Britain, whilst some Conservatives feared disintegration of the United Kingdom. Across the Irish Sea, various talks sought consensus on the future of Ulster in relation to the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Meanwhile, far-away and largely unnoticed, residents of Britain's South Atlantic possession of St Helena read the second report of a committee headed by an Anglican bishop which pleaded for rights of citizenship - including the right to live in Britain for the 'Saints' and suggested that St Helena might become a fully-fledged 'county' of Britain. Failure to extend these rights, commissioners argued, amounted to refusal to recognise historic rights accorded to St Helena in the seventeenth century.


St Helena seldom makes news in Britain; Hong Kong was seldom out of the news before British withdrawal. But that event sparked a spate of interest in Britain's other dependent territories. The Guardian and the Independent ran articles on Britain's remaining colonies, and a journalistic account entitled The Last Pink Bits provided a tour of some of the domains over which the British flag still flies.2

Elsewhere in Britain's territories, perma- nent evacuation of the population of Montserrat was considered after volcanic eruptions, and the Montserrat government criticised Westminster for disregarding its needs. Some islanders, unenthusiastic about leaving their homeland, proposed a new capital to be named Port Diana after the late Princess of Wales. Spain continued to contest British sovereignty over Gibraltar with implications for air access.

At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Edinburgh, representatives of Mauritius demanded restoration of Mauritian sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), and the repatriation of its former residents, resettled in Mauritius in the 1970s when the territory was rented to the United States as a military base. The British government refused, just as it scotched a proposal by the Argentine government to take over the Falkland Islands by providing a payout to each islander.


The irony of British withdrawal from Hong Kong, with its five million residents and bustling economy, and retention of Pitcairn, with barely fifty inhabitants and an export economy based on handicrafts and postagestamps, or St Helena, with six thousand people and almost no self-sustaining economy, was self-evident.

Further ironies were provided in other colonies. In Bermuda the per capita income was higher than that of the `mother country'. The Falklands - virtually ignored until the 1982 war- now earns handsome profits from fishing contracts and oil exploration.

Developments in Britain's dependent territories were not merely tempests in distant and tiny teapots. They showed that Britain, like several other nations, retains sovereignty over various 'colonies' or dependent overseas territories scattered about the world.

In the United Nations `Decade of Decolonisation', most resolutely oppose independence. Small and isolated though many are, they sometimes represent significant stakes and create problems - ranging from drug-running and illegal migration to irredentism and border disputes - far beyond their boundaries. …

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