In it together? Hurricanes, Brexit, and the future of the Overseas Territories

The apocalyptic destruction wreaked by Hurricane Irma, and now that of the  similarly devastating Hurricane Maria, has momentarily thrust the British Overseas Territories onto the news agenda. But how many people in the UK recognise the Britishness of these towns, villages and communities, populated almost entirely by British passport holders, in diverse territories that have chosen to remain associated with the UK?

The British Overseas Territories rarely get much public profile back in Britain, often being treated as slightly embarrassing anachronistic reminders of Empire. When they do make headlines, it’s often for the wrong reasons, either because of a natural disaster such as Hurricane Irma or, more often because of debates around tax havens.

The ten permanently populated Territories between them have a population of around 250,000 – equivalent to a city the size of Aberdeen, Southampton or Swansea. Many of these people are highly skilled, educated and multilingual. As the UK prepares to leave the European Union these communities give the UK a global footprint and reach few other countries possess. Only France can be said to have a comparable network. Yet tragically the UK often appears neither to particularly value nor understand our Overseas Territories. As such we risk gradually alienating these communities who have stayed with us often through great adversity.

The tragic destruction inflicted by Irma on the people of Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, The Turks & Caicos, and Montserrat, has triggered a characteristically generous reaction from people in the UK wanting to help. Yet it has also provoked some troubling and sadly familiar views about these and other British Overseas Territories. Michael Binyon in The Times characterised the more moderate of these when he wrote, as the lives of these British communities were still being torn apart by the hurricane, that these territories amounted to ‘an expensive legacy of Empire’.

This narrow focus on cost is far from uncommon in UK discussions of the overseas territories, and you don’t have to look hard on social media for far more extreme and aggressive views which characterise the territories as venal parasites. Tellingly these views come from across the political spectrum, and reach back a long time. Binyon references the famous line from Clare Short, when International Development Secretary, that the victims of a volcano eruption on the British Overseas Territory of Montserrat in 1997 would be ‘asking for gold elephants before too long’ as they sought to recover from the devastation of their island.

In fact, Hurricane Irma was only perhaps the most recent and violent force beyond these communities control to illicit such sentiments. Of the quarter of a million people across the Territories, only the citizens of Gibraltar got to vote on our membership of the EU. Although the other territories are not members in their own right, they will be massively impacted by the decision to leave. In recent submissions to Parliament from each island, official after official made clear how closely each island relies on the European Union for everything from trade and investment to development assistance. Whether this is desirable or not rather misses the point of whether there is the public appetite in the UK to recognise this and work with the Overseas Territories to find alternatives. The tone of some coverage suggests not, with The Independent characterising efforts by some territories as ‘Tax Havens Demand say in Brexit Negotiations’, a theme eagerly taken up on social media, with few voices questioning why these British communities overseas should not have a voice, whatever legitimate debates there are around tax transparency. Indeed, the Overseas Territories rarely get recognised as communities at all in public debate, featuring generally either as stereotyped romantic or macho symbols of Britain’s might, or as corporate fronts for illicit business. This is not just dehumanising and disrespectful, but a tragic waste of global human resources at a time we should be benefiting from their diverse expertise, networks, skills and outlook.

If some good can come from the destruction caused by Irma and potentially Maria, it should be that, along with the impending transformation that Brexit will bring, we use this as an opportunity for a mature and considered public discussion about the British Overseas Territories. We should take time to consider the costs and benefits of the association, and decide whether we wish to more fully recognise and engage with these diverse British communities, including imaginative thinking about how they might support our collective national influence and advantage in an increasingly turbulent world. If we conclude that the association is an undesirable anachronism, so be it. We owe it to them to help the Territories decide what form of self-government or alternative arrangements they would like. But such a move would send a very clear signal that we are lowering our horizons as a country and as a society at a time we need to be doing the reverse. The alternative is to start treating the British Overseas Territories as the respected, valued and strategical British communities they are. Regardless, the debate is increasingly overdue. If a combination of Brexit and a Hurricane cannot catalyse it, some territories may understandably start drawing their own conclusions. That would be a tragedy, and we may find only then how much such a typically British fit of absent mindedness has cost us all.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Tom Cargill

Tom Cargill is Executive Director of the British Foreign Policy Group. He has worked in various roles in the public, private and NGO sectors, including at the charity for children in care Believe, as well as 10 years at Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs) followed by 4 years at the engineering, procurement and construction multinational Bechtel. He is the author of numerous reports, chapters and articles on international and foreign policy issues.