Britain’s Overseas Territories - Anomalous Colonial Remnants or Self-determination Case Studies?

Matthew Collyer

The Second World War sounded the death knell for the European colonial empires. Vast and complex systems of political relations combining territorial control, condominiums, informal influence, and economic hegemony collapsed or were disbanded. Colonies demanded independence and countries such as Britain, France and the Netherlands could no longer maintain such structures. The fundamental principles of decolonisation were spelt out in the 1960 UN resolution on the topic (1514 (XV)). Notably, it stated that full power should be transferred to all ‘non-self-governing territories’ in line with the principle that the ongoing ‘subjection of peoples’ represented a denial of fundamental human rights. Furthermore, to deny independence to a colony on the grounds of an inability, or lack of capacity, to govern itself was not an acceptable reason to limit the process. By the mid-1970's few colonial possessions remained, although the formal end of the British Empire is often considered to be 1997 when Hong Kong was returned to China.

However, there still remain a number of territories which do not possess full self-government, but instead depend on Britain for their defence and foreign policies. At first glance the situation of such regions would seem to be in clear violation of the UN resolution discussed above. The UN committee of decolonisation lists them as ‘non-self-governing’ territories, and they clearly do not possess the full capacities of independent states. But the situation is somewhat more complex. Included in the text of the resolution was the right to self-determination, suggesting that all people have a right to “freely determine their political status”. Most of these are small islands in the Caribbean and Atlantic, whose populations opted not to follow the path to formal independence. 

The Falkland Islands are, perhaps, the most famous example. Argentina attempted to acquire the territory during a brief war in 1982, and declares in its constitution that the Malvinas (Falklands) are an integral part of their state. But the residents of the islands have repeatedly voted to continue the current arrangements, with 99.8% voting in favour in the 2013 sovereignty referendum. Similarly, Gibraltar voted overwhelmingly in 2002 against any sharing of sovereignty with Spain. The question therefore arises, should such dependencies be granted a political status which would allow independence but which does not reflect the will of people?

An interest example of an alternative approach to the question of self-government in overseas territories is that followed by France towards its own overseas possessions. The Fifth Republic has followed a policy of integrating such dependencies into the domestic political structure of France. Notably, territories like French Guiana in South America, with a population of 250,000 people and an area the size of Austria, are formally part of France, sending representatives to the National Assembly and to the European Parliament. British territories however, have considerably smaller populations and are extensively dispersed, and there is even greater complexity related to the territories that will not be discussed here, with the expulsion of the people of the Chagos Archipelago being a particularly difficult case.

To return to the title of this piece; perhaps, in true fence-sitting style, the answer to the question is ‘yes’, and ‘perhaps’. Britain’s overseas territories are remnants of a once vast empire that hold a status unlike that of almost any other group. They are, therefore, anomalies. On the other hand, many have expressed a desire to remain in their current situation, and have resisted attempts to change their political structures, and in this regard they are examples of peoples determining their own future. This correspondent believes that those who seek greater sovereignty must be supported, but the will of those who genuinely, and democratically, do not, must be respected.