British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Tom Russell
Today's UK Overseas Territories
In Context
HMS Iron Duke off South Georgia
The main period of decolonisation was from 1947 to 1983, beginning with India and Pakistan and concluding with Brunei.

In the late I970's, apart from Hong Kong which had its own agenda, all the main players, now Members of the Commonwealth, were independent, or in the last stages leading to independence. These included Vanuatu and Zimbabwe, which gained independence in 1980, with Belize, Antigua and Barbuda following in 1981, and St Christopher and Nevis, and Brunei in 1983.

Apart from these countries, the British Government was left with the Hong Kong problem and ten remaining dependencies with indigenous populations: Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Pitcairn, St Helena, including Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, and Turks and Caicos Islands. A note on the current state of these territories is appended. None of these was at the time exhibiting any interest in independence. The viability of St Helena looked remote. Pitcairn was too small. For different reasons, independence in Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands did not appear to be an option.

Until this time the goal of eventual independence very much governed the philosophy of the colonial expatriate, whether on pensionable or contract terms. We did not have mission statements in those days. Our common and personal role was to deploy all our skills and experience to reach the stage when the colony could exercise a choice to go independent, and at the same time to train our local successors to step into our shoes. We were all trainers. Planning was geared to achieve standards of economic development, localisation of the public and private sectors, sound legislative and parliamentary practice, official and political probity, and internal security, which would allow the ship of state to sail on smoothly under new management when the decision was taken.

However, in 1987, a Ministerial Statement was made which altered the simple goal of independence to say that this option would remain, and that every assistance would be given to territories opting to go independent, but if dependencies wished to retain dependency status the United Kingdom would respect that decision. There is a significant difference between saying that independence is the goal, but territories can choose their own timing, and stating that they can retain dependency status in permanence. The repercussions of this do not seem to have been fully thought through. The planning process for creating the right climate for independence has assumed its own momentum. There is a dynamic approach to the economy, administration and legislation, while the constraints upon Ministers imposed by a dependency constitution stretch indefinitely into the future.

Today's UK Overseas Territories
In Context
The Keys of Gibraltar
There has been no change of attitude in the overseas territories towards independence over the last 20 years. Gibraltar continues to press its case for self-determination but this has been tempered by Spanish high-handedness. The others are more concerned to foster better partnership relations with the United Kingdom.

To obtain more public understanding of dependency problems and to encourage optimum relationships between the United Kingdom and the dependencies, Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands sponsored a conference held in London in 1993. This was opened by The Right Hon. Douglas Hurd, then Foreign Secretary, who announced that the old colonial relationship should be replaced by one of partnership. Following the conference, dependency representatives in London, with the approval of their Governments, sponsored the formation of a Dependent Territories Association (DTA, now UKOTA), meeting in London about six times a year. A representative of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is always invited to attend. The UKOTA provides a forum for discussion of matters of common interest, shares information, works for the mutual benefit of overseas territories, makes recommendations to Dependency Governments, and establishes direct communications with organs of the British Government, the Commonwealth, the European Union and other organisations.

Matters discussed since formation include the shadowy relationship dependencies have with the Commonwealth, as they are not full members: full British citizenship allocated to two dependencies, Gibraltar and Falkland Islands, but not to the remainder; the need to dispense with visas to visit European countries; the need for annual meetings of Chief Ministers; the appropriateness of the name "dependencies" for the new millennium; dependency relations with the United Kingdom and the European Union; and the desirability of having one Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office responsible for dependency affairs.

A further conference was held in February 1998, again opened by the Foreign Secretary, The Right Hon. Robin Cook, who announced that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was conducting a review of relationships between the United Kingdom and its overseas territories, the conclusions of which were published in a White Paper. Many of the issues already discussed in UKOTA were addressed. United Kingdom citizenship was granted to holders of British Dependent Territories Passports unless they wished to opt out. Dependencies were renamed United Kingdom Overseas Territories. There was to be annual meetings of Chief Ministers or their equivalent, the venue every second year being that for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. The partnership arrangement was to cut both ways, and the Overseas Territories were expected to conform to international treaty obligations e.g. in human rights as well as meeting international norms in offshore financial practice with particular emphasis on anti-moneylaundering and misuse of drugs legislation and standards of regulation. The standard of regulation already reached by certain Territories was acknowledged, as well as the level of self-government. The option to remain a dependency or, where possible, to advance to independence in the future should the inhabitants of the territory so elect, was retained.

But how does the situation now differ from the days of the HMOCS?

There are now no ex-Colonial Service or ex-HMOCS Governors left. Nearly all are members of the Diplomatic Service although one or two served for a few years in HMOCS posts.

Colonial Service and HMOCS officers, other than those on Technical Assistance terms, were never Civil Servants of a United Kingdom Ministry. Consequently the perception of impartiality which Governors enjoyed in overseas territories is now somewhat compromised. St Helena and Montserrat are the only grant-aided territories left, and the British Aid Programme is minimal compared to former days in territories such as Gibraltar, Bermuda, Cayman Islands and the Falkland Islands. British officers are still employed however, in overseas territories, on secondment to specialist positions, as consultants employed by BESO, the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation, DFID and other Ministries and Associations. When officers are recruited directly by Overseas Territory Governments, expatriates are often placed on the local civil service salary, with much less supplementation, housing allowance, gratuity, than used to be the case. Localisation plans have continued with marked success. In the Cayman Islands for example, the Chief Secretary and Financial Secretary are both Caymanian, as are the Speaker, all Permanent Secretaries, and more than two-thirds of the Heads of Department. HMOCS can take a great deal of credit for passing on their skills to local officers who are now discharging the duties formerly performed by our members. Gaps are still filled, in particular in the police, medical, teaching, legal and judicial professions, but our British successors will be short term. An overseas career for expatriates working in the remaining dependencies is gone, and we are right as an Association to acknowledge this and to salute the invaluable contribution of our membership in the ceremonies due to take place in May.

Tom Russell CMG, CBE, served in the Colonial Administrative Service and HMOCS in the Western Pacific High Commission from 1948-1974, latterly as Financial Secretary and as Chief Secretary. He was Governor of the Cayman Islands from 1974-1982 and has been Cayman Islands Government Representative in UK since 1982.

Africa Map
British Overseas Territories Map
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 77: May 1999
The Overseas Territories: Security, Success and Sustainability (PDF)
What the government's doing about UK Overseas Territories.
Books by the Author
I Have The Honour To Be
Overseas Territories Remaining
British Virgin Islands
Cayman Islands
The Falkland Islands
St Helena
(Including Tristan Da Cunha and Ascension Island)
Turks and Caicos Islands
British Antarctic Territory
British Indian Ocean Territory
South Georgia
South Sandwich Islands


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