The Future of the Falkland Islands and Its People/British Overseas Territories: New Relationships with the UK for the 21st Century

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British Overseas Territories: New Relationships With The UK For The 21st Century

Mark Sandford, Research Fellow

The Constitution Unit

University College London

British Overseas Territories such as the Falkland Islands represent a unique sub-division of the issues around sub-national, regional and local government that are exercising both the United Kingdom and the European Union. The constitutional position of these territories has varied according to the political convenience of the ‘mother country’. This reflects a dual concern on the part of the UK itself. Following the end of the British Empire in the 1960s, the handful of (mostly tiny) territories that remained wanted to retain, for the most part, a relationship with the UK. Independence did not suit the governments of these territories, and therefore was not sought. On the other hand, the territories were emphatically distinct from the rest of the UK. For twenty years until the British Overseas Territories Act 2002, with the special exception of Gibraltar and the Falklands there was not even a right of settlement for their citizens in the UK (although this can be seen as aiming to avoid an influx of Hong Kong citizens in the run-up to the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997).

Hence it will never be possible for the constitutional debates around these territories to be resolved by the same debates as those which relate to the ‘mainland’. Regional and local government in the UK, as well as the position of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland in relation to the Union, exist in two overlapping contexts that do not apply to overseas territories. Firstly, governance structures are influenced both by the recent history of governance and politics and by the questions of local and sub-national identity within England. These debates are still at the developmental stage following relative neglect during the long heyday of the British Empire, when the British project obviated the need for population or elites within Britain to look inwards at their own relationship with their government, state and national identity. Secondly, the social and economic issues of populous, urban societies simply will not apply to the requirements of most British overseas territories, most of which number their populations in five figures or less, and most of which enjoy a social stability, due to their remoteness, more comparable with pre-modern or early-modern British society than with its contemporary form.

Hence, through administrative convenience to the United Kingdom and to the overseas territories themselves, it is likely that all overseas territories will evolve towards day-to-day self-government, equivalent to that enjoyed by the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man (themselves sitting uneasily between overseas territory and devolved governance due to their proximity to the UK, of which they are not part) and in advance of the devolution enjoyed by Scotland. It is likely, at the same time, that overseas territories will find it to convenient to maintain a relationship with the UK at a symbolic or dignified level. In many case a sense of ‘Britishness’ underpins their governance, administration and culture and identity, and this resource would be valuable if the territory should face a crisis of governance. Equally, however tenuous might be the ‘lived reality’ of a link with the UK, its existence is a vital resource in the event of outside attack. The Falkland Islands, of course, are the most striking example of this principle.

Under a scheme of substantial self-government, small territories are likely to find it increasingly convenient to use their constitutional resources to secure a high living standard for their inhabitants. David Milne’s edited volume The Political Economy of Small Islands made this point strikingly, examining the fortunes of islands (including Åland, Newfoundland, the Faroe Islands, and the Isle of Man) and showing how the degree of independence in law- and policy-making correlated with living standards and the ability to respond to economic circumstances of the wider world. In the Falklands, this principle is strikingly borne out by the wealth brought to the islanders through the recent surge in sales of fishing and oil-drilling licences for areas of the Islands’ maritime zone.

It does not serve the Falkland Islands to step back from this kind of exploitation of constitutional resources. Neither would it serve any purpose for the UK government to try to prevent it. However, it is worth remembering that the Falklands have established their right to these constitutional resources unilaterally. They were not awarded as specific powers by the UK government. In this the Falkland Islands bear testimony to their links with Britain, and the administrative culture of British incrementalism. Further incrementalism, tacitly agreed between the UK and its overseas territories, seems to be the most likely future. The stresses and uncertainties of full independence hold no advantage for the territories that cannot be gained under internal self-government, and any closer relationship to the UK would serve no purpose except that of bureaucratic centralism.