UK-Overseas Territories relationships
By all accounts, the visit by the UK Minister for Overseas Territories Henry Bellingham was a success. The Minister gave Bermuda high marks for its overall governance and compared our debt levels favourably to that of the United Kingdom; Mr Bellingham was also able to get a sense of Bermuda through the numerous meetings and gatherings he attended and the venues he visited, even if within the narrow confines of a roughly 72-hour schedule.
Ideally, the knowledge gained from this experience should lead to more informed decisions regarding Bermuda at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The decision to produce a new White Paper on the UK relationship with its overseas territories, replacing the Labour Government's 1999 Partnership for Progress rendition, makes sense but no one should be under any illusion about what this represents.
For all the language evoking a “dialogue” with the OT governments, a “partnership” to pursue mutually beneficial relations and the search for a commonality of purpose, the UKOT relationship is rooted in inequality, a dominance-subordinate relationship. While the UK will consult and have leaders of the colonies sit around a table in the hope of arriving at a consensus on the future relation between the two, the absolute power to decide rests with the UK government. On this issue alone, the best any territory can hope for is an unequal partnership where the UK bestows some concessions on the people. For those who would argue precisely the same types of relationships would exist if a sovereign Bermuda was in negotiations with a more powerful country, there is a qualitative difference to note: a sovereign Bermuda has the capacity to leave the table, colonial Bermuda is required to sit at the table or face unilateral action by the UK.
Under these constraints it is important for the OTsexcept for Gibraltar and Falklands/Malvinas, which have special circumstancesto genuinely work to develop a common framework for dealing with the UK. For far too long the OTs have allowed their differences to render a collective disposition almost impossible, the uncomfortable reality behind the veneer of unity at the annual Overseas Territories Conference; the consequence is that the UK is in a much stronger position dealing with individual territories than an emboldened collective.
The dangerous part of the review to develop a new White Paper is that while it may differ in style from the 1999 paper, the substance will, minimally, be the same: an encroachment on the constitutional authority of the Bermuda Government. Our constitution clearly sets out that the elected government has responsibility for all areas of government, save for external affairs, defence and internal security. The retrograde devolution of power back to the UK began with the 1999 White Paper and there is no doubt, based on Minister Billingham's comments in Bermuda this week, that his government has no intention of stepping back and respecting our constitution. Our financial affairs, governance, environment policy, for example, are not the UK responsibility but by calling for interaction between OT governments and the UK government at every level we will witness an unprecedented level of involvement of the UK in local affairs.
There is clearly a segment of our population which welcomes such intrusion; my view is that it sets an unpalatable precedent. Who will set policy? Continuing along this path will provoke uncomfortable questions about the validity of our own constitution.
Attempting to seduce the OT populations into complacency on these issues by the promise of money from the UK lottery would be dismissed as a none too subtle 'vote purchase' in many countries; here it makes for favourable headlines in the local media.
Citizens of the Overseas Territories are at risk of losing more autonomy from the UK under the guise of a new partnership. If we are to make progress and move toward greater self-government we need to act now to reverse this trend.