By Michael L. Jarvis
The following is my written submission made to the UK Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) inquiry into the future of the Overseas Territories (OTs).
Representation of the OTs in the UK and in the Commonwealth and other international fora
My submission is focused on this aspect of the inquiry as I’m convinced that all other matters listed under the specific headings of the FAC’s remit flow from it.
Governance, financing, mutual benefits, national and international representation, oversight by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and assets and liabilities, all have a starting point in representation.
But what type of representation?
This inquiry presents an opportunity to not just review the relationship with and oversight by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), but to examine the very nature of the constitutional relationship between Britain and its OTs.
I posit that in the modern world it’s an anachronism in many respects.
• The OTs, although internally self-governing are at best appendages to a system which renders them impotent in many respects.
• All international obligations are deferred to or exercised on their behalf by an administrative authority – the United Kingdom.
• They are incapable of their own defence and all local legislation, despite their status of being internally self-governing, must receive royal assent.
• Furthermore, aspects of commitments for economic development must first be endorsed by the ‘mother country’.
• Underpinning – or overshadowing – all of this is the ultimate power of the administrative authority, the British government, to impose legislation by imperial decree on the OTs.
• To further muddy the waters, the OTs are classed as ‘foreign’ and are placed under the supervisory directorate of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
It is as confusing a system as there ever was and is the basis for mistrust and misunderstandings.
This is an opportunity for change that.
The British-passport-holding OTs are either British or they are not. They cannot be British and foreign at the same time.
Ultimately, it’s up to both the citizens and governments of the Overseas Territories as well as their UK counterparts to make a final determination.
The process of consultation, starting with invited submissions by the FAC, is an immensely welcome first step to unravelling this long-festering status conundrum.
It might have been even preferable had this initiative emanated from the OTs themselves.
That is has come from the FAC amplifies the urgency of the situation with the multiplicity of complex challenges now facing both the OTs and the UK individually and collectively.
Be that as it may, this is indeed both timely and welcome given the confluence of circumstances – the convergence of an almost perfect storm of situations – confronting the OTs and the UK at present.
These include but are not limited to:
• Brexit and the uncertainties it holds for the OTs despite attempts at reassurance from the British government;
• The call by some OTs for constitutional review;
• The kerfuffle over public registries of beneficial ownership and the threat by the UK to impose requisite legislation should the OTs fail (or refuse) to voluntarily enact;
• Ditto the Bermuda triangle of constitutional, legal and social vortices over same sex marriages;
• And the conundrum of the difference in constitutional status between the far-flung OTs and the closer-to-home Crown Dependencies
As the FAC itself has stated in its rationale for the inquiry:
“In recent years, the OTs have been exposed to shocks, from the Panama Papers in 2015, to the Brexit vote in 2016, and Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. This led some OTs to question the Government’s willingness to support them.
“Relations have been put under further strain due to high-profile instances of divergence between the UK and some of the OTs on issues such as civil rights and financial transparency.
“In the light of these concerns, this inquiry will consider the resilience of the OTs, how effectively the FCO manages its responsibilities towards them, and how it envisages their future. The inquiry is likely to be structured around overarching themes but may look at individual OTs, as and when appropriate.”
Realistically, there are a handful of options that the OTs as individual entities or as a bloc have to chose from:
A. Having the same status as the Crown Dependencies
B. Switching from oversight under the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Home Office (after all they are NOT ‘foreign’).That firmly puts the OTs at the heart of United Kingdom and its administrative and legislative processes rather than being the ill-defined appendages they seem to be at the moment.
C. Fully integrate into the UK with a devolved Nations and Regions status similar to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland with representation in the British parliament
D. Breakaway from the UK (OTEXIT)/independence
E. Status quo amended
Under the prevailing circumstances and looking to the future, I posit that the best workable and most practical options lie somewhere between A, B, and C, either as absolute choices or combined elements thereof.
Examples could be drawn from the devolved nations and regions of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, or the existing borough and council system throughout the UK.
My suggestion is for the OTs to have direct representation in the House of Commons as well as direct representation in the House of Lords.
House of Commons representation could be based on the OTs each having their own representative, in groups thereof, or as a single entity is to be determined.
House of Lords representation could be determined along similar lines.
Campaigning and selection or election for UK parliamentary representation would of necessity involve both the resident OT population and their UK diasporas in this case, as well as UK-passport holding OT citizens residing outside the OTs and the UK.
Modern communication including social media will play a pivotal role in campaigning along with candidates’ ‘on the ground’ representatives or agents campaigning on their behalf.
This level of representation puts the OTs at the heart of UK decision-making and requires an agreed and practical level of taxation, parliamentary oversight, local revenue-raising, governance, contributing to and sharing in the systems, processes and standards to which UK borough councils, nations and regions subscribe.
It’s further accepted that such representation not only enhances the scope of involvement – sense of being a part of rather than an attachment or appendage – but also brings a sense of belonging as being part of a whole.
The UK’s Overseas Territories are not ‘foreign’. It’s time overdue to bring them ‘home’/allow them inside the house.
A referendum will be the ultimate determination.
Let the people – OTs and UK – have a say.