Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire Part 2 – The Pitcairn Islands

Pitcairn Islands

With a population of just 62, the Pitcairn Islands have the smallest representative democracy in the world. In 2012, the population was made up of 52 resident islanders and 10 non-residents. The statistics on the island are truly fascinating because they’re so exact. There are 34 able bodied people of working age, and 31 of those work public sector jobs, although its mostly part time and private enterprise also has a role.

So, 95% of the government’s money comes from Britain, and the population has dropped from a high of around 250. The island also has to deal with the aftermath of a series of sexual assault trials that affected nearly every family and seem to indicate a deeper, cultural problem in the colony.

As if this isn’t bad enough, global warming is likely to have an affect on the survival of this community. The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change lists problems such as a decrease in the size of coral reefs, warmer waters bringing up more poisonous or dangerous fish, risks of tropical storms. The biggest risk for Pitcairn is flooding: most shipping comes through one small jetty. If that is damaged then the island could become difficult to access. Such a disaster, even if it’s temporary, could mean soil loss for the island, and could affect the community’s ability to survive.

Chance of survival

The main lesson to draw from this is the political force that the British government puts into keeping the colonies running. In 2012 and 2013 DFID donated £3.6 million to the island, which is £58,000 per islander. This shows a real desire to invest in the survival of British Overseas Territories.

However, in my opinion, the money doesn’t seem to be helping. Big projects on Pitcairn include RSPB running a rat extermination programme on an outlying island, and an abortive attempt to build a wind farm. These projects aren’t creating work for islanders. The population is still leaving. Reliance on British foreign aid doesn’t seem to be a good option for them.

Pitcairn faces big challenges with global warming, and the risk of British funding cuts to foreign aid. There is a good chance that this colony could disappear within the next few decades, in spite of the UK government’s best efforts.


The Decline and Fall of the British Empire – Part One, Europe

The British Empire has pretty much been declining since World War II. It’s fashionable in Britain to talk about the affect our empire had in the past, and to debate whether it was a good or bad thing. But we never seem to discuss the colonies we still hold unless they enthusiastically want to stay British and are under attack by nasty local governments.  But the fact is, British overseas territories have real strategic value and still have a big affect on some parts of the world.

I thought it would be interesting to look at the colonies Britain still has, and work out our chances of keeping hold of them.


Gibraltar is currently involved in another one of its disputes with Spain. These come around really regularly. This time, the issue is Gibraltar’s artificial reef: a collection of sunken ships designed to provide a habitat for wild-life. The reef was massively extended in 2013, and Spain has suggested that this affects their divers. In retaliation, Spain is considering charging Gibraltans for crossing the border. This would seriously affect people living in Gibraltar as many of them work in Spain. Fortunately for the people living in this colony, EU laws would seem to forbid charging for border crossing.

It seems likely that this row will blow over, but there are plenty of other opportunities to debate the issue. British control over Gibraltar was decided in 1713 in Article X of the Treaty of Utrecht, it specifies that Britain owns “the town and castle of Gibraltar, together with the port, fortifications, and forts thereunto belonging” but doesn’t mention the rest of the isthmus or the sea around it, so there are areas of dispute. The treaty also says that Britain will have to give Spain preference should Gibraltar ever be sold. In practice, these days this means that Britain can’t give Gibraltar independence without the consent of Spain.

Any agreement to leave Gibraltar in the foreseeable future will probably involve a referendum. There has been two in the past 50 years. In 1967, 99.64% of Gibraltans voted against joining Spain. In 2002, 98.51% of Gibraltans rejected a power-sharing arrangement between Britain and Spain.

There are, however, a few ways Gibraltar could fall. The economy is a big factor. Traditionally, the economy was dominated by the British Navy, but this is no longer true. If Gibraltar is forced to tighten up its rules on tax, then it may find itself more dependent on Spain. This could start to change the make-up of the population. Currently, most Gibraltans are the children of colonists Britain put there and the roughly a quarter of all Gibraltans live in Britain, with less than 1% living in Spain. If this changed and many Gibraltans started to move to Spain instead of the UK, this could affect attitudes to union with Spain.

It would seem unlikely that Gibraltar would fall within the next three or four decades. After that, the locals may start to get used to the idea. I get the impression Gibraltar would want to maintain a high level of independence.  Ironically, the protection of a foreign power that’s quite distant seems to help them with this.

Akrotiri and Dhekelia (Cyprus)

These are two British military bases that Britain kept when the rest of Cyprus got independence in 1960. The base of Dhekelia is now on the border between Northern Cyprus (which is a weird Turkish puppet state) and the Republic of Cyprus (which is ethnically mostly Greek). The bases are home to 17,00 Cypriots and 7,500 British soldiers.

The area is ruled by an Administrator as the Sovereign Base Area. Its leaders are all military staff and no elections take place, laws are kept as similar as possible to those of Cyprus. Uniquely, the locals do not automatically get British Overseas Territories Citizenship. I can’t find any documents that ask the opinion of people living in these areas.

There are a few flash-points that could change the status of these bases. Locals have rioted in the past because of fears that British communications towers could affect local health. This is one of the biggest military bases that Britain runs, and there will be no doubt lots of opportunities to argue that it’s having a negative affect on locals.

Budget is another big flash-point. The last government looked at shutting down these bases to save money. This is unlikely to happen while the Conservatives are in power, because they secretly fantasize about having an Empire again. But a future government may feel that maintaining bases on foreign soil without consent from the locals is an unnecessary drain on treasury.

The final big flash-point is relations between Cyprus and Northern Cyprus. Currently, Northern Cyprus is recognized by no country but Turkey. If peace is ever brokered between these two factions, the sovereign bases may be handed over in some kind of peace deal.

It’s a useful base for Britain, and therefore for Britain’s allies. It’s also an unstable area. But its position is slightly precarious, and it could easily be lost within the next fifty years.