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.