[This is based on a 4 October presentation given by Dr Peter Clegg at a Conservative Party Conference fringe event sponsored by the Falkland Islands Government, entitled Falkland Islands and Global Britain.]
There is much discussion at present about how the British Overseas Territories can contribute to the Global Britain brand once the Brexit process is finally completed. The Falklands, with a population of 3,200 people, drawn from 60 different nationalities, has much to offer, in areas such as fishery protection, safeguarding the environment, defence cooperation, and as a ‘Gateway to Antarctica’. But in order to facilitate this in an effective manner the nature of the relationship between the Falkland Islands and Britain needs to be understood, and very possibly reconsidered and renewed. I would like set out briefly what the British government can do, in concert with the Falklands, to secure and where possible strengthen the territory’s position.
First, recognise the diversity of the British Overseas Territories, and the Falklands place within the group.
There are 14 overseas territories, and they are often considered together. But it is important to recognise the tremendous diversity across the territories, in terms of geography, population size, the economy, and history. For example, most are economically self-sufficient but a few are not; some have significant offshore financial centres but many do not.
So it’s vital when discussing the territories, including the Falklands, the specific characteristics of each territory are appreciated. The Falklands is:
- Fiscally responsible and self-sufficient. The economy is based on trade and tourism, with no international financial services
- It has a stable, well-functioning and legitimate political system
- It has a long-standing reputation for good governance, and has adopted a raft of human right guarantees.
The Islanders retain very strong support and commitment to the UK, but they wish to be seen as being in a partnership and consequently treated with respect. Sometimes that does not happen, and often that is laced with a residual paternalistic attitude from London. A true partnership based on full mutual respect would help advance the respective agendas of the Falklands and Britain.
Second, consider the potential changes to the present constitutional framework of the Falklands
As with all of the territories the Falklands has a constitution, which was negotiated in concert with Britain. The present constitution dates from 2009, and there is an appetite for it to be revised. As with all of the other territories there is a balance of powers and responsibilities between the Falklands government on the one hand and the British government, including the Governor, on the other. The level of devolved government in the Falklands is much like the other territories, even though the Falklands is perhaps more politically and economically stable than some.
So the question is, can the next constitutional review go further and afford greater responsibility to the Falklands? Precedent is an issue here – agreeing greater autonomy for one territory, might mean others want the same. But is that enough to prevent the Falklands being rewarded for its good record?
Of course, British responsibility for external affairs and defence remains absolute, but what about issues such as the public service, removal of public officers and the administration of justice and audit. Also, the Governor in certain instances can overrule, or impose changes on, the locally elected government. A thorough and open review of the constitution to further empower the people of the Falklands would I think be welcome.
Third, the importance of not getting distracted by the issue of Falklands’ representation at Westminster.
Over the last several months there has been chatter within the Conservative Party and sections of the media about pushing for parliamentary representation for the territories, primarily Gibraltar, but the others too. It’s been seen as giving a stronger and more direct voice to the peoples of the territories, including when British legislation impacts upon them.
However, it is important to note that these discussions are not particularly new. Over several decades the issue of parliamentary representation for the territories has raised its head, but there has been little to show for it. For example, the 2000 Royal Commission of the Reform of the House of Lords led by Lord Wakeham argued: “All the Overseas Territories have their own governments: none is represented in the House of Commons, nor are they part of the United Kingdom. We see no case at present for any of the Overseas Territories to be formally represented or given a voice in the second chamber”. Teslyn Barkman, a member of the Falklands Legislative Assembly, explained more recently: “Currently we can appeal to 650 Members of Parliament, whereas we would be funnelling and bottle-necking our issues from a vast number of [OTs], or even a singular territory, through one”.
There are also concerns about who would provide that representation – could a single person represent the broad interests of a territory? Also, at a time when Falklands and the other territories are wanting greater autonomy, Westminster representation might create the opposite effect. Further some of the British proponents of change have a rather paternalistic attitude. For example, one argued: “This is not something which is supposed to be decided by local areas or dependent (sic) territories, it is something decided by the UK national parliament. It is the UK Parliament’s responsibility, no one else’s, to bring this about”. Again, such views do not go down well in the territories. If one wants to look at structures in London, then consider how effectively the interests of the territories are considered across Whitehall. Often the decision-making is disjointed, with limited contact with ministers.
So, to further the role of the Falkland Islands as part of a Global Britain, perhaps three things should be considered. First, fully appreciating the characteristics of the Falklands today, and it is in no practical sense a colony. Second, empowering the local government as much as possible, including through constitutional reform. And third, not getting distracted by debates over representation at Westminster, but rather focusing on how Whitehall can best engage with, and understand the interests of, the Falklands.
Dr Peter Clegg is Head of the Department of Health and Sciences and Associate Professor in Politics at the University of the West of England.