Last edited: February 14, 2005

British Colonial Plans Under Fire

Associated Press, April 12, 1999

By Michelle Faul

Britain’s new effort to modernize a holdover from the days of empire – laws that its colonies have kept unchanged for more than 100 years – is firing up a rebellion among some of the queen’s not-so-loyal subjects.

In a formal proposal in March, London said its 13 remaining colonies must scrap the death penalty, drop laws against homosexuality and end secretive banking rules if they want the prestige and security of remaining British.

"The churches will have an uproar," Chief Minister Ralph O’Neal of the British Virgin Islands says of the demand that the colonies scrap laws making homosexual sex a crime.

And rather than dropping the death penalty, which hasn’t been used in years because of Britain’s resistance, he wants to extend it to include drug traffickers. "Those are the people who have no regard for life," he argues.

London’s demands smack of "a form of imperialism," O’Neal says.

The strongest reaction has been in Bermuda, where some people suggested the island might be better off going it alone.

"We need a referendum to decide whether or not the country wants to be tied to the United Kingdom," former Premier Pamela Gordon says. "If not, then the only choice would be independence."

It’s the first time in years such a notion has been given serious thought in Bermuda – the oldest colony since it was settled in 1609 by Britons headed for Virginia and thrown off course by a storm.

But the most populated colony, with 60,000 people, has grown wealthier per capita than Britain by encouraging "offshore banking," locally based banks that offer foreigners secretive refuges for their money.

In discussions about the colonial relationship, Britain’s colonies had been pushing for more autonomy and more aid – especially Caribbean islands that three centuries ago were cash cows for the British Empire through a sugar industry manned by slaves.

One welcome proposal in the colonial blueprint presented to Britain’s Parliament in March was the offer to rescind the second-class citizenship that was forced on the colonies to prevent an influx of immigrants into Britain.

Foreign Minister Robin Cook said Britain is ready to return without conditions the full citizenship rights revoked in 1981 for its colonies – from Anguilla in the Caribbean to St. Helena halfway between Africa and South America to the Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific.

Back then, fearing mass migration among Hong Kong’s 6.4 million people ahead of the island’s handover to China, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government made people in the colonies "British subjects" and stripped them of the automatic right to live and work in Britain.

That caused a "strong sense of grievance," Cook noted, not least because Thatcher excluded Gibraltar and the Falklands – the only colonies with overwhelmingly white populations.

Cook still had a hard time getting Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Cabinet to agree to his proposal. There are concerns that Hong Kong residents could sue for similar rights, and fears of an influx from the 148,000 black British subjects in the Caribbean.

Cook argued such fears are unfounded.

The change will give colonial residents "the right to travel freely throughout the European Union, and will enable their young people to support themselves through work experience while they study in Britain," he said.

That has been most welcomed by the 6,000 people on St. Helena, which has high unemployment, and those from Montserrat, a Caribbean island abandoned by most of its 12,000 people because of an active volcano. The two islands are the only colonies that still receive British aid.

For most opponents of Britain’s proposal, the major sticking point is London’s insistence that its colonies meet the standards of international organizations to which Britain belongs.

"Specifically, we require changes in the law in a minority of overseas territories which retain corporal punishment and criminalize consensual homosexual acts in private," Cook said.

If the islands’ local governments do not comply, Britain will change their laws for them, he said. "We are committed to seeing it is done."

Cook said that includes abolishing the death penalty and tightening regulation of offshore banking, which has become the lifeblood of Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands.

Critics of the shadowy offshore banks contend billions of dollars in illicit drug profits are "laundered" through those operations every year.

The islands say they have strengthened supervision of the industry. But Cook wants them to force the highly secretive offshore banks to open their books to foreign investigators.

Bermuda’s government had to fight hard last year to stay off a blacklist of questionable offshore jurisdictions being compiled by the multinational Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

And with offshore banking contributing to one of the highest per capita annual incomes in the world – $36,000 – London’s demands could drive Bermudans to forsake British citizenship.

Bermuda’s premier, Jennifer Smith, says she finds "nothing threatening" in Britain’s plan but wants to study the demand for the abolishment of the death penalty.

But a legislator from her party, John Barritt, says he may have to reconsider his opposition to independence. "For me, it amounts to a reassertion of the parent-child relationship," he says.

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