Far-flung “British” islands

But is it time to wave a final farewell to the Empire?

But is it time to wave a final farewell to the Empire?

It took nearly 40 years to remove the tens of thousands of landmines planted during the UK’s war with Argentina over the Falklands Islands. The 1982 conflict followed an invasion by Argentina to assert its territorial claims over the islands it calls the Malvinas. Then UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, ordered an immediate counter-invasion in which 649 Argentinian military personnel and 255 British troops were killed as well as three Falkland islanders.

Arguments have continued ever since over the rights and wrongs of the conflict. The image of Thatcher outside 10 Downing Street saying, “Just rejoice at that news!” after the recapture of the island of South Georgia remains vivid for many; the sinking of the Argentinian cruiser Belgrano by a British submarine with the loss of over 300 sailors, more vivid for others. Forty years on, the issue has surfaced again, with China backing Argentina’s claim over the South Atlantic islands at the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. How a dispute over the Falklands gets raised during one of the world’s major sporting occasions is a testament to the fraught state of global politics – Argentina duly returned the favour by publicly supporting China’s claim to Taiwan.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss remained silent over China and Taiwan but defended the Falklands as “part of the British family”, tweeting that “China must respect the Falklands’ sovereignty.” The situation is unlikely to escalate further in the immediate future, but the issue does raise again a perennially controversial question for British foreign policy. The Falklands or the Malvinas, depending on your perspective, are more than 8,000 miles from the UK and less than 1,000 from Argentina, the islands’ nearest neighbours. Should a group of tiny islands so far away even be part of the “British family”, one of the few remaining hangovers of that long-gone British Empire? Doesn’t the UK have more than enough problems on its own doorstep to worry about? 

There are currently fourteen British Overseas Territories, all with the exception of Gibraltar, bearing the Union flag on their own. They range alphabetically from Anguilla in the Caribbean to the Turks and Caicos Islands in the North Atlantic, including Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and the Oeno Islands in the Pacific and Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic. Also the Chagos Islands, which Britain has refused to return to its former colony Mauritius despite three separate UN bodies ruling that it should do so.

They have constitutional and historical links with the United Kingdom but do not form part of the UK itself. Some have no permanent residents, merely a military or scientific presence. Some have requested a final split from the UK while other are content to remain part of the “British family”. But as the twenty-first-century rolls on, is it time to wave a final farewell to the British Empire and let them all make their own way in the fast-changing world?

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