Tag Archives: Britain

Delusions of Empire

Honouring the Queen in the Turks and CaicosAll Empires like to think their colonial subjects love them.

Which is why the undying devotion of the Falkland Islanders is so satisfying for the British.

But it’s also dangerous. It helps us maintain the myth of benevolent motherland and grateful locals. And that in turn means we’ve convinced ourselves that Empire – and what now remains of it – is no bad thing.

For the Falkland Islanders, that may be true. Thirty years ago, they suffered Argentina’s sudden invasion and the trauma of the war that forced the invaders out.

The renewed (and remarkably bellicose) claims of sovereignty coming from Buenos Aires must be unnerving – hence the referendum underway right now. Islanders are being asked if they want to remain as a British Overseas Territory.

There’s no doubt at all that the overwhelming answer will be yes.

There’s no doubt either that many in Britain will view the result of this essentially anti-Argie vote as an affirmation of the UK’s good relations with the last scraps of Empire.

That would be a big mistake. There are 14 Overseas Territories (essentially colonies but with varying degrees of local autonomy). The Falklands is one of the smallest. And thanks largely to that constant Argentine threat, its rapport with Britain is unique.

In most of the others, the relationship is far more complex and uncomfortable.

We send them funds, grudgingly for the most part. But until recently, nobody in London was very interested in how they conducted their affairs. The attitude was that they should be grateful for British Citizenship and should get on with learning to look after themselves.

Except they didn’t. Take for example, the revelations of child sex abuse in tiny Pitcairn that affected almost every family and had been going on in some cases for 40 years.

Then there was the spectacular collapse of the Turks and Caicos Islands (see previous post). For years, residents of these Caribbean islands begged London to step in and do something, as government ministers allegedly sold off crown land to developer friends, renting private jets and building luxury homes with the proceeds.

It happened right under the nose of the British governor. Yet London said it had no evidence of wrongdoing and turned a blind eye.

Eventually (under pressure from Parliament and the global economic crash) the Foreign Office had to step in, sack the local officials and run the place directly. Initially pleased, the Islanders were soon accusing the new governor of ruling with a very heavy hand.

Then last November, after three years of direct rule from London, the Turks and Caicos Islanders were allowed to elect their own representatives again. Local government was restored. But rows with the Governor (who has a veto over all important decisions) have continued.

It’s a sign of a new, more paternalistic approach from a Tory government far less embarrassed by Empire than its Labour predecessor.

But the newly elected premier warned recently of “chaos” in the Islands if the relationship  doesn’t improve.

Meanwhile there’s trouble in the wealthy tax haven of the Cayman Islands.

Late last year, the Premier was arrested on suspicion of corruption and forced to resign. He denies the allegations and says he’s the victim of a witch-hunt – led by the British governor. The two men had been at loggerheads over economic policy.

In all the Caribbean territories (except for poor Montserrat, devastated by a volcano and totally dependent on British aid) there are sporadic calls for independence.

They won’t get very far – yet. The islands are too small and the benefits of UK citizenship too great.

But the affection for Britain is nowhere near as strong as we like to think.

Nor are the cultural links. In the Turks and Caicos they drive on the left as we do – but in cars that are all imported from the US.  Everyone’s steering wheel is on the wrong side.

Residents go for medical treatment in Florida. Many have dual US citizenship. The accents are American-tinged. The TV the kids watch, the music they listen to and the food they eat is all from North America.

There’s a picture of the Queen in the airport arrivals hall, and plaques marking her various jubilees. But there’s also a growing Haitian migrant population (now far outnumbering the native islanders). In truth, there’s little about the islands or their people that feels British at all.

But you don’t hear much about that in the UK.

We like news of flag waving by people who look and sound like us. More English than the English with undying loyalty to the Crown – the Falklands, in other words. (How else to explain the dozens of journalists now in the Islands to cover a referendum whose result was known long before the first vote was cast?)

We don’t want to be reminded that many of our remaining territories are inhabited by black or brown people, who resent being told what to do by white men sent from London. Just as they have for hundreds of years.

 

 

Don’t mention the C word

How should we deal with our remnants of Empire?

Some (the Falklands, Gibraltar) cling to us, more British than Britain, terrified of the alien nations next door.

Others grudgingly accept our existence (and our financial help) when they need it but feel little real affection for the UK – especially when we start bossing them around.

That’s the case today in the Turks and Caicos Islands, where I recently watched the very British governor open a new radar station as a choir of local school children sang “God Save the Queen.”

The Turks and Caicos are a string of flat, rocky islands atop stunning reefs in the Caribbean. The white sand beaches run for miles, the sea is warm, calm and crystal clear.

But the politics are a lot murkier.

The islands, one of 14 British Overseas Territories,  have been plagued by jaw-dropping corruption allegations and chronic mismanagement for years.  Though London knew of the wheeling and dealing that was plundering local resources and, allegedly, making certain officials (and foreign developers) very rich indeed, nobody did anything about it. (It was the same when I drew attention to serious human rights abuses there for a 2002 BBC documentary. The Foreign Office refused my repeated requests for an interview.)

Eventually the pleas of the local residents (and the collapse of the economy) couldn’t be ignored. An inquiry was set up and stories of corruption poured forth.

In 2009, the UK had no choice but to kick out the locally elected government and take full control.  Today, the Turks and Caicos are a proper old fashioned colony run by the Governor sent from London, supported by advisory bodies hand-picked by him.

The islanders, including some of those who screamed “Do something!” at London, don’t like it very much.

“They can’t just come in when it suits them and rule with an iron fist,” a young tourist guide tells me.

“They came in thinking everyone here is corrupt” grumbles an older businessman in the sleepy capital Grand Turk.

Certain people arrived “with a Big Stick approach” says a leading politician (in a thinly disguised attack on the current Governor). And so on.

Their grievances are many and varied. From complaints about the length of time it’s taken to bring alleged miscreants to court (trials start later this year) to the slowness in producing an economic plan to revive the islands. They were whacked in 2008 not just by the mess of their own leadership’s creation but also by the global economic crash and a direct hit from a Hurricane.

“There’s no hope on the horizon,” says the Grand Turk businessman, “nothing to tell us things are going to get better”.

Instead, islanders complain, what they’re getting is a very unpopular (and possibly unworkable) Value Added Tax and an even more hated European Union-standard Equalities Law which, rumour has it, will force recognition of same-sex marriage in this very conservative Christian territory (it won’t).

Plus, of course, many long overdue rules and regulations aimed at cleaning up politics, which were viciously cliquey and nepotistic long before the serious corruption appeared. In fact the entire public sector is being reformed and independent institutions given more clout.

The Governor says his administration does consult widely. That people always grumble about government and it just so happens that here, the government is him.  Another official suggests that when islanders say they haven’t been consulted, what they really mean is the discussion didn’t go their way.

But it’s more than that.

Next month, elections will see the restoration of local government. The campaign is in full swing and, with little to be proud of in their own past behaviour, the political parties are rounding on the British as a common enemy.

“The British government must know there will be resistance when these parties take office,” says one candidate ominously. Another islander says that because the Governor will retain significant powers even after the election, “the politicians will get frustrated and then they’ll mobilise the masses.”

To do what though? The former premier, Michael Misick (currently on the run from an international arrest warrant) used to talk of independence. But there’s never been a formal request for it. Lets face it, who wants to give up the benefits of British citizenship? Plus they all know investors gain confidence when they arrive in the hot, scruffy airport and see a picture of the Queen.

Local politicians talk of “personalities,” of how given the right type of Governor they could all get along just fine.  I think what they mean is the type who – with a neglectful London’s connivance – will turn a blind eye to some shameful goings on.

And what’s in it for Britain?  Nothing. We don’t want the Turks and Caicos Islands. We did once, centuries ago when they were the centre of Caribbean salt production. But that industry is long dead. Now there are just beaches filled with sun-seeking condo owners – mostly from Canada and the US.

We have been hopeless at helping the islands develop democratically, unable or unwilling to challenge blatantly outrageous behaviour in what one former UK official calls “a mini-failed state.” In part that’s because we’ve got a lot of problems of our own. Who’s got  the time or money for a scrap of territory in the Caribbean?

But it’s also because Britain is embarrassed by reminders of Empire. Particularly in a place where many islanders are the descendants of slaves. Our slaves.

Mr Misick used to play on that, warning his compatriots to watch what they said in front of UK officials he’d call “the enemy.” More recently, from hiding, his charges of racism have been more direct. London he said, wasn’t bothered when white expats were doing well. They only started asking questions when black islanders got their hands on Crown lands.

One should take Mr Misick’s Mugabe-esque rantings with a large pinch of the salt that used to be raked from Grand Turk’s vast salinas.

But he’s right about one thing. Call it cleaning up government and sorting out the finances if you like but there is no way around it:

There is something very uncomfortable about Britain’s pukka imperialism in this post-colonial age.

 

Goodbye Bush House

Photo:Bogdan Frymorgen

 Long before globalisation, there was Bush House.

Home to the BBC World Service – grand in parts, beautiful in its own labyrinthine way, Bush House nurtured multiple languages and cultures for more than seventy years.

That is now over.

On Friday the last of the language services left for the purpose-built news centre in new Broadcasting House. Overnight, English current affairs programmes completed their move. When the final radio news bulletin goes out to the world on July the 12th, that’ll be it. The end of a broadcasting era – and possibly of much more too.

Of course, the BBC World Service goes on.  Animated Russians spill out of studios a few kilometres across town.  Indonesians smoke pungent clove cigarettes in Portland Place instead of the Strand.  They’re working out of a first class, brand new broadcasting centre so let’s put sentimentality about an old building aside.

photo:Bogdan Frymorgen

But Bush House was always much more than its marble-clad staircases, cluttered offices and art deco halls.  Even within the sometimes haughty circles of the far bigger domestic BBC (and certainly amongst its competitors) “Bush” was respected as an ethos as much as a place: the embodiment of thoughtful, outward looking journalism and a hub of international expertise.

Will that survive as the World Service moves in to new Broadcasting House with the rest of the London-based BBC?  If this were just a physical move, I’d give it more than a fighting chance.  But the emptying of Bush House coincides with the slashing of World Service budgets – and more. The Foreign Office, once its funder and protector, is casting the corporation’s international arm adrift, leaving it to sink or swim inside an embattled BBC that’s in no position to be generous.  

The changes were announced in late 2010 when the World Service was adapting to ever smaller budgets. Suddenly the new Conservative government demanded further savings – of 16%.  Five language services closed almost immediately. Radio broadcasts in seven others (including Russian and Chinese) stopped (they’re mostly online services now, there’s also Russian TV). Shortwave signals in six more were switched off.  The BBC’s only daily English language programme dedicated to European news disappeared.

Those were the headlines – and they were met with an outcry from Members of Parliament of various shades – but there were many other casualties: an editor here, a producer there. A researcher seat suddenly empty, fewer slots for original documentaries, more repeats. And, perhaps most ominous, the letting go of the experts. Off went the China, Russia and Central Asia specialists. The brilliant Arab analyst Magdi Abdelhadi left – right in the middle of the Arab Spring.  These were people you could call on at a minute’s notice to deliver live analysis on air. As a former presenter, I can’t count the number of times I leant on their insight and expertise. Their jobs no longer exist.

photo:Bogdan Frymorgen

There are of course still many people within the World Service with extraordinary knowledge and a real interest in the forgotten as well as the more commonly reported parts of the world. They are amongst the BBC’s greatest assets, the staff who lend authority and credibility to BBC news and current affairs. But for how much longer?

In that same spending review, the Foreign Office announced that from 2014 it would no longer fund the World Service through a grant-in-aid. It’ll be paid for through the television licence fee, just like any other part of the BBC.

Except of course it’s not like any other part of the BBC.  While up to two million people a week do listen to World Service English radio programmes in the UK, that’s not who the broadcasts are meant for. Everything World Service radio does is directed at its 180 million strong audiences abroad. When it comes to deciding whose needs and wants come first there’s no way the BBC bosses, answerable to the licence fee payer at home, can put the foreigners anywhere near the top of the list.

Promises have been made about budgets being protected. Affectionate lip service has been paid to the importance of the World Service. Even the Foreign Secretary William Hague, who was responsible for the savage cuts (far bigger than in any other part of the foreign office budget) and the sudden funding change, thinks the World Service “should remain an articulate and powerful voice for Britain in the world, and a trusted provider of impartial and independent news.”

That’s good of him. I’m not sure how it’ll happen without real commitment from government, and from the top of the BBC. There must be a recognition that the Bush House ethos, even without Bush House, must be kept alive.  They could start by explaining to the British public why the World Service is worth paying for.  It is, after all Britian’s most successful export, one of the few institutions bar the Monarchy that provokes both affection and respect for this country overseas.

The World Service has lost resources and its much loved home; by 2014 it will have lost a quarter of its staff and its traditional source of funding.  Yes there will be benefits from working more closely with colleagues from other departments day to day. But there are also threats. You can’t blame the incredibly dedicated World Service staff for worrying that they are about to be swallowed up by the domestic-facing BBC.

“Nation shall speak peace unto nation” is the BBC’s motto. And so it shall.  But the respected voice of this nation is already getting fainter. With the closing of Bush House,  it’s going to need all the help it can get to be heard. 

 (You can see more of Bogdan’s pictures of Bush House on facebook or at www.frymorgen.com)