UK/EU representative for the government of Anguilla and the Chief Executive of the West India Committee Blondel Cluff CBE says Anguilla faces the challenging task of devising a new relationship with the UK
As Anguilla – the first British Overseas Territory to be hit by Hurricane Irma, the most ferocious hurricane on record – prepares itself for its reconstruction, the island and its Sovereign State, the UK, each reflect upon their relationship with each other. The overseas territories are the least known members of the British family of nations, with many in the UK struggling to name, let alone place the 14 territories on the map. Despite their relative anonymity the British Overseas Territories are among the most relevant dimensions of Britain’s identity today. Scattered across the globe, the territories garner the largest area of the world’s oceans within the embrace of the Union Jack, from the ice walls of Antarctica to the steaming tropical beaches of the Caribbean. When taken together with that of the UK, the territories account for 90 per cent of British biodiversity with their own contribution remaining in prime condition due to the diligent stewardship of the territories’ people, for whom respect and nurture of the environment is often a key element of their culture and heritage.
The saying, ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ may be true of a hurricane, the most treacherous cloud formation known to man. Anguilla comprises 23 islands and cays, however only one is inhabited. This diminutive island is home to a resident population of over 15,000 British citizens reflecting Anguilla’s unique past whereby universal land ownership was established generations before it was adopted elsewhere in the region. As a consequence, nearly 97 per cent of the population is indigenous, owning over 94 per cent of Anguilla. With winds of up to 200 miles an hour, losses amongst the housing stock were extreme, with the majority of homes severely damaged by Irma. However, the worst hit was the public at large in that along with the island’s main employer, the tourism sector, almost all of Anguilla’s key infrastructure was destroyed leaving the island without a ferry, a dock for imports, a secondary school or a certifiable airport. Electricity was finally reconnected at Christmas and a temporary control tower provided by the UK ensured air access was maintained, helping life to edge towards normality. Both the UK and Anguilla have now pledged to work closely together to ‘build back better,’ incorporating resilience and preparedness into the reconstruction of Anguilla’s public assets.
Although Hurricane Irma, together with José and Maria that followed in quick succession, led to one of the worst disasters in recent times, warranting the biggest deployment of the British military during 2017, with over 2,000 troops serving in the region, there is a positive element. The world now knows that the territories exist and have witnessed the horrendous effects of climate change on these fragile communities. In the case of Anguilla, Irma revealed the realities of life in the oldest continuously British interest in the region that joined the British family in 1650.
With the backdrop of Brexit where the concept of a ‘Global Britain’ is now gaining traction and may well prove decisive in Britain’s bid for its own prosperity, many are now questioning the role of the territories in what may well become a step change in the new world order. Since time immemorial, the drama of change has transfixed world leaders that have invariably struggled to maintain the most desirous position for their own people. Where that responsibility is split between two governments, as is the case for the governments of Anguilla and the UK, it is imperative that they equitably share the singularly most important goal: namely the prosperity of the people of the territory which, in view of their vulnerability, should be treated as a matter of priority. This approach is one of the most significant distinctions between the current relationship and that of colonialism. For centuries, the people of Anguilla toiled under inhumane conditions solely for the benefit of a few whose commerce ultimately benefitted Britain. Such a hierarchy is no longer tolerable in a world where, despite innumerable conflicts, people are generally more respectful of their fellow men. Today, the relationship between an overseas territory and its sovereign state is classified as one of contingent liability, as the territories do not pay into the UK exchequer. I would argue that this is incorrect, particularly in the case of Anguilla which, like many sister overseas territories, has attained leadership in the name of the British family of nations in its chosen endeavour – tourism, and has, remarkably, led in renal treatment in the region despite its particularly limited medical facilities. Similarly, other territories have become world leaders in their chosen sectors, and as such all are assets not only for their people, but for the family of British nations as a whole.
With the most out-dated constitution of any British Overseas Territory, Anguilla faces the task of devising a new relationship with the UK. This relationship must be fit for a purpose that has yet to be fully defined as Britain must find its own way in the world once separated from the EU, which has been an intrinsic element of its identity for over 40 years. For Anguilla, the impact of Brexit may prove even more precarious, as the territory has a centuries old symbiotic relationship with its Caribbean neighbours, the closest of which is arguably more European than Caribbean, as French Saint Martin is a collectivité making it a part of Metropolitan France and an Outer Most Region of Europe. The border with the Dutch country of Sint Maarten further adds to Anguilla’s European dimensions, as does the transhipment of 90 per cent of Anguilla’s fuel from Saint Eustatius, a Dutch municipality.
So, what now? With the next hurricane season commencing in June, and the prediction of more frequent category five hurricanes, Anguilla must busy itself with resilient reconstruction, learning a myriad of lessons as it proceeds. The UK has lessons to learn too. The most obvious being how it supports British Overseas Territories in distress. The Overseas Territories Strategic Programme Fund of 2015/6 produced by the FCO expressly stated that the UK government is ultimately liable for the welfare of British citizens anywhere in the world should a natural, economic or other catastrophe befall them. However, the much-publicised debates both within the UK government and between it and the OECD demonstrated that while the theory may have been accepted, the practical ramifications had yet to be mastered. Having met with the Prime Minister Theresa May in November of last year, Anguilla was awarded a £60 million aid package by the UK that will be remitted from April 2018 contributing to the reconstruction of over £140 million of lost infrastructure. The territory is extremely grateful for what is the highest level of support that it has received at any time during its 368-year history with Britain. We may only pray that the 2018 hurricane season that commences a mere eight weeks after the aid package becomes accessible does not prove challenging for the island’s recovery. It is also hoped that the UK government will re-examine its avenues for support so that it may act with more confidence and certainty should the need arise in the future which, we are told by meteorologists, will inevitably be the case due to the onslaught of climate change. By assisting the territories of the Caribbean to become more capable of helping themselves and others in the region, costly trans-Atlantic deployment may be reduced, thereby enhancing the cost effectiveness of humanitarian work within the British family.
As pens were poised over the first draft of a new Anguillan constitution, Brexit arose casting doubt over the fitness for purpose of a traditional overseas territory constitution. The devastating impact of Hurricane Irma – that sat over Anguilla and the 15,000 British citizens that call the island home for 37 hours – will be with Anguilla for years to come. Faced with such risks we should now take the debate over the future of the territory to a higher level to ensure all of our efforts yield outcomes that are truly fit for purpose for both the UK and Anguilla alike.
A silver lining? Perhaps Hurricane Irma has even brought some form of benefit amidst its clouds, as the relationship between Anguilla and the UK enters a more mutually beneficial era. An era that could easily give rise to a new form of British Nation that is fit for the future.
The West India Committee is a UK registered charity that was founded in 1735 and incorporated by Royal Charter in 1904. The object of the charity is to improve the general welfare of the peoples of the Caribbean, and the societies in which they live and work globally. The West India Committee has an official partnership with UNESCO (consultative status), specialising in Small Island Developing States and heritage, with the charity’s extensive archive and library having been inscribed as a UNESCO Memory of the World collection in 2016. http://westindiacommittee.org