British overseas territory

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Overseas territory redirects here. Alternative meaning: territoire d'outre-mer (French overseas territory).

A United Kingdom overseas territory (formerly known as a dependent territory or earlier as a crown colony) is a territory that is under the sovereignty and formal control of the United Kingdom but is not part of the United Kingdom proper (almost exclusively Great Britain and Northern Ireland). The term "crown colony" is still utilized when refering to the Falkland Islands, British Antarctic Territory, and Gibraltar.

Overseas territories should be distinguished from crown dependencies (the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, which have a different constitutional relationship with the United Kingdom), and protectorates (which were not formally under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom). They should also not be confused with Commonwealth realms, which are independent states sharing the same sovereign as the United Kingdom.

At one time, most crown colonies were directly administered by officials appointed by the British government. Today, however, most overseas territories are self-governing colonies, only relying on the UK for defence, foreign affairs, and some trade issues.

Overseas territories have never been considered integral parts of the United Kingdom, and have never had representation in the British Parliament, on the grounds that they are separate jurisdictions. This is in contrast to other European countries, such as France, Denmark, and the Netherlands, whose dependencies have varying degrees of integration with their so-called 'mother countries'. Only in Malta was integration ever seriously considered by the British Government, in 1955, but this was later abandoned, while in Gibraltar it was rejected outright by the British government in 1976. Successive British governments have argued against integration, to the effect that it is not an appropriate alternative to the status quo or that it is not a modern form of existence, instead advocating the concept of 'partnership'.

Queen Elizabeth II is head of state in the overseas territories in her role as Queen of the United Kingdom, not in right of each territory. This contrasts with independent realms of the Commonwealth of Nations, such as Canada or Australia, where the Queen has a separate and distinct role in each realm as "Queen of Canada" or "Queen of Australia".

Each territory has a Governor (formally appointed by the Queen), who acts as a representative of the UK government. Unlike Governors-General in Commonwealth realms, the Governor may have real power, and is in charge of the territory's internal security matters, as well as acting as a delegate between the territory and the British government. Governors possess the power to dissolve the legislature and must give assent to all laws. Depending on the stage of the colony's evolution (see Stages of colonial evolution) these may be only exercised in a symbolic capacity. The Governor is usually from the United Kingdom.

UK government policy on overseas territories is set out in the 1999 White Paper Partnership for Progress and Prosperity: Britain and the Overseas Territories.

Over the years, colonial governments have evolved in stages, with the intent being eventual independence from the United Kingdom. Colonies with tiny populations rarely evolve beyond stage one.


Stages of colonial evolution

  1. In the first stage, there is no elected government of any sort. A governor, administrator or commissioner and a group of advisors run the affairs of the colony single-handedly.
  2. In the second stage, a small elected legislature, usually called the legislative council, is founded. From the legislature, the governor appoints an executive council that the governor chairs. The highest ranking bureaucrat is known as the chief secretary.
  3. In the third stage the legislature becomes larger, and political parties usually begin to appear. The cabinet is led by a Chief Minister, who is the leader of the majority party in parliament. The governor's powers are weakened, and deal mostly with foreign affairs and economic issues, while the elected government controls most "domestic" concerns.
  4. In the fourth stage the Chief Minister becomes known as the Premier, and by this time virtually all executive authority has been delegated from the governor. At this stage or possibly the third stage, such a state may be described as a self-governing colony. The colony may be given 'Associated Statehood', as in the case of Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Saint Vincent, before they were granted full independence.
  5. The final stage is complete sovereignty and independence from the United Kingdom. The Premier becomes the Prime Minister, and the Governor becomes a Governor General. The new nation only maintains superficial ties to the UK as a Commonwealth Realm, with the British monarch as head of state and (in some cases) the Privy Council as the highest court of appeal. This was originally known as Dominion status, and until 1931 did not include control of foreign affairs or military policy.

Canada was the the first to achieve Dominion status and served as the prototype for devolution elsewhere (Australia, New Zealand. That term has fallen into disuse for reasons of political correctness, and no longer applies to Canada since the 1982 Constitution, which repatriated powers above and beyond those already devolved through the previous Dominion status. The country remains a crown realm and part of the Commonwealth.

Most other countries have become republics after independence, as a sort of sixth step, in which constitutional amendments are passed removing the British monarch as Head of State. India was the first country to become a republic while remaining in the Commonwealth, recognising the British monarch as "Head of the Commonwealth". This set a precedent for most other former British colonies, which have since become republics within the Commonwealth.

Alternatively, some Commonwealth countries may choose to immediately become a republic upon independence, as did Cyprus, Zambia, the Seychelles and Zimbabwe, or have its own monarchy, like Malaya (now part of Malaysia). The fact that many colonies quickly abolished the monarchy after becoming independent made this "automatic" republican status common in the 70's and 80's.

Since the process of decolonisation began in the 1960s, steps have been made to remove colonial reference to overseas territories. In 1983, all colonies were known as dependent territories, which later officially became overseas territories in 2002. Even though the nomenclature usually has little effect on the government of these territories, these definitions have implications on British overseas citizenship and immigration in those territories.

For example, the British Nationality Act 1981 explicitly redefines citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies as:

  1. British citizenship;
  2. British Dependent Territories citizenship; and
  3. British Overseas citizenship, effective 1 January 1983.

The Act had been superseded by the British Overseas Territories Act 2002 which granted full British citizenship to all British overseas territories. By this Act, the redefined status of all British territories was evident.

UN Resolution 1514

A milestone of major importance towards decolonisation was the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV), on 14 December 1960.

89 countries voted in favour, none voted against, 9 abstained. Eight of the abstaining countries were colonial powers, including the United Kingdom.

In 2000, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Resolution 1514, UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 55/146 that declared 2001-2010 the Second International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism.

Current overseas territories

Stage Four: Bermuda,
Stage Three: Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Gibraltar, Turks and Caicos Islands
Stage Two: Falkland Islands, Saint Helena, Pitcairn Islands
Stage One: British Indian Ocean Territory, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, British Antarctic Territory (under Antarctic Treaty overlaps Argentine and Chilean claims)

In addition there are the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus.


Territory Population
Akrotiri and Dhekelia 3,500 military
Anguilla 12,800
Bermuda 64,482
British Antarctic Territory (under Antarctic Treaty overlaps Argentine and Chilean claims) 200 staff
British Indian Ocean Territory 3,200 military and staff
British Virgin Islands 21,730
Cayman Islands 41,934
Falkland Islands 2,967
Gibraltar (also claimed by Spain) 27,776
Montserrat 9,000
Pitcairn Islands 50
Saint Helena [1] 6563
South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (also claimed by Argentina) 11-26 staff
Turks and Caicos Islands 19,500

^  Includes Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha

Former crown colonies

For a list of countries which were formerly crown colonies, or which include former crown colonies, see Commonwealth of Nations. Note that many Commonwealth countries were protectorates rather than colonies, such as Brunei. Some members were previously administered by other Commonwealth countries, such as Samoa (by New Zealand), Papua New Guinea (by Australia) and Namibia (by South Africa), while Mozambique was formerly a Portuguese colony.

Colonies that did not join the Commonwealth are Burma, Aden (now part of Yemen), and the original thirteen United States of America. Zimbabwe, a former crown colony, was formerly a member of the Commonwealth but has since been suspended.

There has been one case in which a former colony was not granted independence, but rather, its sovereignty was transferred to another country: Hong Kong. It was handed over to the People's Republic of China on 1 July 1997 by the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

See also

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