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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 (Great Britain and Northern Ireland).
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 Britain 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 in 1976.
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. He possesses the power to dissolve the legislature and must give all laws his personal assent. 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 Britain. Colonies with tiny populations rarely evolve beyond stage one.
Stages of colonial evolution
- In the first stage, there is no elected government of any sort. A governor, administrator or commissioner and his advisors run the affairs of the colony single-handedly.
- In the second stage, a small elected legislature, usually called the legislative council, is founded. From the legislature, the governor appoints an executive council, chaired by himself. The highest ranking bureaucrat is known as the chief secretary.
- 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.
- 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.
- The final stage is complete sovereignty and independence from Britain. The Premier becomes the Prime Minister, and the Governor becomes a Governor General. The new nation only maintains superficial ties to Britain 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. Alternatively, a Commonwealth country may become a republic upon independence, as did Cyprus, Zambia, the Seychelles and Zimbabwe, or have its own monarchy, like Malaya (now part of Malaysia).
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.
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
In addition there are the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus.
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 left.
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.
Singapore was also previously a British crown colony.