The British Foreign Office announced last week that it had suspended parts of the constitution of Turks and Caicos and would dissolve the Cabinet and legislature. The U.K. government decided that corruption on the islands had gone too far, and London will assume direct control until it can “restore good governance and sound financial management.” Can Britain dissolve the government of other former colonies—like, say, Canada?
The government led by Prime Minister Gordon Brown doesn’t have that power, but the Queen might. Unlike Turks and Caicos, which remains an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, Canada has no formal relationship with the British government. Its ties to the United Kingdom have to do with Queen Elizabeth II, who officially serves as queen of England and Canada. (She’s also the queen of Australia, Jamaica, Tuvalu, and others.) But these positions are legally distinct, meaning that her job in Canada is neither related to, nor dependent on, her title in England. In fact, she doesn’t even venture across the Atlantic to perform her royal duties; rather, she appoints a governor general to swear in the prime minister, summon Parliament into session, provide royal assent to laws, and dissolve Parliament in preparation for elections. Technically speaking, the queen (acting through the governor general) may be able to dissolve the Canadian Parliament unilaterally. However, such an unprecedented act would trigger a historic constitutional crisis. (Indeed, whenever the governor general is called upon to make decisions, there is much hand-wringing among Canadian politicians.)
The island nation of Turks and Caicos is not an independent country, but a non-self-governing overseas territory. The United Kingdom holds 13 other such territories, most of which are in the West Indies. (The United States has a similar relationship with Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.) Even though many of these maintain their own constitutions and government bodies, the British government has the final say. In the case of Turks and Caicos, the U.K.’s representative on the island will replace the government with an administrative council and a consultative forum made up mostly of “Belongers,” the technical term for natives or long-term residents of the islands.
The political upheaval likely won’t faze the Belongers. The islands have bounced between Spanish, French, and British rule for most of their history. Even when Turks and Caicos settled under the Brits, Bermuda and the Bahamas fought over the islands’ salt deposits and tax revenues. In the past 20 years, there have been repeated discussions about leaving the United Kingdom and joining Canada, although it is not clear that the islands could do this without Britain’s approval.
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Explainer thanks Manoah Esipisu of the Commonwealth, Brendan O’Grady of the British Embassy, Robert Travers of Cornell University, and Mark Walters of Queen’s University.*
Correction, Aug. 19, 2009: This article originally omitted the apostrophe from the name of Queen’s University.