Tuesday 22 December 2009

The case for an independent Berwick

Before it collapsed in acrimonious failure, the Copenhagen summit at least provided fifteen minutes of fame for Tuvalu. It was wonderfully appropriate to see this small nation making waves in the early days of the conference; because, if the doomsters are correct, waves are what its nine islands will soon be vanishing under.

I know a tiny bit about Tuvalu for two reasons. First because I once wasted some time pretending to write a doctoral thesis on British imperial history, and encountered it in its colonial guise as part of the Gilbert and Ellice (not Sullivan) Islands.

Secondly, as a monarchist anorak, I recognise it as one of the 16 independent realms of which Her Majesty the Queen is head of state. These range in size from serious countries like Canada and Australia to, well, Tuvalu.

Because perhaps the most striking thing about Tuvalu is that, at the last count, its population amounted to 11,636. No, I have not missed some noughts off that. Most of them scrape a living from subsistence agriculture. Its big overseas earners are the sale of stamps and coins, and the licensing to the global television industry of its memorable internet domain name, .tv.

So here is a country containing around a third of the number of people living under the former Alnwick District Council, which had to be abolished because there just weren’t enough of us to make it viable. Yet somehow Tuvalu supports the full panoply of Governor-General, Prime Minister, Parliament and seat at the United Nations.

It is interesting to compare and contrast the presence of Tuvalu at Copenhagen with the recent insistence of Javier Solana, the outgoing EU foreign policy supremo, that it is futile for any of the member states to imagine they can still act unilaterally. “I hope very much that people are sensible, and realise that it is a fantasy to think any EU country can do anything alone,” he said.

So no independent voice for the UK, France or Germany, then, but we will at least pause to listen to Tuvalu before we vote to drown it.

All this made me think again how eminently reasonable are the claims of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, of which I wrote recently. It also reminded me of the many obituaries published last month of His Tremendousness Prince Georgio I of Seborga, a chain-smoking former mimosa grower who somehow persuaded the other inhabitants of his small Ligurian village to elect him as their head of state.

His claim for independence was founded on an alleged clerical error, as a result of which Italy had failed to register its title to the place on the break-up of the Holy Roman Empire. Although less successful than Tuvalu in securing formal diplomatic recognition, Seborga (population 364) certainly punches above its weight in terms of worldwide publicity.

I fear that some climate change fanatics may seize on the fiasco at Copenhagen to press for some sort of global dictatorship to save the planet, but my own thoughts are running in precisely the opposite direction. Why not bring on a new age of the responsible, vocal but peaceable micro-state?

The idea of Alnwick making a bid for independence is quite appealing, particularly as it has a ready-made head of state already in residence in its castle.

But Berwick-upon-Tweed, with its claim still to be at war with Russia over Crimea, is surely even better placed to follow the Seborgan route. All it needs is a plausible prince or president. Or maybe, if Tuvalu gurgles beneath the briny, Her Majesty would be prepared to take on Berwick as a replacement realm and it could assume a satisfying new role as head of the international awkward squad. Who knows, it might even have the clout finally to get its very own dual carriageway. Happy Christmas, everyone.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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