Penguins, postage stamps and Russian politics: What it’s like to rule the territory with no citizens
24 April 2022
Celebrating public holidays with no actual public is just part of the job for Laura Sinclair Willis, who governs British-owned South Georgia
Laura Sinclair Willis became the CEO of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands after responding to a newspaper ad
There are many ways to become leader of a country, from standing for election to staging a revolution. If you’re really desperate, you can always try invading someone else’s country.
Answering a newspaper advertisement, however, is a novel route to becoming a head of government. But it’s the one that Laura Sinclair Willis, 39, chose last year.
The mother of three, who started her career as an air stewardess, was installed last summer to govern the remote, British-owned outpost of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (or SGSSI).
The scattered island nation, half the size of Devon and 800 miles from the Falklands, celebrates 40 years since it was liberated at the end of the 1982 conflict. It has no citizens at all – which is why Sinclair Willis didn’t need to go through the inconvenience of an election to become the country’s “chief executive”, as she is officially known.
There are never more than 30 temporary residents – scientists, maintenance crew and others – but more often there’s a core team of fewer than 10. This British Overseas Territory, which has been separate from the Falklands since 1985, is now acclaimed internationally for its environmental work. South Georgia is also an exotic destination for as many as 15,000 cruise ship tourists each year, who come to buy stamps and souvenirs, toast the grave of the Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, see penguins and seals, and even get married in the church.
South Georgia is entitled to enter the Commonwealth Games even though it is not a member of the Commonwealth, as it is not independent. Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t yet sent a team. The island also has its own UK postcode, S1QQ 1ZZ.
Sinclair Willis’s government consists of 11 people, three on the island, five 800 miles away in Port Stanley – and three working from home in Bristol, Cambridge and the Outer Hebrides.
Which is where South Georgia comes to be of interest not just to remote island geeks, but to politics geeks. The most pressing question being: is this an example of big government (11 people governing zero citizens) or small government (11 governing an awkward territory with a surprising number of serious issues, including (more in a moment) a puzzling standoff with Russia?
And while pondering this, bear in mind perhaps the oddest anomaly of all. While some might question why British taxpayers’ money is being spent on a government with no people, South Georgia barely costs the UK anything. It is almost entirely self-supporting, with cash from fishing licences, postage stamp sales and tourism. It makes a modest profit. “It’s more a self-funding model,” says Sinclair Willis. “All the money goes back into environmental stewardship with a bit left for reserves.”
In her brief time, her government has had to formulate policies on scattering of ashes and burial of human remains, on updated regulations governing ham radio (very big in these parts), on Covid protocol for visiting ships, on publishing a lengthy biodiversity plan – and appointing a new marriage registrar.
“In spite of no one living here, there’s a huge raft of stakeholders, people with an interest who want to have a say,” says Sinclair Willis. “The administration is very small to do everything a government has to do. We’re very humble and ask lots of questions.”
And while South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands has a rather attractive tax rate of a flat 7 per cent, it has only four taxpayers – government workers who spend the requisite 183 days stationed in the capital, King Edward Point, to qualify.
The government of SGSSI, is based in Port Stanley, the Falklands’ capital, up to a week’s sailing from the main island. Sinclair Willis has only made the journey once so far in what will be a three-year term.
SGSSI’s top job wasn’t one just anybody could have put in for. Sinclair Willis, who hails from Weymouth and was born at the very end of the Falklands War, had a killer CV. After her airline job, she read Arabic at Exeter University, then served as an interpreter for the British Army in Basra, Iraq, followed by 15 years with Dorset Police, ending up as a sergeant in Special Branch, specialising in counter-terrorism intelligence. She later spent a spell with the UN in Haiti.
It was when she was working with the National Trust in north Wales that she saw the South Georgia job advertised. Since arriving in the Falklands with her husband, Duncan, he has joined Port Stanley’s first and only professional dog walking and training service, Ruff Runners.
South Georgia’s CEO, it turns out, insists on everyone in Port Stanley calling her Laura. She shares a cluttered room in Port Stanley with her team – plus Missy, the government dog. “What we have here is all the responsibility of government in what looks like a start-up,” she says on a Zoom call. Yet the isolated nature of the south Atlantic has rather captivated her, especially the wildlife – seals, penguins, whales and albatrosses. “The fur seals on the island are extremely territorial, with big teeth, and you need to navigate around them carefully, but the penguins are fine. They look a bit like old ladies stood at a bus stop and not quite approving of you.
“The thing I love most about this role is that every day, even if it’s been a tough one, I get home and think we’ve done something genuinely good today. My predecessors have made us renowned for overseeing the most sustainable fisheries in the world.”
The current weeks mark a poignant moment in the south Atlantic – the 40th anniversary of the Falklands War, which started with Argentina seizing South Georgia, once a whaling and sealing community of as many as 2,000 people.
Indeed, tomorrow [April 25] is a public holiday in Laura Sinclair Willis’s realm – Liberation Day, the anniversary of the Royal Navy retaking the island in 1982 as a prelude to recapturing the Falklands, of which SGSSI was at the time a part.
It was these events that prompted an apparently squiffy Margaret Thatcher repeatedly to proclaim “Rejoice!” to reporters assembled in Downing Street, 8,000 miles to the north.
Even South Georgia’s new leader admits, however, that Liberation Day is an anomaly as public holidays go, since the country doesn’t really have a public to celebrate it.
One of the oddest, as-yet unresolved, challenges is a bizarre business involving an aggressive initiative by Russia, which for reasons nobody can understand, is attempting to ban fishing in South Georgia waters.
“It’s unprecedented in the 40-year history of the convention governing these matters,” she says. “Never before has a delegation sought to block an established fishery – never mind the highest scoring Marine Stewardship Council-certified toothfish fishery in the world.”
“The UK is of the opinion,” she concludes, lapsing into diplomatic-speak, “that the scientific basis used by Russia to take this position is a fundamentally flawed one.”
After an interview with Sinclair Willis at home I was invited to a Zoom meeting to ask a few questions of the entire SGSSI government, including the UK-based officers who all happened to be in Port Stanley.
OK, so what happens if someone gets a toothache? This turned out to be a serious issue. The British Antarctic Survey team in South Georgia has a doctor trained to deal with some medical emergencies, but it turns out that dental “medivacs” are the most frequent in the Antarctic, so anyone spending time on the islands has to have careful dental checks.
Is there a procedure for if the Argentinians try to invade again?
“Because we’re an overseas territory, we don’t have our own defence force, although, of course, we do have British Armed Forces here where we’re based in the Falklands. But then we’re not the Falklands. We’ve got constables on the island, because all the government officers are designated a constable. I think we’d call the Foreign Office on this one.”
So what, we asked, would happen if you all wanted to stage a coup and declare independence?
There was a moment’s thoughtful silence, followed by this reply from John Clorley, the islands’ director of strategy and policy.
“It’s a somewhat unlikely scenario, in which we decide our colleagues in the next office are our colonial occupiers,” he said. “But I suppose you can imagine some time in the future there could be a rogue commissioner who puts up a flag.
“It’s not something we’ve discussed at our team meetings. Maybe we should put it on the agenda?”