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Ruling a Country With No Citizens

Updated: Jun 13, 2022

Celebrating public holidays with no actual public is just part of the job for Laura Sinclair Willis, who governs British-owned South Georgia.

Penguin colony on South Georgia
South Georgia

There are many ways to become leader of a country, from standing for election to staging a revolution. Achieving either tends to take a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Alternatively, if you’re really desperate, you can always try invading someone else’s country - but that tends to come with serious political and military hazards.

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, in the South Atlantic.

The scattered island nation is half the size of Devon (or a quarter of the size of Connecticut) and 800 miles from the Falklands. 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 a couple of dozen 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. Is this an example of big government - 11 people governing zero citizens?

“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.”


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