The move to a republic has been gathering pace for many years
PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo
Fifty-five years after gaining independence from Britain in 1966, Barbados has become a republic – and other Commonwealth countries, where support for the monarchy is becoming more volatile than ever, could well follow in its wake.
The change to a republic has been a long time coming for the 300,000 citizens of the small Caribbean island nation. Mia Mottley, Barbados’ centre-left prime minister, has long advocated the change. As far back as 2005, Mottley – then deputy prime minister – said that the Barbadian Labour Party was committed to holding a referendum on the issue:
We feel that it is the right thing to do to have a Barbadian head of state. We accept that there was a concern that the Government alone should not make that decision in this day and age and we are therefore committed to expressing our views to the public and having them pass judgement on it.
The vote was planned for 2008. Then the financial crisis hit and the cost of holding such a vote was considered to be too expensive, so it was postponed.
There has been some speculation that the removal of the Queen was associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, and a new confidence. Certainly, Mottley has used this as a way of drawing attention and gathering public support for the issue – but, in truth, a republic has long been on the agenda.
Despite her party losing office between 2008 and 2018, the issue remained on the table. In 2015, then prime minister, Freundel Stuart – from the Centre-Right Democratic Party – said that Barbados was moving towards a republic. He said:
We respect [the Queen] very highly as head of the Commonwealth and accept that she and all of her successors will continue to be at the apex of our political understanding. But in terms of Barbados’ constitutional status, we have to move from a monarchical system to a republican form of government in the very near future.
Mottley’s BLP won a landslide victory in the 2018 election, securing all 30 parliamentary seats, giving her administration carte blanche to proceed with plans to become a republic. In truth, this was not a contentious issue as both sides had espoused the republican cause.
This time, the decision was made without holding a referendum. Unlike the Pacific island of Tuvalu in 2008 and the neighbouring St Vincent and the Grenadines in 2009, the voters were not given a say. Perhaps because the citizens of these two island states voted “no” to having an elected head of state, which was the preferred model in Barbados.
This was an issue that divided the republican cause in Australia in 1999. When the country voted on the republican movement’s “preferred model”, which was for a head of state to be nominated by a two-thirds majority of parliament, rather than holding a direct election, 54% of Australians voted “no”, many of them thought to be republicans who wanted a directly elected head of state.
In 1996 a Constitution Review Commission was given the job of exploring Barbados’ link with the Crown. In 1998 it recommended that Barbados become a parliamentary republic. In 2005, the country replaced the London-based Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as its final court of appeal with the Caribbean Court of Justice in Trinidad and Tobago.
Section 49 of the Barbados constitution states that: “Parliament may, by an Act of Parliament passed by both Houses, alter this Constitution.” So it didn’t take a great deal to alter the legal basis of the constitution from a monarchy to a republic.
Could it be catching?
Barbados’ decision could prompt a wave of other countries deciding to adopt the republican model. In Jamaica – the largest of the Commonwealth nations in the region – both political parties have spoken in favour of becoming a republic. In 2003, the then prime minister, P.J. Patterson of the centre-left People’s National Party, pledged to abolish the monarchy by 2007, telling a party conference:
I love the Queen dearly, but the time has come when we must have a head of state chosen by us.
Opinion polls taken in 2020 found that 55% of the Jamaicans want to end the country’s association with the Crown.
Republicanism is not confined to the Caribbean – as recently as March 2021, a Canadian poll found that 45% of respondents wanted to move to a republican model and only 24% were committed to remaining a monarchy. Even in Britain support for the monarchy is falling, especially by the youngest voters, who favour an elected head of state by a 10% margin according to a YouGov poll which found 41% of 18- to 24-year-olds favoured a republic.
The Prince of Wales, who flew to Barbados for the handover ceremony, cut a dignified figure when congratulating the country on its decision, telling Barbadians:
The creation of this republic offers a new beginning. From the darkest days of our past and the appalling atrocity of slavery which forever stains our history, people of this island forged their path with extraordinary fortitude.
So, are we seeing the writing on the wall for the British Crown in former imperial possessions? The Queen is still head of state in 15 nations, including the UK, Canada and Australia – and support for republicanism is reportedly waning in the latter country. In neighbouring New Zealand, meanwhile, a recent survey showed that 50% of respondents favoured retaining the monarchy, even after the death of the current queen, compared with 44% who favoured a republic. This is a turnaround from a similar poll taken two years ago, when 55% said they wanted to become a republic.
The only thing these polls can tell us is that support for the monarchy in Britain’s former imperial possessions remains volatile and the chances are that the Sun will set on the Crown elsewhere before too long.
Chair of Applied Political Science,
* Published in print edition on 3 December 2021
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