Renouncing the Head, but Not the Family

Renouncing the Head, but Not the Family
Barbados is set to bid adieu to the Queen as their sovereign but will remain a part of the Commonwealth for economic and socio-political advantages

In a break with history, Barbados announced its decision to remove Queen Elizabeth II as the Head of State to make the country a republic by its 55th Independence Day, on November 2021. This follows similar moves by Guyana, Dominica, and Mauritius over the past five decades. However, Barbados will remain a member of the Commonwealth of Nations – a political association of 54 former British colonies that promotes democracy, prosperity, and human rights.

Also referred to as 'Little England', Barbados gained Independence after 341 years of British rule in 1966 but retained its title as a constitutional monarchy. It thus became a part of the Commonwealth realm – a group of 16 Commonwealth of Nations members that retained the British Queen as the head of state. This group includes the several Caribbean as well as Western countries such as the Bahamas, Jamaica, Canada, and Australia.

The Queen's role is mainly symbolic and is transferred to the governor-general. Although the Royal Prerogative offers the Queen various powers, such as calling for war or elections, they are executed by the Parliament. Ultimately, the Queen is considered a neutral ceremonial authority, who is merely mentioned in Bills and other official documents.

HISTORY OF RACISM

This step is significant due to Barbados’s tumultuous history of slave trade and oppression during the colonial period. Its racist history goes back to the 1600s, when English settlers arrived on the island along with enslaved Africans. The colonial elite oversaw the indentured and enslaved labourers in sugar plantations until mass revolts eventually led to Barbados’s Independence. Prime Minister Mia Mottley, along with the Caribbean Community, has demanded reparations from England due to the long-lasting damages to countries involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, but it has not been accepted by the UK government.

Barbados had debated renouncing its colonial ties as early as the 1970s, during the Black Power movement. A commission analysed this proposal but deferred any action due to insufficient public support. The subject resurfaced in 1998 when a constitutional review commission also proposed shifting to a parliamentary republic system. This led to a 2005 law invoking a referendum on the issue, although it was not implemented. Finally, after former Prime Minister Freundel Stuart called for the monarch’s removal by Barbados’s 50th Independence Day, incumbent Ms. Mottley announced the plan without holding another referendum. As the latter’s party holds the majority seats in the Parliament, she managed to proceed unchallenged.

RIPPLE EFFECT

Barbados’s decision is the first one in almost 30 years since Mauritius accomplished it in 1992. Experts view this as a ripple effect of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, as well as the United Kingdom’s waning influence in the light of Brexit. But more importantly, it has the potential to influence other Caribbean countries, and inspire former colonies to reclaim complete sovereignty. Jamaica, for instance, has also pressed for abolishing the monarchy – but it would require a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate, in addition to a referendum. This might stretch the process further, although Prime Minister Andrew Holness and former Prime Minister Portia Simpson have foreshadowed a change.

Other Commonwealth countries like Australia and Canada have also been considering their colonial roots, although Australia’s 1999 referendum on the issue suggested that most Australians prefer the status quo. For many, holding on to the monarchy ensures friendly relations with UK as well as a stable, non-partisan power. But for others, the Commonwealth is a linkage to a painful past which is best shorn off and laid to rest in history.

FAMILIAL LEGACY

Although the Commonwealth of Nations declares its members as free and equal, it was established to represent former colonies’ allegiance to the Queen. But as these colonies became independent, especially after World War II, the role of the Commonwealth declined. Other than its emphasis on shared ideals, the Commonwealth has limited practical influence in trade and military policies. Critics claim that the association does not have concrete mechanisms to address violators of issues like human rights.

The legacy does not end here; the Commonwealth of Nations is affiliated to a much larger Commonwealth Family that includes roughly 100 intergovernmental and non-government organisations. One of the well-known organisations is the Commonwealth Games Federation, which hosts the Commonwealth Games every four years. The Commonwealth countries also participate in biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM) to discuss issues like war crimes and climate change. Despite its problematic history, these meetings offer smaller countries a platform to enter bilateral agreements and procure developmental aid from wealthier members. While on one hand, countries such as Barbados are retreating from the Commonwealth realm, others like Rwanda and Mozambique have joined the Commonwealth of Nations even without historical ties to the Empire.

This paradoxical connection between the Commonwealth and its former colonies can arguably both undermine and empower its members by making them confront the past, albeit in a modern context. But ultimately, this type of enduring allegiance only reveals the crevices of the Empire’s recompense.

ASSESSMENT

  • The Black Lives Matter movement is making the world rethink race relations. In this context, Barbados’s decision to remove the Queen as head of state will free its "colonial shackles", as it plans to declare itself a republic by November 2021.
  • Barbados, much like other Caribbean countries under the Commonwealth realm, has a tumultuous history of slave trade and colonialism. Although it attained Independence in 1966, Barbados continued regarding Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, possibly to maintain favourable diplomatic ties with the UK.
  • But now, with Barbados’s decision, other countries like Jamaica might follow suit to remove the Queen from the Constitution. Although the Queen has limited power in most of the Commonwealth sovereign states, she still has special powers granted by the Constitution. Regardless, many countries continue regarding the Queen as head of the state or have chosen to remain affiliated with the Commonwealth to maintain ties with its 54 members.

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