By Mike Phipps
The Parliament of Barbados has voted through, by 25 votes to none, a constitutional amendment to remove the British monarch as head of state and to become a republic. The former British colony, which remained within the Commonwealth after its declaration of independence in 1966, will become a republic from December 1st 2021.
“The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind,” Barbados Governor General Sandra Mason said in a speech on behalf of Prime Minister Mia Mottley. “Barbadians want a Barbadian Head of State.”
In the May 24th 2018 general election Mottley’s Barbados Labour Party won the biggest majority in Barbadian history, with over 70% of the popular vote and all 30 seats in the parliament. The incumbent Democratic Labour Party, much criticised for raising taxes and presiding over declining living standards, was wiped out. Mottley became the country’s first female prime minister.
As well as being prime minister, she also holds the finance portfolio. In September, she addressed the UN general Assembly, throwing away her original speech to make a passionate plea for global moral leadership in the fight against climate change, economic and technological inequality, racism and the unfair distribution of coronavirus vaccines.
Mottley’s government is proposing bold reforms on other fronts. She has announced plans to make same-sex civil unions legal and to hold a referendum on same-sex marriage. “A country that was forged in its modern incarnation in the experiment of racism and discrimination, cannot now for any purposes whatsoever find itself willingly discriminating against its citizens or others, period,” Mottley argues.
Mottley has also opened high commissions in Kenya and Ghana, as well as a consulate in Morocco, reconnecting Barbados with its African origins.
Barbados has had a long and troubled relationship with Britain. It was the birthplace of British slave society, where, according to the Barbadian historian Hilary Beckles, Britons “made their fortunes from sugar produced by an enslaved, ‘disposable’ workforce, and this great wealth secured Britain’s place as an imperial superpower.”
Barbadians are still fighting to get reparations from Britain and Europe after a commission established by Caribbean heads of government called for the implementation of a 10-point reparation plan to compensate victims of Crimes against Humanity in the forms of genocide, slavery, slave trading, and racial apartheid. The plan includes a full formal apology, an indigenous peoples development program, plus technology transfer and debt cancellation by western institutions.
Why is the decision to sever ties with the British monarchy being taken now? The royal family’s popularity has plunged in some Commonwealth nations after Meghan Markle’s revelations about racism within the royal family.
Guy Hewitt, Barbadian High Commissioner to Britain from 2014 to 2018, said Britain’s colonial past has come under the spotlight with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. “What has happened … is this reassessing of our relationship with Britain as a former colonial power and with the royal family, in terms of what has been their position on these issues,” Hewitt said.
Tom Tugendhat, Conservative chair of the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, attempted to deflect this criticism by blaming China. “China has been using infrastructure investment and debt diplomacy as a means of control for a while,” he said. “Today, we’re seeing it in the Caribbean. Some islands seem to be close to swapping a symbolic queen in Windsor for a real and demanding emperor in Beijing.”
But Scott MacDonald, a senior associate at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, dismissed this. “I don’t think China’s the reason,” he said. “As one Barbadian ambassador said to me, ‘You know, if nothing else fails, blame the Chinese.’ ”
Guy Hewitt had a further reason for the decision to break with Britain, citing the Windrush scandal as a turning point. “We realized that the ‘mother country,’ as Britain was affectionately known as, was not interested in the welfare and the well-being of people who had journeyed from the Caribbean, journeyed from Barbados, and helped build Britain in the post-World War II era,” he said.
Hewitt has been one of the most outspoken critics from Caribbean countries of the UK government. He advised people caught up in the Windrush net not to contact the Home Office unless they first notified their representative or lawyer, as too many people doing so had been detained.
Linking the shocking treatment of legitimate British citizens by the Conservative government to the role of the monarchy, Hewitt spoke of “the inconsistency between an institution and monarchy which reflects an oppressive and racist colonial past and where countries want and aspire to be in the future.” He contrasted the silence of the Queen on the Windrush scandal with how she had spoken out against Scottish independence.
Barbados’ announcement could pave the way for other Commonwealth countries to break with the monarchy. Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness made removing the Queen as head of state a priority in his 2016 manifesto, but has yet to call a referendum due to high constitutional thresholds.
Speaking to the Independent, Jamaica’s opposition leader Mark Golding of the People’s National Party said that the Queen’s removal as head of state in the country was “fundamental to our identity and our nationhood.” Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines are other Caribbean countries considering the removal of the Queen.
Australians voted against this in a 1999 referendum, but recent polling shows that replacing the Queen with an Australian Head of State may now have majority support. And a March Research.co survey in Canada found that a narrow majority would prefer an elected Head of State.
Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocus. His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.
Image: Mia Mottley. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/53390373@N06/48712668238/. Author: UNCTAD, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
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