Barbados, republicanism and beyond

UCL webinar participants
[clockwise] Professor Cynthia Barrow-Giles, David Comissiong, Derek O'Brien, Professor Caroline Cooper
and Dr Kate Quinn.

 

By Debbie Ransome

Even before the bunting could be put up for the appointment of Barbados’s first president on 30 November 2021, the debate about the longer path to republicanism had got under way.

At the stroke of midnight on the last day of the month, a momentous change was due to take place on the island once known as Little England: Queen Elizabeth II would no longer be the head of state, replaced by the woman who has been Barbados’ Governor-General for nearly three years, Sandra Mason.

For many, it’s a case of the most British of Caribbean islands “dumping” the Queen, as the British tabloids (and many American publications) portrayed it. However, in Barbados, this is the start of a year-long consultation on the republican state that Barbados wants to become. By the end of 2022, this process will determine the nitty-gritty of how Barbados is governed in the long term.

An online conference, entitled Barbados's Transition to Republic Status in Regional Perspective, was organised by University College London (UCL) in October. It brought together Prof Cynthia Barrow-Giles, a constitutional expert from the University of the West Indies (UWI)’s Cave Hill campus in Barbados; Caribbean political activist David Comissiong, who has served as head of the Barbadian government's Commission for Pan-African affairs and is currently Barbados’s Ambassador to CARICOM; Caribbean constitutional law expert Derek O’Brien; and Cultural Studies  Professor Emerita Caroline Cooper of the University of the West Indies (UWI). The session was chaired by Dr Kate Quinn, UCL’s Associate Professor of Caribbean History.

“High time”

For some, the move to republicanism is more than 50 years overdue. Barbados became independent in 1968. Some regional historians argue that the country should have moved quickly to republicanism. as some of its neighbours did - Trinidad & Tobago in 1976, Dominica in 1978 and Guyana in 1979.

Ambassador Comissiong described 1968 as a “compromised independence”, with Barbados facing pressure at the time from both the UK and its own local white political class to fall short of full independence, keep Britain’s Privy Council as its highest court and retain the Queen as head of state. As Barbados inched its way away from such receding pressures, one major milestone was the switchfrom the Privy Council as the final appellate court to the regional Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) in 2005.

David Comissiong described the moves away from reliance on British structures as a “very arduous journey”. He described the constitutional changes to republicanism in 2021 and the proposed 2022 nationwide debate over the structure of governance as the “final pieces of the edifice”.

Prof Barrow-Giles, who also sits on the republic status transition advisory committee that has advised government on the transition to republicanism, said that 2022 would see work on a package of constitutional reforms. She explained the legal need to unpick the current structure over time, pointing out that Barbados had taken decades to get to this point, so there was “no rush” in order to get the next stages right.

Will others follow?

The announcement by Barbados of its changes has, naturally, fuelled talk of republicanism  in other countries.

“It’s high time for Jamaica to fire the Queen,” UWI’s Professor Cooper told the webinar.

Jamaica’s two main parties have raised the prospect of republicanism over the years - and Barbados’s decision has once again sparked off the debate.  The discussion has also shared space in the Caribbean’s academic circles with the push towards reparations for slavery.

Prof Cooper points to the offer by former British Prime Minister David Cameron to build a new prison in Jamaica – a move which many on the island saw as an attempt to aid Britain’s vigorous deportation programme. Prof Cooper told the UCL webinar that Britain had tried to turn Jamaica into a “penal colony”, which would have exacerbated the island’s crime situation. She said that Jamaica should not “take scraps from Britain when we’re so entitled to much more”, given the bolster slavery had given to Britain’s development.

Although these discussions often sound like fighting talk to those unfamiliar with debate in the Caribbean, the underlying tone is usually without any real rancour against modern Britain. Prof Cooper added that independent nations like Jamaica now needed to “move on” with their development “even if it means boycotting our friends”.

The spirit of Barbados’s move to republicanism has also been couched in friendly terms. In fact, Prince Charles, who would have been in line to become Barbados’s next head of state as heir to the British throne, will be attending the 30 November ceremonies as a guest of honour. Barbados also remains within the Commonwealth, which Prince Charles will head after Queen Elizabeth.

Derek O’Brien outlined the constitutional complexities for some other Caribbean countries seeking to become republics. He also pointed out that the politicisation of the debate on republicanism would mean each countries’ main parties having to agree on an outcome before any referendum, allowing voters to look at the issues of becoming a republic, rather than being forced to vote along party loyalty lines.

“If Little England can make that break, then any other Caribbean territory can do too,” David Comissiong told the webinar.

“Sense of achievement”

David Comissiong described Bajans as “doubly ready” for republicanism, having waited so long. He described the changes as a “psychological boost”, a “moral boost”, a “sense of achievement”.

For Barbados’s academic and political classes (and many in the Diaspora), the time is right for the island’s transition and Prime Minister Mia Mottley has handled the final key stages in just the right way.

Following a successful run at the world climate COP 26 summit, the Barbadian leader is being hailed around the world as the darling of small island state voices, not afraid to speak up to former colonial powers, but without ruffling feathers.

The end-of-November move to republicanism has been praised in most circles. However, the debate has also started on what the new republican Barbados will look like. As the country gears up for a series of public debates about its constitutional reforms process, there is already debate over even whether the new Charter of Barbados should include the word ‘God’.

Prime Minister Mottley’s new challenge comes in 2022 as she convinces incredibly proud Bajans to agree on institutional reform - and on what sort of country the former Little England will become.

 

Debbie Ransome is the former Head of BBC Caribbean and the Managing Editor of Caribbean Intelligence.

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