Barbados appears set on removing Queen Elizabeth as head of state and becoming a republic by November next year – a move that is down to Chinese influence, according to one influential Conservative MP. Others have seen it as stemming from the Black Lives Matter movement and a reappraisal of colonialism. Opening the new parliamentary session, the governor-general of the Caribbean nation, Sandra Mason, declared: ‘The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind. Barbadians want a Barbadian head of state.’
In the Throne Speech, which is written by the prime minister, Mia Mottley, to lay out her government’s legislative agenda, Mason said: ‘Having attained independence over half a century ago, our country can be in no doubt about its capacity for self-governance … This is the ultimate statement of confidence in who we are.’ Citing Errol Barrow, the first prime minister of Barbados, who warned against ‘loitering on colonial premises’ at the Lancaster House conference on the island’s independence in 1966, Mason – the Queen’s representative in Barbados – said the constitutional break would mark the 55th anniversary of independence. Mottley is well-placed to make the island a republic after her Barbados Labour Party won all 30 seats in the 2018 election. As part of her progressive agenda, she also promised votes on legalising same-sex civil unions and on decriminalising possession of small amounts of cannabis.
There was a cautious response in Barbados. An editorial in the Barbados Advocate noted: ‘Burning questions on persons’ minds is the title the new head of state under a republic would bear, and what type of republic it will be – a presidential republic, semi-presidential republic or parliamentary republic – we do not know.’ There is momentum behind the move: Barbadians, or Bajans, have been discussing republicanism since the 1970s. The Cox commission concluded in 1979 there was not enough support. In 1996 the Constitution Review Commission recommended that Barbados become a parliamentary republic; legislation was introduced in 2000 but the plebiscite was not held and the bill died in 2003. In 2015, the then prime minister, Freundel Stuart, said: ‘We have to move from a monarchical system to a republican form of government in the very near future.’ Barbados was also one of the first three Caribbean Community (Caricom) states to replace the UK’s judicial committee of the Privy Council with the Caribbean Court of Justice as the highest appellate court, partly because of rulings in London blocking the death penalty.
In choosing its own head of state, Barbados would be following its neighbours Guyana, which made the move in 1970, Trinidad and Tobago (1976) and Dominica (1978). Mauritius was the most recent state to do so, in 1992. The Queen is sovereign of 15 realms plus the UK. If Barbados became a republic, it would leave eight Caribbean countries recognising her as head of state: Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Both St Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines flirted with the idea, though the latter rejected it in a 2009 referendum. Downing Street was circumspect, saying: ‘It’s a decision for Barbados and we will continue to have an enduring partnership.’ Buckingham Palace said the issue was ‘a matter for the government and people of Barbados’. Private Eye suggested otherwise, claiming the move had the palace ‘in a tizz … there is a fear that the remaining 15 [realms] will start to fall like dominoes.’
It would leave only Jamaica of Caricom’s ‘Big Four’ (with Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Guyana) retaining the royal link. However, Jamaica is expected to follow suit, especially after the prime minister, Andrew Holness, won an overwhelming victory in September’s election, when his Jamaica Labour Party swept to a 49-14 seat landslide over the People’s National Party. Holness has promised to hold a ‘grand referendum’ on constitutional issues such as fixed parliamentary terms, as well as removing the Queen, and a poll this year found nearly 57% of Jamaicans supported cutting ties with the British monarchy. The Queen’s death is expected to spark a renewed surge of support for republicanism in New Zealand and Australia, which held a referendum on the issue in 1999. Before becoming New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern told the Times of her support for republicanism in 2017. In the same year, support in Australia had reached 51% of voters, with only 38% for retaining the Queen.
The New York Times noted that the Caribbean’s last drive to cast off the colonial figurehead coincided with the Black Power movement’s rise in the 1970s, just as the latest push had come in the wake of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign and growing calls for reparations for slavery. Mottley, who oversees the Caricom Reparations Commission, has led these demands, calling for a ‘Caribbean Marshall Plan’ to combat the underdevelopment left by slavery and colonialism. Richard Drayton, professor of imperial history at King’s College London, told the NYT: ‘As in the 1970s in the Caribbean, there’s a new anger among younger people, not just about the predicament of people who happen to be black in the United States, but about the experience of people who are black in their own societies.’ James Landale, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, also framed the move as part of the BLM movement. Guy Hewitt, former Barbados high commissioner to the UK, highlighted a shift in attitudes in the island long known as ‘Little England’, noting in the Guardian how ‘the Windrush scandal and the Black Lives Matter movement have altered perceptions of the colonial “mother country”’.
However, the Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, in a speech to the Royal United Services Institute, claimed it was due to Chinese influence. The chair of the Commons select committee on foreign affairs, who had links to intelligence agencies as a military reservist, said: ‘China has been using infrastructure investment and debt diplomacy as a means of control for a while and it’s coming closer to home,’ the Times reported. Beijing has long used investment and aid to further its influence, especially in encouraging states to break diplomatic ties with Taiwan. In 2005, China rewarded Grenada with a $55m cricket stadium and in 2018 the Dominican Republic received investments and loans worth $3bn after they cut relations with Taipei.
Barbados has received at least $490m, mostly invested in tourism, but also through private deals, the Daily Mail reported. It has signed agreements on visa waivers and taxation, as it seeks to become a regional hub for Chinese investments, and one on military co-operation in 2016. In 2017, Stuart said Barbados was committed to ‘increasing bilateral interactions and deepening their mutually beneficial cooperation’. Last year, Barbados signed up to China’s Belt and Road initiative, lured by the promise of investment in shipping, aviation, infrastructure and agriculture.
Despite the inexorable logic of completing decolonisation, support for royalty can emerge from unlikely sources. In Transparency International’s 2019 corruption-perceptions index, for example, 12 of the 20 least-corrupt countries were monarchies. And in 1994, Lester Bird, Antigua and Barbuda’s PM, was advised not to rush to become a republic by Fidel Castro. Writing for Caribbean News Global, Ronald Sanders, a former diplomat, says the Cuban revolutionary leader astonished the delegation by asking why they wanted to end the link: ‘Does she interfere with your government?’ After Bird explained that her role was purely ceremonial, Castro replied: ‘In which case, you might consider remaining as you are. The Queen doesn’t interfere with your government and she provides to foreign investors and others a level of confidence in the constitutional arrangements of your state.’