Barbados is about to say goodbye to the queen

By Hanan Redwan Published on June 30, 2021
Barbados is about to say goodbye to the queen

Governor-General Sandra Mason—Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in the country—announced that she would soon be out of a job. “The time has come to leave our colonial past behind fully,” Mason said.

Mason added that by November 30, 2021, on the 55th anniversary of the country’s independence, Barbados will break up with Elizabeth and instead swear in a local Barbadian president as head of state. In doing so, Barbados is going to become a republic.

The announcement was not a surprise for anybody on the tropical island: The debate on republicanism has been alive and well for around 40 years. However, the timing picked by the government to give the queen a final farewell has raised eyebrows.

The economy of Barbados, an eastern Caribbean island of around 280,000 people, depends heavily on the tourism industry—and despite some innovative efforts, such as the creation of a remote working visa, visitors have been scarce during the COVID-19 pandemic. With unemployment in 2020 nearing 13%, becoming a republic may not be everyone’s top priority. Yet Mia Mottley, the country’s popular and charismatic prime minister, is determined to get it done.

With recent discussions around race in the royal family and a looming transition of power in the British monarchy, some wonder if Barbados could also start a domino effect and challenge Britain's influence in all its overseas realms, already weakened by Brexit.

The British monarch, a power left to individual countries, has been a matter of bipartisan consensus for a while in Barbados, but Mottley’s timing did not please everyone.

“It was a convenient distraction from COVID and the economic crisis we are in,” Guy Hewitt, a former high commissioner for Barbados in the United Kingdom and a member of the opposition party, said. He believes that the island is ready to make the transition but also needs more time to think the process through and do it properly.

Mottley, who has campaigned on republicanism, won a landslide victory in the 2018 elections when her party won all 30 seats in the House of Assembly. Mottley believes the people of Barbados gave her a clear mandate to break with the monarchy. To do so, she’ll need a two-thirds majority vote in both houses. Since parting with the United Kingdom has historically gotten bipartisan support, she is likely to get the backing she needs.

However, if the destination is clear, the path for getting there is far less so. Mottley has opted to go forward without a public referendum and has been relatively silent on the process after the September 2020 announcement. Recently, the Nation, Barbados’s largest newspaper, questioned in an editorial the government’s handling of the reform, writing: “a referendum should not be off the table.”

Instead, in May, the government announced creating a Republican Status Transition Advisory Committee, a 10-member committee with the mandate of thinking through what the republic should look like, what it means to say farewell to the queen, and what the role of the president should be.

Marion Williams, a retired economist and diplomat, is in charge of the committee. She says the committee will examine previous work done on the topic, such as a 1998 report on republicanism and proposed 2004 constitutional amendments; will hold discussions with the public and influential examinations, and develop recommendations on the republic. The committee’s advisory report is expected in September.

When asked if Barbadians would feel a direct impact in their daily life after Barbados parts ways with the queen, her answer was clear: “No.” For her, the changes are superficial: Knighthoods will become national honours, and the Royal Barbados Police Force will remove the regal mention in its name.

For Hewitt, the problem lies in one word in the name of the committee: advisory. “It means the prime minister has the final word on everything,” he said. The Parliament will vote on the measures, of course, but Mottley’s party holds the majority.

Mottley’s office did not follow up on multiple requests for an interview. The United Kingdom’s mission to Barbados said in an email about the decision that “Barbados’ desire to become a republic is a matter for the Barbados Government and its people. The UK enjoys a warm, long-standing relationship with Barbados and will continue to do so.”

While officially, the United Kingdom says it respects the country’s decision, unofficially, Mason’s announcement came as a surprise for many high-level British officials. According to a high-level diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity, Barbados did not warn the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office the separation was coming officially before the throne speech, though it did tell Buckingham Palace. That is something that some diplomats might have appreciated knowing ahead of time.

Hanan Redwan

Hanan Redwan

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