As Barbados says goodbye to the Queen, is the Commonwealth on the cusp of a domino effect?

·6-min read
55 years after the island became independent, Barbados is leaving the Commonwealth
55 years after the island became independent, Barbados is leaving the Commonwealth

“From big to little England, our gracious Queen you come,” sang the choir of children who welcomed Elizabeth II to Barbados in February 1966. Before the year was out, the English-speaking island, a colony since the second quarter of the 17th century, would achieve independence from Britain. Donkeys were draped in Union Jacks and, from across the island’s 167 square miles, guests gathered in the appropriately named Queen’s Park, in the capital of Bridgetown, to watch a tree-planting ceremony by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. Like the Queen herself, the women – regardless of ethnicity – wore hats and white gloves. Among cheering crowds were boys in cub scout uniforms. Distinctive in the sunshine were the white solar topees of the Royal Barbados Police.

Now, 55 years after the Queen’s first visit to Barbados and the island’s independence in November of the same year, the island once known as “little England” will sever connections with “big” England’s sovereign – the Prince of Wales making the trip, at the invitation of its prime minister, to the country ceasing to claim Elizabeth II as their gracious queen. Barbados’s monarchy will be replaced with a republic under first president Dame Sandra Mason. Formerly the Queen’s governor-general, Mason was nominated last month in an election within the Barbadian Parliament, without a nationwide election or referendum, which the Barbadian constitution does not require. This followed Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s announcement in September 2020 of her government’s decision that Barbados become a republic.

It is, of course, a decision on which the Queen herself will not comment publicly. “This is a matter for the government and people of Barbados,” was the official response from the Palace. According to royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams: “The Palace will be sanguine about Barbados’s decision to become a republic, as it has always been a matter for Barbados itself. It will, however, be noted that no referendum was held on the issue, as had originally been provided for in the Referendum Act of 2005.” The Palace has suggested that the end of royal government on the island did not come as a surprise.

Members of the Royal Family have visited the island regularly: the Earl and Countess of Wessex in 2012, Prince Harry in 2016, the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall in 2019. The Queen herself has consistently commanded affection and respect in Barbados – during her visit in March 1975, for example, a crowd of 10,000 islanders mustered to witness the monarch confer honours, including a knighthood for Barbadian cricketer Garfield Sobers, at an outdoor ceremony at Bridgetown racetrack – but republicanism has coloured political discourse on the island for decades. In 1966, the Illustrated London News noted among the crowds of wellwishers pockets of protesters waving “red communist flags and black swastikas”. As long ago as 1979, the Cox Commission on the Constitution debated the feasibility of republicanism, on that occasion – only two years after a visit by the Queen during Silver Jubilee year – concluding that “Barbadians preferred to maintain the constitutional monarchy”. A referendum has been proposed by Barbadian politicians on numerous occasions since, including 2000, 2005 and 2008.

In 1952, the Queen inherited a fledgling Commonwealth, formalised as a voluntary association of nations as recently as 1949, and the remnants of an Empire already in the process of dismantling; politicians encouraged her to regard the crown as the unifying focus of loyalty across this disparate inheritance. A year later, her departure on a five-and-a-half-month Commonwealth tour prompted a commemorative prayer by the Poet Laureate John Masefield, “On Our Queen’s Going to Her Peoples”. But many of these peoples would shortly cease to be ‘hers’. The first decades of the Queen’s reign were marked by independence movements in former colonial possessions across Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the West Indies. Many elected to become republics, including Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Dominica. Others, including Barbados, retained the Queen as head of state: these independent monarchies are referred to as the Commonwealth realms. With Barbados’s shift to republic status, 14 Commonwealth realms remain, from Australia and Canada to tiny island states like Tuvalu, in this huge agglomeration of global territories that accounts for almost a third of the world’s population.

In 1954, the Queen described the relationships as “an allegiance of mutual love and respect, and never of compulsion”. There is no reason to assume her thoughts have changed. Yet though she would never query or seek to challenge the decision made by Mia Mottley on behalf of the Barbadian people, it seems certain that the nonagenarian monarch will regret the end of her role as Queen of Barbados. She enjoys her relationships with her governors-general and the insights with which they provide her into the internal workings of these scattered realms; she is enthusiastic, too, over initiatives like the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust, founded in her name in 2018 to raise funds for Commonwealth young people, and the work of Commonwealth individuals rewarded through the honours system.

Barbados is not the first former imperial colony to achieve independence as a constitutional monarchy and subsequently become a republic. Malta replaced the Queen with an elected president in 1974, ten years after independence; Mauritius gained independence in 1968 and in 1992 abolished the monarchy. The Queen’s attitude towards those countries remains apparently unchanged. In Malta and Mauritius, the transition was explained as part of the country’s development, rather than a rejection of the Queen personally: in Barbados, Sandra Mason has argued, “the time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind”. Once the focal point of imperial loyalty, the Crown remains for some indelibly associated with colonialism. “The question is not so much ‘why is Barbados breaking the link now’ but why so few Caribbean countries have done so over the last decades,” explains Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, adding that the “colonial legacy there” has “made it easier for the Republican movement to gain traction”.

It seems certain that the nonagenarian monarch will regret the end of her role as Queen of Barbados - Ron Bell/PA Archive
It seems certain that the nonagenarian monarch will regret the end of her role as Queen of Barbados - Ron Bell/PA Archive

Inevitably, this will prompt concerns over a domino effect. Republicanism has featured in political debate in Commonwealth realms from Australia to Jamaica for much of the Queen’s reign; earlier this year, a constitutional consultation was launched in Tuvalu (although as recently as 2008, islanders voted to retain the Crown). In every case, the Queen’s view will echo her response to Barbadian developments: it is for the country in question to decide for itself. Not all governments will agree that severing ties with the monarchy enables them to jettison their colonial heritage, which is invariably deeper in impact than an ongoing relationship with the Crown. Some may share the view articulated by opponents of Barbadian republicanism that Mottley’s decision – at a time of pandemic-driven unemployment and economic hardship in a country heavily dependent on tourist revenue – is a distraction.

That this position may change at the time of the Queen’s death seems likely. Then other Commonwealth monarchies may choose to become republics. In doing so, like Barbados, they are likely to remain within the Commonwealth, which, in 2018, agreed to the Prince of Wales succeeding the Queen as its head. Guy Hewitt, former high commissioner for Barbados, has suggested that Commonwealth realms have postponed discussion of the transition to republic status for the remainder of the Queen’s lifetime: “The reason why they don’t do it before is because of a sense … of regard for her personally.”

Matthew Dennison’s biography of the Queen is published by Head of Zeus

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