In just a few days, Barbados will usher in a new era. The former British colony and constitutional monarchy is set to become a parliamentary republic on Nov. 30, the 55th anniversary of its independence from Britain, and remove Queen Elizabeth as its head of state. The last time a country removed the queen as head of state was in 1992 when Mauritius did so.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Mia Mottley, the island will swear in its first president (and its first female president, at that), with Sandra Mason, who was elected by its Parliament in October.
Mason, who has been serving as the queen’s representative in Barbados in the role of governor general, delivered a speech on behalf of Mottley in September 2020, declaring that Barbados would “take the next logical step toward full sovereignty.”
“The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind,” Mason said. “Barbadians want a Barbadian head of state.”
Mottley isn’t the first leader of Barbados to make a push for the country to become a republic, though she is the first to succeed. Some politicians, professors and experts have resisted the decision to become a republic right now, declaring it a political move to distract from COVID-19 and the economic issues plaguing the country, which was experiencing financial problems even before the pandemic. But Mottley remains undeterred by the criticism, and now the momentous change is only days away.
So what does all this mean for Barbados and Britain? What will change? And what do Barbadians make of it all?
To find out, HuffPost spoke to Verla De Peiza, a lawyer, former senator and current head of the Democratic Labour Party in Barbados, and Anna Whitelock, Ph.D., professor of the history of monarchy at City, University of London and head investigator for the project The Visible Crown, which looks at Queen Elizabeth II’s political and cultural significance in the Caribbean from 1952 to the present.
What power, if any, has the queen had in Barbados recently?
Despite Barbados’ independence from Britain that began 55 years ago, Queen Elizabeth is still technically the constitutional monarch of the country and retains the title “The Queen of Barbados.”
As stated on the British royal family’s website, the queen currently “speaks and acts as Queen of Barbados, and plays an important symbolic and ceremonial role in the life of the island nation,” while also maintaining regular contact with her representative, the governor general.
“It’s kind of important when we think of the queen in the Caribbean to distinguish between the queen as head of the Commonwealth, which is made up of many, many countries around the world, a number of which are Caribbean countries,” Whitelock said. “But also the fact that she’s head of state in nine of the Caribbean countries including Barbados. She’s head of state and therefore she has a similar kind of position that she has in the United Kingdom. It’s a largely ceremonial figure.”
The queen is represented in those countries by the governor general, Whitelock said, and in the case of Barbados, that’s Mason. But with the change to a republic on Nov. 30 ― and as outlined by the Constitution (Amendment) Bill passed earlier this year ― any prerogative or privilege of the queen or the Crown will transfer to the state (and depending on the forthcoming changes to the Barbados Constitution, some privileges may transfer to the president).
Any “rights, powers, privileges, duties or functions” that belonged to the governor general will also vest to Mason as president, who will be head of state. Mottley will continue to serve as prime minister and head of government.
Is Barbados becoming a republic a rejection of the queen?
Both Whitelock and De Peiza noted that Barbados becoming a republic has more to do with Barbados taking control of its future and finally having a Barbadian head of state, rather than outrightly rejecting Queen Elizabeth or the monarchy.
“Anybody I speak to is very keen to say that this isn’t a rejection of the queen,” Whitelock added. “It’s about an opportunity for Barbados to establish itself as a fully independent nation. And so they see it very much as a sort of a way of expressing and assessing national identity.”
Mottley echoed those sentiments last month, saying that “we look forward to continuing the relationship with the British monarch” and adding that it’s simply the time for Barbados “to express the full confidence in ourselves as a people, and to believe that it is possible for one born of this nation to sign off finally and completely.”
But De Peiza has said that in keeping up with international media, she sees “that the U.K. press is more interested in a narrative of the declining power and influence of the monarchy,” despite her insistence that the queen currently doesn’t occupy a “meaningful and tangible role” in the affairs of Barbados.
Why is now the right time for the move to a republic?
“Barbados becoming a republic is not a new conversation,” De Peiza said. “I think over time we have reached a stage where the majority of Barbadians are either in favor of the republic or are very nonchalant about it. The stumbling block really is not having had a discussion as to the type of republic that we are going to have, and knowing that there’s several different types of republics.”
Though Barbadians have pushed for a republic before, Whitelock added that the timing is interesting as “the queen’s long reign is coming to an end,” but it’s not officially over yet.
“One might have assumed that there’d be a sense of waiting until the queen dies. Why now? I mean, I think it’s kind of unclear. That’s what we’re kind of digging into researching” the professor said of The Visible Crown project, which is examining “the significance of the monarch (as a person) and the Crown (as an institution)” throughout history and today.
“Partly, I think it’s the ambitions of the prime minister and other people in government,” Whitelock added, as Mottley will be the first prime minister to actually achieve the goal of a republic after many decades of talks and effort.
Some have pointed to the royal family’s refusal, amid the Black Lives Matter movement, to fully reckon with its role in the slave trade and its colonizer past ― as well as deal with the racism claims coming from within its own family ― as a complete misstep.
Whitelock also said she had a conversation with a “well-placed individual” who brought up the Windrush scandal, which came to light in April 2018 when it was revealed the U.K. government was wrongly targeting Caribbean immigrants from Commonwealth countries for deportation, a removal of health benefits and more. This person suggested to Whitelock that the queen should have spoken about the scandal at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2018.
“The individual I was talking to suggested that this was an opportunity lost, or even a ball dropped that, maybe there was a sense that she didn’t represent the people there in the way that she should,” Whitelock said, adding that the individual thought this “kind of indifference” could have made people go “you know, maybe this just really isn’t working and maybe now is the time.”
But it’s likely the result of a few factors.
“I think it’s a mix of apathy among the people and the not particularly caring in terms of the queen and not having seen the roles for a long time,” Whitelock explained, as well as “the prime minister and the government being kind of opportunistic and keen for Barbados to perhaps be one of the first countries in that nine to break away and establish itself.”
What do Barbadians think of the transition to a republic?
Over the past year ― and increasingly within the past few weeks ― some Barbadians voiced concerns about the process and called on Mottley to involve the people of Barbados in the transition. Some people HuffPost has spoken to have even scoffed at the notion of calling the process a “transition,” as Barbados will begin drafting a new constitution only after it is a republic.
De Peiza, who is supportive of becoming a republic but not the current process, said what’s “seriously lacking” is that there isn’t an “engagement of the people” on this issue ― something she feels is vital.
“As I canvass and I raise the republic conversation, what I’m hearing from our people is that they want a greater involvement in our democratic process and not a rehashing of the scene,” she said. “We’re starting at the back end of things with the republic. And it cannot be that we are going through a momentous occasion without consideration. And therefore, what should feel like a joyous occasion is actually very undiplomatic.”
She also expressed a common sentiment that Barbados transitioning to a republic on Nov. 30 ― Independence Day for the country ― offends a sector of the population. Some would rather the change be celebrated on another day entirely.
Are Barbadians involved in the republic process?
Though the Republican Status Transition Advisory Committee, a group of 10 individuals that the government’s website says will “help plan and manage the transition of Barbados from a monarchical to a republican system,” was formed in May, Barbadians were only given the chance to voice their comments and concerns just two months before the country becomes a republic ― and perhaps in response to criticisms of the government’s handling of the proposed charter.
Just after the committee released the proposed Barbados Charter on Sept. 24, it invited members of the public to watch and participate in a series of virtual meetings from Sept. 28 to Oct. 8. An email address was also provided for interested parties to send in audio or video recordings to make their voices heard. And yet, De Peiza says, there is still so much that is missing from the process, and the government needs to create a constitution to represent the republic.
“This is the opportune moment to have a deconstruction of our bill of rights, to reconstruct it in a more modern and long-lasting way,” she added. “So we need to get to that point where we are having these major discussions with our people. And because these are such radical considerations, we first need to have them and then move toward the republic, as opposed to move toward the republic and then have these conversations with our people.”
As of now, the only thing people have seen from the Republican Status Transition Advisory Committee is a proposed charter, which De Peiza said she sees as more of a “suggested document.”
So what does this really mean for Barbadians?
“The change to a republic will require a change of uniform. The insignia with the crown is on the police force and the prison service uniforms, the postal service uniforms,” De Peiza said, adding that there will also be letterhead changes, as well as possible changes to Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Queen’s Park, and possibly quite a few roads, “but we don’t know the depths of the change either.”
And while Barbados’ currency will not change, De Peiza raised the point that the changes will greatly affect Barbados’ finances, as the country was already in a financial crunch before the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem.
“There are costs built in that we are not discussing that we need to know, if Barbados can even afford to do it at this time,” she said. “And we’re just not hearing that side of the conversation at all. The money side is not being discussed at all.”
Aside from the “obvious visible changes” ― like portraits of the queen being removed from public buildings ― Whitelock added it’s “debatable” what sort of changes people will feel or notice.
“Probably in many cases they just won’t,” Whitelock said.
What does this mean for other Commonwealth countries, and particularly those in the Caribbean?
The move has the potential to create a ripple effect in other Caribbean countries, where the queen remains as head of state. Whitelock says Jamaica is likely the “one to watch.” Outside the Caribbean, she noted that New Zealand and Australia have also had movements aimed at achieving republic status.
What has the queen or Buckingham Palace said about the transition? Will the decision affect Barbados’ relationship with the U.K.?
In a show of support of the transition, Clarence House announced earlier this month that Prince Charles had accepted an invitation from Prime Minister Mottley to visit Barbados and be a guest of honor at the republic’s celebration events, as he is the future head of the Commonwealth.
And all in all, Whitelock said that she doesn’t think the transition itself will make a “huge amount of difference” to the relationship between Britain and Barbados.
“The queen and the monarchy in Britain would feel quite relaxed about this, that it’s not going to be perceived as a kind of rejection and certainly the British government won’t want it to be seen as that,” Whitelock said. “It’s like that they’re very keen to promote their image around the world as global Britain.”
But like with everything tied to the transition to a republic, the real changes and effects will likely be felt in the months and years to come.
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