queen elizabeth Sandra Mason barbados independence
Queen Elizabeth II with Governor-General of Barbados Sandra Mason (Image: Buckingham Palace)

The British empire is about to lose another of its scattered remains — Barbados has announced plans to become a republic. 

“The time has come to leave our colonial past behind,” its Governor-General Sandra Mason said when delivering an address on behalf of Prime Minister Mia Mottley.

It’s a move which could have ripples across the Caribbean where, like Australia, many countries remain in the halfway house of constitutional monarchy despite bubbling support for republicanism.

A wind of change

Barbados won independence in 1966, when Britain’s stage-managed imperial collapse was in full swing. But until now Queen Elizabeth II has remained head of state.

For years it has toyed with the prospect of a republic. Because its constitution requires a two-thirds parliamentary majority — rather than a cumbersome referendum — the path to a republic is much clearer. Mottley, a committed republican, led her party to a sizeable majority in elections two years ago.

But there’s also a sense that now is the time for Barbados. The Guardian reports that the Black Lives Matter movement, and the lingering effects of the Windrush scandal (where thousands of migrants who came to Britain from the West Indies in the pre-colonial era were threatened with deportation decades later) may have unleashed a wind of change across the Caribbean.

Neighbouring Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Dominica all became republics in the 1970s. Once Barbados dumps the Queen, Jamaica could be next. Its Prime Minister, Andrew Holness, has already touted republicanism as a priority with a “grand referendum” on the cards.

Australia out in the cold?

Of the 16 countries that still have the Queen as head of state, nine (including Barbados) are in the Caribbean. If Barbados triggers a new wave through the region Australia’s system of constitutional monarchy could look a little anachronistic.

It seems unlikely, though, that those winds of change could reach as far as Australia. Here republicanism seems stagnant, due in part to the ongoing popularity of the royal family and the politically onerous task of holding a referendum Australians have already rejected.

But the process of dumping the Queen has been a little slow and patchy everywhere. Before Barbados, the last former Commonwealth realm to become a republic was Mauritius in 1992. And since Australia’s last flirtation with republicanism in 1999, Tuvalu and St Vincent and the Grenadines have voted to keep her.

Elsewhere, recent prominent independence referendums have failed. New Caledonia will hold its second vote on leaving France next month, two years after the first failed. And six years ago Scotland voted to remain part of the UK (although post-Brexit support for Scottish independence has been on the up).

Barbados has the benefit of a smoother constitutional process and strong political support for a republic.

In Australia, where we tend to vote referendums down and where Bill Shorten’s pre-election promise of a renewed republican push never eventuated, we could be waiting a while.

Peter Fray

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