Okay, I get it.
We Bajans are a conservative people who don’t like change, especially if we think the change unnecessary. So that explains why probably a slight majority of the voting public would not like to see Barbados become a republic.
The problem is that we are already a republic!
In fact the term “republic”, which had some meaning in the 18th and 19th century as a form of government opposed to absolute monarchy, is meaningless today.
A republic back then meant basically a form of constitutional government in which the power of governing resided in the elected representatives of those citizens who had voting rights (remember that back then only rich white males had a say in who should govern them. Of course things have changed since then).
So if Barbados is already a republic, what is all the fuss about? The issue, in theory, is straightforward.
It is proposed that we replace the monarch of England, and her local representative the Governor General, as the ceremonial (holding no political power) Head of State, with a Barbadian Head of State appointed by a two-thirds majority of Parliament, or, if you insist, by the Prime Minister in meaningless consultation with the Leader of the Opposition.
This person might probably be designated as President, but could also be designated as Governor General or Cacique (after the Arawak chief). You can call her (yes, her!) what the hell you want. The Government of Barbados would continue exactly as it is now.
So what are the objections to the change? This is where it gets murky.
First, there are those who value an attachment to the English monarchy (I say English deliberately, because I suspect the Scots, if they are smart, will soon leave the Union). I would think an overwhelming majority of white Bajans, and probably a slight majority of Blacks love the English monarchy.
While the white attachment might be attributed to a misplaced ethnic sentimental loyalty to England (speaks volumes about our mental state of independence), the black attachment seems more pragmatic.
They would argue that having the English monarch as our Head of State provides a form of symbolic stability which is attractive both to tourists and investors. I doubt this is so. Far more important would be the environmental beauty of our island, welcoming social conditions, the warmth and hospitality of Bajans, and a business-friendly culture.
But that is the argument I’ve heard. Indeed they might argue that by the next ten years or so, Barbados will be the only country outside of England that has the English monarch as a Head of State.
This would give us a unique position in the world. Hallelujah!
Another pragmatic argument is if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There is no evidence that having the Queen of England as our Head of State in any way deprives us of any rights or freedoms, and the Governor General is usually a jolly good fellow who goes around greeting centenarians and staying (most of the time) out of trouble. Why change? They ask.
Of course, it is possible that a future monarch of England might be quite unlike Queen Elizabeth and be a horrific embarrassment and royal pain in the butt. And then we could do nothing about that. Bajans have no say in who the head of state of England is.
Let us go further: what indeed would happen if the English decide to have as head of state someone appointed by the people through their parliamentary representatives, rather than someone who rules purely by family connections in pursuit of the archaic romantic fiction of royal blood?
Then there seem to be strong objections by some to the name “republic”. They argue that to redesignate Barbados as the Republic of Barbados would entail all kinds of attendant changes that would be costly. Surely, we have better things to spend our money on?
But, of course, that is not necessarily so. We could simply retain the name of “Barbados”, and as pointed out earlier, we could even retain the title of Governor General for our Bajan Head of State.
Others associate the term “republic” with chronic political instability as in “banana republic”. The previous observation applies here as well.
To sum up, there are in fact no compelling objections to appointing our own Barbadian Head of State. It is purely a question of political and cultural inertia that stops us recognizing that the default position is one in which we have our own Head of State, rather than one in which we cling desperately to the apron strings of the English monarch like children who refuse
to grow up. But, hell, that’s who we are, and we like it so!
Of course, this conservatism runs deep in our cultural tradition (here’s an interesting anthropological thesis) and applies not just to our political system but to social issues such as flogging and abusing children (“Man, my grandmother used to beat the crap out of me with the cou cou stick, and my father with a tamarind rod, and the headteacher . . . .”), hanging people (“Too sweet!’), flagellating criminals like we used to beat slaves (“Too sweet!’), same-sex relationships (“Wait! You telling me that [gays] got rights?”), abuse of women (“C’mon, man, you know they like a few lashes.”), the Common Entrance Exam (“Wait, your child ain’t get into Harrison’s or Queen’s? He must be real ignorant.”), legalization of marijuana (“Oh God, the end of civilization as we know it.”), and other such matters in which we Bajans think the ungodly world out there is trying to impose its own changes on the traditional values of our community. Fortunately, the saving grace of Barbados is that we are both highly hypocritical and highly tolerant, so we usually do not practise what we preach, and we turn a blind eye to people who transgress what we preach, once we do not discuss these matters openly or claim any rights associated with them.
If that happens, then all hell breaks loose.
Of course the recent proposal of Prime Minister Freundel Stuart to appoint a Bajan Head of State is trammelled in local politics. Bajans are now even more flummoxed, so God knows what will happen.
(Peter Laurie, a former Barbados diplomat, is a noted social commentator.)