Today, Barbados appointed its eighth Governor General, Dame Sandra Mason, despite rumblings in political circles about a move towards a republican system of Government in which the post of Governor General would be abolished, as well as submission to the British monarchy.
The average Barbadian understands that the Governor General is “the Queen’s representative” but what does that really mean? According to our Constitution, “the Queen appoints the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister of Barbados. The GG exercises executive powers and who assents to bills in the monarch’s name before they become law. He or she represents the British monarch on ceremonial occasions like military parades, the opening of Parliament and the presentation of honours. The GG has the right to pardon anyone convicted of any offence against the laws of Barbados, discipline or appoint officers of the civil service and prorogue Parliament. Nevertheless, it is only in a few instances that the GG can act entirely on his or her own discretion.”
Between the advent of colonization in 1627 and Independence in 1966, Barbados had 68 Governors who acted as the monarch’s representatives on the island. When Britain decided to divest itself of its colonies, starting with India in 1947 and proceeding through some of its African outposts before Jamaica became the first independent Caribbean colony in 1962, the role of Governor was replaced by that of Governor General in most cases.
Barbados’ first Governor General was the last colonial Governor, Sir John Stow, who returned to England shortly after Independence. In 1967, we appointed our first native (that is, Barbados-born) Governor General, Sir Winston Scott, a prominent medical doctor. Sir Winston is one of only two Governors General who came from outside of the legal profession; the other was Dame Nita Barrow, who was a nurse that eventually held a number of high positions internationally, including President of the World Young Women’s Christian Association (YMCA) between 1975 and 1984.
When Sir Winston passed away in 1976, former judge Sir Deighton Ward took up the mantle. He died in office in 1984, and was followed by the Right Excellent Sir Hugh Springer, another legal luminary who was instrumental in the founding of the Barbados Labour Party, the Barbados Workers’ Union and the University of the West Indies. Sir Hugh became the first GG to retire from office when he stepped down from the post in 1990. He died four years after leaving office in 1994.
His retirement paved the way for Dame Nita, who like our incoming GG, Dame Sandra Mason, was a popular choice “across the board”. Dame Nita, the sister of our ‘Father of Independence’, the Right Excellent Errol Barrow, was renowned the world over. Apart from her post at the YWCA, she was also part of a Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group that visited South Africa during its apartheid years of state-sponsored racial segregation in the mid-1980s, and met with Nelson Mandela and other figures in the anti-apartheid movement along with the country’s then Government. Dame Nita came into office in the summer of 1990, but died in office in December 1995.
Sir Clifford Husbands, who passed away last October, replaced Dame Nita early in 1996 and he became the longest serving GG, having spent 15 years in office before retiring late in 2011. During his time, he started a youth camp aimed at getting children interested in agriculture. When he demitted office, Sir Elliott Belgrave, another former judge, took up the post in 2012 and spent five years in office, retiring in June 2017. Widely regarded as “the People’s GG”, Sir Elliott managed to visit all of the island’s primary schools during his tenure, interacting with the pupils, and late last year, the primary school he attended in St Peter was renamed in his honour.
The Republic question
Over the last two decades in particular, the role of Governor General has repeatedly come under scrutiny. Historians, calypsonians and social commentators have debated this issue, their main argument being, ‘if we are truly independent, why is the Queen still our Head of State?’ and they are particularly vitriolic towards those who support her continued ‘influence’ on the island. For example, in a song entitled Helsinki in 1989, Bumba dedicated a whole verse and chorus to what he saw as our colonial attitude towards the Queen following one of her visits to the island: inter alia, he said “if you feel that a British Queen, over Bimshire should rule supreme, I think you should go to Helsinki!”
The Mighty Gabby, in a folk song entitled Lizzie said “Oh they fail to understand, that colonialism done, oh they fail to understand, there’s no such place as ‘Little England’.”
John King also sang, “Come leh we break away from de Broken Trident and show we really independent.”
During the 1999 general elections, the republic issue surfaced in a big way. The then Prime Minister Owen Arthur seemed to be moving towards a situation where we would remain in the British Commonwealth, but the Queen would no longer be the Head of State, and a President would assume the duties undertaken by the GG. The Barbados Labour Party even commissioned an “anthem” of sorts called “Our New Republic”, sung by John King and Marissa Lindsay, and used it during that election campaign. It was stated that any move in that direction would take the form of a national referendum first.
However, the issue was swept under the proverbial carpet for a while, but resurfaced during a parliamentary debate during Arthur’s third term in office (2003-2008) when the basic question regarding the referendum was on Parliament’s agenda one day. That question was, “Do you believe a Barbadian should be the island’s Head of State?” with spaces supplied for “Yes” or “No” answers. Nothing further came of that.
However, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart reignited the issue two years ago when he announced plans to move us away from “a monarchical system to a republican form of Government in the very near future”.
In making his strong case before the gathering of Democratic Labour Party faithful at a meeting in St George South, Stuart said: “We cannot pat ourselves on the shoulder at having gone into Independence, having decolonized our politics, . . . having decolonized our jurisprudence by delinking from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and explain to anybody why we continue to have a monarchical system.
“Therefore, the Right Excellent Errol Barrow decolonized the politics; Owen Arthur decolonized the jurisprudence and Freundel Stuart is going to complete the process.”
Obviously this plan has now changed, given today’s development which followed Stuart’s December 27 announcement that Justice Mason was to be officially appointed this island’s eighth Governor General. But does the average Barbadian know or understand what it is all about?
Republics take many forms, which are beyond the scope of this article, but Wikipedia defines it as “a form of Government in which the country is considered a ‘public matter’, not the private property or concern of the rulers. Primary positions of power within a republic are not inherited, but are attained through elections expressing the consent of the governed.” In other words, the leaders do not “own” the country, as in the case of a colony, but the people of the country determine who is in charge. Another basic definition is “a system in which the head of state is NOT a monarch”.
Wikipedia further states, “With no monarch, most modern republics use the title “President” for head of state. Originally used to refer to the presiding officer of a committee or governing body in Great Britain, the usage was also applied to political leaders. The first republic to adopt the title was the United States of America. If the head of state is also the head of Government, it is called a presidential system. A full presidential system has a president with substantial authority and a central political role.
In other states, the legislature is dominant and the presidential role is almost purely ceremonial and apolitical, for example Germany and India. These states are parliamentary republics and operate similarly to constitutional monarchies (like Barbados) with parliamentary systems where the power of the monarch is greatly circumscribed. Semi-presidential systems have a president as the active head of state, but also have a head of government with important powers”.
So which form of republic will we be taking? How soon do we plan to do it? How will we modify the Constitution to accommodate these changes? How long will that process take, and will the people have a say in it? So far, no one has addressed this properly.
If and when Government, regardless of the administration, decides to go this route, it will be in their best interest to have a public education campaign about all its facets via the Barbados Government Information Service. After all, if there is going to be a national referendum, it is only fair that people should make a decision based on their knowledge and understanding of the subject matter.
Once we go this route, there are several other obvious changes we will have to make. For example, we will have to honour our most outstanding citizens differently. That means, we can no longer give people titles like “Commander of the Order of the British Empire” (CBE), Officer of the Order of the British Empire” (OBE) or “Member of the Order of the British Empire” (MBE), and “Sir” and “Dame” may also have to go through the window.