Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by this author are their own and do not represent the official position of the Barbados Today Inc.
Okay, everybody, take a deep breath.
Yes, we are going to become a republic. I know we’re a conservative people and we don’t like change, especially if we think the change unnecessary. But it’s not the end of the world, it’s simply one more phase in our political and constitutional development since Independence.
And let me tell you a dirty little secret. We’re already a republic! Yes. 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 at that time 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. Things have changed since then).
The United Kingdom is, in fact, a republic. The only difference is that, instead of having a democratically chosen ceremonial head of state, it has a hereditary ceremonial head of state. Moreover, that hereditary head of state — the monarch Queen Elizabeth II — has no say in who will succeed her.
The succession is determined by the British Parliament. Indeed, they changed the rules a few years ago to remove the blatant discrimination against women in the order of succession. Previously, the first-born male child was next in succession.
Now if a girl is the first-born child, she becomes next in succession.
Unfortunately, they have not removed the religious discrimination: only an Anglican can become the head of state since the monarch is also head of the Church of England.
So, if Barbados is already a republic, what is all the fuss about?
Well, instead of depending on the British Parliament and the hereditary monarchy of Britain to decide who our head of state will be, we, or, more accurately, our elected representatives,
will choose our own Barbadian ceremonial head of state.
The selection procedure is yet to be determined but I favour the recommendation made in the 1998 Constitution Review Commission, chaired by Sir Henry Forde: appointment by two-thirds of the Parliament.
So, what are the objections to the change?
Some 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 our legendary political stability and reputation for good governance, the environmental beauty of our island, welcoming social conditions, the warmth and hospitality of Bajans, and a business-friendly (well, soon to be) culture.
Another pragmatic argument is if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There is no evidence, many argue, that having the Queen of England as our head of state in any way deprives us of any rights or freedoms, and, indeed, most Bajans have great love and respect for the present queen who has been, indeed, a gem of a person.
But then, since we have no say right now on who our head of state is, 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 ass.
We could do nothing about that. 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 seems to be strong objections by some to the name “republic”. They argue that to re-designate 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”, which I strongly recommend.
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 recognising 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 colonial power like petulant children who refuse to grow up.
I recognise, of course, that 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 children, flagellating criminals with the cat-o-nine tails, capital punishment, same-sex relationships, the common entrance exam, legalisation of marijuana, and other such matters in which we Bajans think that the ungodly hordes of the world out there are trying to impose their politically correct 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.
Let me end by quoting two knowledgeable outsiders on the marvellous paradox that is Barbados.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves in a lecture entitled The Idea of Barbados a few years ago: “Barbados is at once the most conservative and the most progressive society in the Caribbean, bar none!”
Anthony P. Maingot, a Trinidadian professor of sociology in a recent book on the Caribbean, devotes an entire chapter to Barbados. I quote one sentence from it: “Of all the countries of the Greater Caribbean, Barbados has most successfully combined a deep respect for tradition with a constant attempt to modernise.”
Long live the paradoxical republic!
Peter Laurie is a retired career diplomat and former ambassador of Barbados to the United States.