As of this week, the Queen is down to 15 thrones, after the royal standard was lowered in Barbados in the early hours of Tuesday morning. A presidential flag now flies there. Elizabeth II still remains, by some margin, the host with the most in terms of square miles per head of state. Presidents Xi, Biden and Putin do not come close to the Queen of Canada, Australia and Papua New Guinea plus a chunk of Antarctica, little old Britain and all the rest of her realms and territories. Depending on how much ocean you include, she remains Sovereign of somewhere between an eighth and a sixth of the Earth’s surface.
So, at 167 square miles, Barbados may have been a mere blip in the portfolio. This is a significant moment, though, all the same. For it raises a question which is being pondered by royalists and republicans alike: where next?
The Left and the culture warriors have been rubbing their hands all week, gleefully pointing to Barbados as a bold standard-bearer which has thrown off the shackles of imperialism. However, all the triumphalist tumbril talk rather misses the point.
As the Queen and the Prince of Wales have always said, the Crown exists for the benefit of the people and not the other way round. It is why it has lasted in so many places for so much longer than anyone expected after the end of the British Empire. It’s also likely that, come a change of reign, some places will have a rethink. No one at the Palace is going to stand in their way.
Barbados has been a free nation since the day it secured independence in November 1966. However, the prime minister, Mia Mottley, has removed the Crown without holding a referendum. She has also appointed the first president without holding an election. Given that Miss Mottley’s Labour party controls 29 out of 30 parliamentary seats, she certainly has a mandate, yet losing the Queen was not part of her last election manifesto. I have spoken to senior Barbadian lawyers and the leader of the former ruling party who have all criticised the lack of a popular vote – even though they favour the principle of a republic. But such is life under one party.
Mottley, Barbados’s first woman prime minister, has a fine LSE-trained legal mind. With the rise of Black Lives Matter identity politics across the region, her timing is spot on. Barbados saw some of the worst horrors of the slave trade, as Prince Charles acknowledged this week. So replacing the Crown adds momentum to calls for reparations from Britain. Chuck in the UK’s shambolic handling of the Windrush scandal and, crucially, the hundreds of millions of dollars of investment aid now pouring in from China and the throne was looking pretty wobbly anyway.
At the same time, Mottley has also paid great tribute to the Queen and was adamant that the Prince of Wales should be asked to take part in this week’s constitutional handover. He was very happy to do so. It has certainly been handled with dignity and good humour on both sides.
‘Mia wanted her moment in history. She didn’t want a debate and the constitution doesn’t require a referendum,’ explains one Caribbean diplomat. To listen to some of rhetoric this week, the most surprising thing may not be that the Queen has gone but that she was still there until 2021.
In fact, like so many new Commonwealth democracies, Barbados elected to keep her for practical reasons, not out of deference. The Crown reinforced a legal system, a military, public institutions and an honours system which all worked reasonably well. It also gave the people a degree of protection from overmighty politicians.
Barbados was, emphatically, not adopting the British Queen. Under the doctrine of a divisible Crown, she was the Queen of Barbados, answerable through her Governor-General to her Barbadian ministers and not to the British PM (Harold Wilson back then).
In his excellent book, Monarchy & The End of Empire, professor Philip Murphy reveals the extent to which the British government actively discouraged ex-colonies from hanging on to the trappings of royalty during this period. All over the old empire, the Commonwealth Relations Office (yet to merge with the Foreign Office) tried to persuade the founding fathers of independence to adopt a presidential system from the start. Not only was it less messy constitutionally, it also spared the Queen the indignity of being given the boot later on.
The situation was more complicated in the Caribbean after the collapse of the fledgling federation of the West Indies in the early Sixties. The islands wanted to go it alone, but with the ultimate symbol of stability. So, with the exception of Dominica, the whole lot chose to retain the Crown. Just two, Trinidad and Guyana, later opted to be a republic. Now that Barbados has joined them, will this start a chain reaction among the neighbours? That depends on three things: timing, personality and constitution.
Not every realm is a one-party state with a leader of Mottley’s calibre. And not all leaders enjoy the same constitutional leeway. All eyes are on Jamaica which has been talking about removing the Crown for years. Writing my last book, I found a telegram from the British High Commissioner, John Hennings, to the Foreign Secretary ahead of the Queen’s visit in 1975. That would be her ‘last’ as Sovereign, he declared. Nearly half a century later, the Jamaican constitution requires a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament plus a referendum to shift her. And, unlike Barbados, Jamaican politics is a two-party affair.
It’s a similar story in St Vincent and the Grenadines (which includes Mustique). To eject the Queen there also requires a referendum. Twelve years ago, the socialist prime minister, ‘Comrade’ Ralph Gonsalves, held a vote on the Queen in the very week that she was in the Caribbean for the 2009 Commonwealth summit in Trinidad. Much to his surprise, the people voted 55/45 to stick with the Crown.
And therein lies the problem for so many republicans: the voters. The Australian political and media establishments were gobsmacked when the people were offered an Ozzie president in 1999 and rejected the idea. Tiny Tuvalu did the same in 2008. In each case, it was not a personal vote for the Queen. It was the fact that a neutral Crown, represented by a locally-born Governor-General, was deemed a safer bet than yet another politician.
I have no doubt that in the reign of King Charles, we’ll see more ceremonies like this week’s event in Bridgetown. There will be nothing personal about it. Some nations will view it as a piece of overdue historic housekeeping. Others will maintain the status quo. The current consensus, for example, is that Australia will probably go and that Canada will probably not.
The only royal concern will be that it is done democratically and with good grace. The monarchy has never been about ‘clinging on’. If it was, then this has been one hell of a cling.