Legend has it that in the summer of 1787, a crowd of US citizens gathered around Independence Hall in Philadelphia to learn what type of government their representatives had formed for the new nation. When Benjamin Franklin walked out of the convention, a lady known as Mrs. Powel could wait no longer. She approached Franklin and asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got…a republic or a monarchy?” It is alleged that Franklin turned to her and said, “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”
It would be equally intriguing to have heard the response were the identical question posed to those who represented Barbados at the Independence conference in Britain in 1966. Or even if one were to ask the members of the current governing administration what form of government we currently have. In keeping with the local wisdom, I suppose that the answer probably would have been then, as now, “a constitutional monarchy”.
Yet this answer is arguably somewhat anomalous. To the extent that we maintain a foreign monarch, and not a prince, an emir or a sultan, as the residuary of our executive authority according to the Constitution, then one might indeed argue with some force that we have a monarchy and not a principality, an emirate or a sultanate. Still, it must be conceded that we have no influence whatsoever in who that monarch may be or over which bloodline should be so accredited.
Moreover, the notion of monarchy, a merely fortunate accident of birth, religion, and, until recently, gender, is anathema to our constitutional ethos that emphasizes the equality of each individual. After all, we did solemnly declare, at paragraph (c) of the preamble to our Constitution, our intention “to establish and maintain a society in which all persons may, to the full extent of their capacity, play a due part in the institutions of the national life…” The idea of royalty is repugnant to this. And the express guarantee of protection from discriminatory treatment in section 23 merely juridifies and concretizes this principle.
Too besides, as is rightfully observed by some in their arguments for retaining the status quo, the current monarch, the Queen of the United Kingdom, has never interfered in the local affairs of state. So although we may formally be a Constitutional Monarchy, [note the capital “C”; because that is what the document provides] we may be, by practice and convention, a constitutional republic [since, in substance, governmental power remains with the people through their elected representatives] that makes its own policy decisions without reference to the monarch at all, or even her constitutional representative, on most occasions. Indeed, on a logical extension of that thesis, we may be more accurately described as a “constitutional Cabinet-ruled democracy”, since that body exercises full executive power except in those very few cases where the Governor General, as the Queen’s representative, is permitted to act in his or her own discretion –see section 32 of the Constitution.
The issue of “should we become a republic or not?”, as it is put, has, true to local tradition, once more raised its head in the domain of public discourse. We note that seldom is anything satisfactorily resolved in these parts; an issue comes up, there is extensive discussion or placement of the contending opinions by the local chatterati and literati, and then it suffers a natural death only to be resurrected at some future date with the identical process being iterated ad nauseam.
And while this does provide ample fodder for the local social commentators, it scarcely equates to effective policy. The impression appears to be that the respective governing administrations generally perceive the national divide, discount thereby any notion of electoral advantage in changing the status quo, and choose to remain inert. The catalogue is long –corporal punishment, capital punishment, race relations, freedom of sexual orientation, co-education, the current and future roles of workers’ organizations, religious entitlement, the justice system…
It may all be owed to our intrinsic and irrational fear of change. At times, this has served to gain us a reputation for caution and levelheadedness. However, this compliment has come at the cost of progress in a number of areas, even as we remain besotted with a nostalgic longing for some aspects of a selective past.
On this basis, it should come as no surprise that the majority local opinion appears firmly opposed to the notion of Constitutional republicanism for Barbados, even though the irreducible minimum of that exercise is merely the replacement of the British monarch as head of state. As some were opposed to Barbados becoming independent as a unitary state, and some to any form of independence at all, it is reasonably to be expected that there would be substantial opposition now.
Before we assess the cogency of this negative opinion, it bears remarking that discussion of the matter at this time, though unarguably intriguing, might be purely hypothetical, given the contrasting noises in the public domain about the official intention. While the foreign [mainly British] press had reported sometime ago that the governing administration was diligently seeking to replace Her Majesty as the repository of local executive authority to coincide with the celebration of our golden jubilee of the attainment of independence , this report has been recently dismissed as being without foundation, notably by a senior public officer. Nonetheless, the public discourse continues unabated.
It appears that the major opposition to the idea of republicanism is rooted now, as it was formerly, in partisan political opinion, and it is a delicious irony that the current governing administration and its supporters were once vehemently against the idea when it was first proposed by the last or an earlier Owen Arthur-led Barbados Labour Party administration. I was then, as I remain now, in vocal support of the idea, and I recall a lengthy telephone conversation with the late Prime Minister David Thompson in which we discussed quite amicably the constitutional and political implications, merits and demerits of the proposed change.
This apart, it may be a weakness that the main thrust of the arguments for the change is located at the intellectual level -a veritable non-starter in a patently materialist environment. Hence, the bedrock of many of the opposing arguments is founded on the substantial financial costs of the change, the unlikelihood of its economic advantage and, from far out of left field, its probable negative implications for our tourism trade from out of Britain.
In such a context, arguments such as those raised above as to the anomaly of our constitutional realities; the psychological uplift that comes from being truly divorced from our former sovereign governors; and the moral compulsion of the domestic location of all our state powers -legislative, judicial and executive- will, of course, gain little purchase in a society that is figuratively “catching its nennen”, so far as its economy is concerned.
I recall a fitting excerpt from one of Sir Terry Pratchett’s novels in which a revolutionary band from a thinly disguised country is roaming the countryside in search of sympathisers to its cause. On encountering a poor farmer leading a lone cow by a short piece of string, they ask him, “What do you want, brother, what is it that you really want?” Expecting an answer such as the right to freedom of information, the enactment of integrity legislation or greater civic participation in governance, they are astounded when the peasant answers questioningly, “A longer piece of string?”
To be continued…