It would appear as if the aspirations of those seemingly very few of us who harbour “high hopes” of our nation assuming formal constitutional republican status in our fiftieth year of independent statehood have been dashed by the recent prime ministerial announcement that there is the likelihood of a Royal visit in November this year. Of course, there may well be those constant “republicans” who will hopefully view this as indicative confirmation of a break with the British monarchy, and liken the proposed visit to that of the royal couple who attended our first Independence ceremony in 1966.
There may be some force in this reasoning. After all, the visit of British [I assume] royalty to our fiftieth anniversary celebration of a break from Britain does seem particularly incongruous, but I prefer to err with the view that this may simply be good old Barbadian hospitality and, since the royal family is the bloodline in which our executive authority formally resides currently, it would be bad manners not to invite its representation at our jubilee celebrations.
In other words, the announcement was, if nothing else, decidedly cryptic, and more so given the occasion and audience. So I shall continue my musings today on the likelihood of our becoming a constitutional republic, much, maybe, like the ant in the song… that thought that he could move a rubber tree plant. Fortunately, my sentiment for the change does not depend on mere political whimsy.
As I noted in this space last week, a significant amount of the opposition to “Republicanism” –I use the capital R advisedly, as will become apparent later- is owed to partisan political sentiment, and I refer to both of the occasions on which the respective parties touted the notion. This apart, there may be a few who are still wedded to the phenomenon of monarchy, although not a localized version of the concept that would, in any event, contravene our constitutional ethos of egalitarianism.
However, there are also those who simply have no idea of what republicanism means, and do not care to find out. Simply put, it is a form of governance where supreme power resides in the people and is exercised through their elected representatives in accordance with law. Thus republicanism is clearly our current practical reality; all that is needed –what I call the irreducible minimum- to achieve the formal Constitutional process of “Republicanism” is the express location of formal executive authority under the Constitution in a native head of state.
Nonetheless, the amalgamation of these various dissenting groups does present formidable numerical, if scarcely rational, opposition to the process. When their counter is not premised on the minutiae of appointing the local executive authority –will he or she be elected or selected? By whom or what? For how long? -; there is the issue of timing and prioritization –not now in our current economic state; not with this Government; not before everyone has a guaranteed reliable supply of running water in his or her household; not yet; the financial costs –of altering the names of places and institutions; of creating new letterheads; and of changing legislative documents and contracts, [one wag even suggested we would have to renegotiate ratified treaties]. In respect of this last, one recalls Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic – “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.
One argument that merits some consideration, however, is that of subjecting the entire process to a referendum. While this proposition may be, at first blush, irrefutable in the interest of direct democracy, there are, nevertheless, some factors that may substantially relegate this to a head count of opposition rather than it becoming the reasoned sophisticated conclusion that should attend our public affairs.
For instance, the question should be precisely put so as to avoid misunderstanding but, as some of us are aware, a question is not asked in a vacuum, but exists, rather, in a cloud of assumptions and (mis)understandings. In this regard, an apparently simple referendum such as “Should Barbados become a republic? Yes or No” could easily be converted into one of those questions in Latin that suggests the answer by the first word used. Presumably, most of those in favour of the change to formal status will vote “Yes”, although there may be some who would consider the question nonsensical since we are already a republic by convention.
However, the question appears predisposed to dissent, whether this is based on personal opposition to the idea, politically partisan sentiment because of the identity and propaganda of the proponents or opponents; sheer ignorance of the concept proposed; or merely the way in which the reference is formulated.
It may be argued that the general election process is not much different, but that, at least, is demanded by constitutional fiat. The referendum is not now part of our constitutional architecture and, always, the question begs asking, which political measures should be rendered subject to this process?
In the context of government, for examples, Independence was not, at least formally; accession to the Caribbean Court of Justice was not; and the existence and configuration of the Senate were not. Should we include then all taxation proposals; ambassadorial appointments; what should be taught at UWI; and which historical sites should be considered apt for preservation….?
A quotation from a former British politician on referenda is instructive. According to him, after making reference to their use by Hitler and Mussolini, “ I think referendums are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system…on the whole, governments only concede them when governments are weak…”