It’s easy to forget, now that the sun is almost all the way set on the British empire, but the tentacles of the country’s royal family continue to slither over its former colonies. Twenty-nine years ago was the last time one of them, Mauritius, brushed off the residue of imperial control and became a republic, making its new president its head of state, instead of the British Queen. This week, Barbados finally did so too.
Barbados hasn’t won independence; that already happened in 1966. That victory had been the culmination of a series of political reforms that granted the island self-governance by the start of the decade, won by many years worth of labor rebellions and mass struggle shaped by the ideas of socialists and black nationalists, and mirrored by similar struggles happening across the Caribbean at the time. Even so, like many former British colonies, in the intervening decades Barbados kept the symbolic trappings of monarchy, never fully cutting the cord.
But the option had always been on the table. A 1979 constitutional commission, pointing in part to “the measure of support evinced at public meetings for the retention” of the monarchy, recommended that the Queen stay in her position as head of state. Practically, this didn’t mean much. Most visibly, it meant the continued existence of the governor-general, the Queen’s official representative, and a key role in the somewhat absurd constitutional Kabuki theater familiar to those former British colonies that have never gone all the way and become republics.
Officially, a governor-general, appointed by the Queen on the advice of whoever is prime minister, carries out Her Majesty’s constitutional duties: appointing the prime minister after an election, appointing the cabinet and judges on the prime minister’s advice, giving assent to bills passed by parliament in order to officially make them law, and (in Barbados) appointing a third of the senate, among others. In practice, this is all understood as pantomime, with the governor-general a symbolic rubber stamp for the actions of the country’s elected officials and its voters.
In arguing to keep the system as is, the 1979 commission pointed to a number of factors beyond Barbadians’ loyalty to the Queen: that she would be a neutral figure above local political squabbles, that Barbados needed “further social and political maturity,” that as a small country it would benefit from continued ties with a larger one. Looking out at the region’s political turbulence at the time, the existing arrangement was viewed as a stabilizing anchor.
There were also geopolitical concerns. Pointing to arguments that saw the monarch as preserving Barbadian democracy, the commission noted that “the prospect of a one-party state, or perhaps a communist system of government, is a specter perpetually haunting the corridors of power.” This was a decade where both Cuba and the Soviet Union moved to improve relations with Caribbean island nations, who were then still trying to shake off Western influence over their economies and politics and take national ownership of their own resources.
Nineteen years later, the next time a constitutional commission took a crack at the question, this had changed. “This time, with very few exceptions, the overwhelming preference was for a system of government in which a president would replace the Queen as the Barbadian head of state,” stated its report, which now recommended finally pulling the trigger.
Those in favor argued the head of state should be democratically elected and a citizen of Barbados, stated the report, and so would inspire greater unity and patriotism. They also pointed to “notions of snobbishness and an inflexible social hierarchy” implied by the monarchy, as well as the colonial overtones that “hardly represents the reality of Barbados today.”
Still, little happened for another two decades. A referendum on the question was officially endorsed in 2005 and planned for three years later, but never happened. More significantly, in 2005, Barbados switched its highest court of appeal — roughly the equivalent of the US Supreme Court — from the Privy Council in London to the Caribbean Court of Justice located in Trinidad and Tobago, an assertion of its independence with both real-world and symbolic impact.
The Whitlam Precedent
But perhaps there were advantages to dragging their feet on making it official — and perhaps the governor-general was more than the ceremonial figurehead that the pro-monarchy voices insisted. As the 1998 commission noted, “the Crown has a reserve role in the system, in that it can act as a final check on political excesses by using its power to ‘advise’ on the timing or propriety of a request by the government for a dissolution of parliament.” Pointing to the infamous 1975 dismissal of left-wing Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam by his country’s governor-general, the commission called the Queen an “essential bulwark of our freedom under the law.”
In truth, the Australian episode was an alarming case study of the dangers of keeping such a system in place. In the three short years he was allowed to be prime minister, Whitlam had passed a raft of vital reforms, including universal health care, free higher education, and an expansion of welfare, all while antagonizing the Washington establishment by withdrawing from Vietnam and other actions. These choices were looked upon so unfavorably that the UK’s MI6 spy service began bugging his cabinet meetings on the CIA’s behalf.
The end result was a soft coup that centered on the unique role of the governor-general, then filled by John Kerr. Embarking on the kind of parliamentary obstructionism that American readers are familiar with, the Australian right engineered a constitutional crisis by refusing to take the routine step of keeping the government funded.
On this pretext, Kerr — who we now know was conferring with Whitlam’s opposition, in touch with the Queen’s secretary throughout, and was being urged on by a CIA who considered him “our man” — dismissed Whitlam from the prime minister’s post and dissolved parliament, leading to protests and strikes. In the elections that followed, the country’s conservatives won in a landslide. Contrary to the Barbadian commissions’ belief the monarchy would be a stabilizing force, in Australia it proved anything but.
Nothing like this explains why Barbados finally took the step it did. The Whitlam dismissal is an exceptional case, not just in Australia, but in Britain’s former colonies more generally. And the Queen was only one in a confluence of factors that led to the infamous moment. But a factor it was, and reading the now-released correspondence between Kerr and Buckingham palace, we know the Queen was aware of Kerr’s intentions, and that her secretary’s advice was pivotal in his decision to act.
With the Whitlam case in mind, if you’re among the millions who still live under the Queen’s supposedly “symbolic” auspices, it’s hard not to see an institution like the governor-general as a political Chekhov’s gun, the imperial version of a fire alarm behind glass to be broken in case of emergency, never to be used unless exceptional circumstances call for it.
Just as the 1998 commission said, in Australia, the Queen was a “check on political excesses.” In Whitlam’s case, those excesses were passing a suite of social democratic reforms and trying to carve a foreign policy independent from the Westminster-Washington nexus. Faced with this, a symbolic, ceremonial position suddenly hardened into a very real instrument of colonial tyranny. It’s a lesson that shouldn’t be lost on the many former colonies far smaller than Australia that still call the Queen their head of state.
From One Empire to Another
Barbados is, fortunately, now free of this dreadful potential. But it doesn’t mean it’s free of imperial influence. Like other Caribbean countries, Barbados threw off its colonial shackles in the 1960s only to find that empire had many forms. The impoverished country went into debt to the London Stock Exchange at the same time it was winning its independence from the UK, having never been compensated for the wealth brutally siphoned from it over hundreds of years. Ongoing economic shocks and attempts to deal with them over the decades — notably, by borrowing money to fund the infrastructure to develop its tourism sector after a collapse in sugar prices during the 1970s — lifted that debt to nearly $8 billion by 2017, or 155 percent of GDP, the highest in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The result has been a decades-long, seemingly endless debt cycle, with Barbados turning to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank to pay down its debt, and those institutions instituting strict conditions on how the money is spent, involving endless neoliberal “reforms.” In 2018, that meant laying off fifteen hundred government workers, privatizing state-owned enterprises, granting the Central Bank of Barbados more autonomy while limiting its financing to the government, and slashing corporate tax rates from 25 percent to between 1 and 5.5 percent. A further shock wrought by the pandemic meant another IMF loan, and the opening to more austerity to come.
Barbados has taken an important step to making its independence concrete, a step rich with symbolic meaning, and as the Whitlam case reminds us, potential practical significance. More countries will hopefully follow its lead, and it seems some already are. But nations like Barbados will never truly be able to take charge of their own destinies so long as we forget that colonial domination can take many forms — sometimes the business end of a rifle, sometimes a handshake and a loan.