At midnight tonight, under floodlights and a balmy Caribbean sky, the Prince of Wales will be guest of honour as one of the world’s smaller democracies formally severs its connections with the Crown and proclaims itself the republic of Barbados.
As of tomorrow morning, soldiers, police officers, judges, civil servants and all the other apparatus of state in what many regard as the ‘most British’ of the Caribbean nations (some still call it ‘Little England’) will no longer owe allegiance to the Queen.
They will, instead, be answerable to Dame Sandra Mason, a highly-respected 72-year-old judge who becomes the country’s first president.
The average Barbadian will be hard-pushed to notice any difference — for the time being, at any rate. There will be no change to the currency (the Monarch came off the bank notes years ago) and the post boxes will remain the same shade of red.
Yan Xiusheng: Chinese Ambassador to Barbados, Dame Sandra Mason: Governor General of Barbados and Mia Amor Mottley: Prime Minister of Barbados
Besides, for the past three years, Dame Sandra has been the Queen’s representative anyway. At midnight tonight, in a sort of constitutional Cinderella moment, she simply switches from Governor-General to President on the stroke of 12.
Barbados remains as committed as ever to the Commonwealth and continues to recognise the Queen as its Head. A nation that has been fully autonomous since it received independence from Britain in 1966 will be no freer tomorrow morning.
So what’s the big deal? It is, in fact, a significant moment on several levels. For the Monarchy, it is a sign that the Crown’s days could be numbered elsewhere, whether the people want it or not.
For, despite attempts by some on Twitter to paint this as some sort of Braveheart moment, the voters of Barbados have had no say in ejecting the Queen.
The decision has been handed down by the country’s Labour prime minister, Mia Mottley, and rubber-stamped by a parliament in which she controls 29 out of 30 seats. No referendum was deemed necessary.
Britain’s Charles, Prince of Wales, greets Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley ahead of their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland
Nor have the people voted for the new president. Again, the politicians have decided that for them. It’s not exactly Barbexit.
All the indications are that most people are content with the idea of a republic. Nor has it made any difference to Barbadians’ deep, personal affection for the Queen or for her successor.
The fact Prince Charles is the guest of honour at tonight’s ceremony — where he will receive the highest honour in the country’s new republican honours system — is proof of that.
The Prince is expected to tell his hosts: ‘It was important to me that I should join you to reaffirm those things which do not change,’ citing both shared values and love of Commonwealth.
Rather, the change is a reflection of multiple factors across the region. These include a new strand of identity politics in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and demands that Britain pay reparations for the horrors of the slave trade on which Barbados was founded.
Another is Britain’s lamentable handling of the Windrush scandal.
Queen Elizabeth ll is greeted by the public during a walkabout in Barbados on November 01, 1977 in Barbados
That blameless elderly Caribbean migrants faced deportation from Britain thanks to a bovine ‘computer says no’ policy at the Home Office has, understandably, caused deep offence.
However, this week’s big event is illustrative of a more fundamental issue. There is a new imperial powerhouse in the Caribbean: China.
Shiny new cricket stadia and hotel developments are all sprouting, courtesy of Beijing.
Just last week, China announced it was building a $274 million ring-road for Jamaica’s second city, Montego Bay.
The Duke and Duchess of Cornwall make their way to the morning service at St Mary Magdalene Church at Sandringham, Norfolk, on Sunday
Prince Charles (pictured visiting Bridgetown in Barbados in 2019) is expected to fly out to Barbados to attend the transition of a realm to a republic ceremony
Announcing the deal, its Chinese ambassador, Tian Qi, issued the usual platitudes about ‘greener development’, before telling Jamaicans: ‘To get rich, build roads first.’ By contrast, Britain’s promise to spend £2.8 million on marine research in 17 small island states across the Caribbean and Pacific does not cut much mustard.
In other words, places such as Barbados are moving on. This week’s constitutional switch is certainly a big moment for Mia Mottley, one of the most impressive politicians in the region.
I was in Glasgow the other day to see her address the world leaders at the Cop 26 climate change summit and she delivered a belter that brought the house down.
‘What must we say to our people, living on the frontline?’ she demanded. ‘What excuse should we give for the failure? When will leaders lead? Our people are watching, and our people are taking note.’
It led to renewed praise for her as a ‘rock star’ politician across the Caribbean, though she was careful not to point the finger at the biggest polluter on the planet. Given that China has invested a reported $490 million in Barbados, it would have been unwise.
Just days before the start of the pandemic, Barbados signed a new Memorandum of Understanding, making the country a new member of China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, enjoying new benefits in ‘shipping, aviation, infrastructure and modern agriculture’.
There is, of course, no such thing as a free lunch. The debts for the country’s new Chinese buses, buildings, roads and hotel complexes must be repaid in some way.
Miss Mottley does not welcome questions on this issue or, indeed, on the new constitutional model.
Despite repeated requests over the past ten days by phone and email for an interview with a government representative, either in Bridgetown or London, I have been told that no one is available to speak to me.
David Denny, general secretary of campaign group Caribbean Movement for Peace and Integration, said it was ‘not just about money, it’s about an apology and help’
When one UK journalist did manage to broach the subject with the prime minister in Barbados a week ago, the response was a thinly-veiled charge of racism.
It was ‘a reflection of unconscious bias’, Miss Mottley told the Sunday Times, to question the country’s links with China: ‘It suggests we can only exist as pawns of someone and if it is not the British empire it must be the Chinese empire.’
At Westminster, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs select committee, Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, sees the end of the monarchy as emblematic of a broader direction of travel. ‘Of course, it’s right if Barbados wants to have a Barbadian head of state then it should have one.
‘That should make no difference to Britain and Barbados being best of friends as I believe we have been during the 55 years since independence,’ he says.
‘But be under no illusion that China is pumping all this money into the Caribbean out of the goodness of its heart. I see it as a slow, long-term erosion of democracy. From China’s perspective, removing the Queen is a symbolic success that will encourage greater efforts.’
One of the country’s most distinguished residents, Sir Sonny Ramphal, is in all favour, saying: ‘This is not a revolutionary moment but an evolutionary moment and it’s being done with great dignity and without rancour.’
In 2019, Prince Charles (pictured with Lionel Richie) kicked off the Barbados leg his 12-day tour of the Caribbean
The former secretary-general and elder statesman of the Commonwealth points out that Barbados remains both a parliamentary democracy and a key Commonwealth player.
‘That’s why, of all people, the Queen will be the least fussed about this,’ he tells me. And Sir Sonny knows the Queen well.
However, there are still plenty of people who will not be celebrating. They may well support a republic but they feel that the people have had no say.
‘A referendum would have been great or, at the very least, some sort of proper consultation,’ says Verla de Peiza, 50, a prominent attorney and new leader of the Democratic Labour Party, which ruled Barbados until Miss Mottley took charge in 2018.
‘We were promised an electoral college to discuss a new constitution. There’s been nothing of the sort.’
One of the most vocal advocates
for a referendum is Dr Ronnie Yearwood, 42, a lecturer in law at the University of the West Indies, the alma mater of the new president. He is passionate about Barbados being a republic but not in this way.
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Barbados during the Royal Tour of the Caribbean in 1966
‘There was no clamour on the streets for this,’ he says. ‘But if you criticise this process, or ask for a referendum you are accused of being anti-republic. The government says “look at Brexit” as if it’s a bad thing when the people have their say. This could have been a beautiful moment but it feels very flat.’
Miss Mottley’s supporters argue that the issue was debated years ago anyway and that this is just unfinished business.
It is easy to see why she might have been nervous about letting any pesky voters get involved. This is the first time in nearly 30 years that the Queen has been (metaphorically) dethroned, the last being Mauritius in 1992.
Since then, three of her realms have held a popular vote, starting with Australia in 1999, followed by the Pacific state of Tuvalu in 2008 and, thirdly Barbados’s neighbour St Vincent & the Grenadines in 2009. On each occasion, the politicians told the people that it was time to seize their ‘destiny’ and replace the Queen.
The transition will see Dame Sandra Mason replaces the Queen as head of state on the country’s 55th anniversary of independence
On each occasion, the people said: ‘No thanks.’ All things being equal, they saw the Crown as a trusted counterbalance to the politicians.
The irony is that while the British Government may have neglected relations with the Caribbean over the years, one institution that has not done so is the Monarchy.
Royal visits been regular and well-received. I have seen a few of them, both with the Queen and the Prince of Wales.
In the past five years in Barbados alone, the Prince’s Trust International has helped more than 2,000 young Barbadians find employment, set up businesses or get professional training.
And when the time came to honour the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush generation in the UK, who held the party in their honour? It was not the British Government but the Prince of Wales.
However, unlike Beijing, he has yet to build a ring road or a cricket stadium.
Barbados: The country’s colonial history
The Sugar Revolution, the introduction of sugar cane from Dutch Brazil, in the 1640s was highly lucrative but came at great social cost
Barbados was one of the oldest English settlements in the West Indies, being surpassed only by Saint Kitts.
The countries’ historical ties date back to the 17th century and involve settlement, post-colonialism and modern bilateral relations.
Since Barbados gained its independence in 1966, the nations have continued to share ties through the Commonwealth, with the Queen as Monarch.
The Barbadian Parliament is the third oldest in the entire Commonwealth and the island continues to practice the Westminster style of government.
Many of the historic Anglican churches and plantation houses across the island show the influence of English architecture.
In 1627, 80 Englishmen aboard the William and John landed on the Caribbean island and founded Jamestown (close to today’s Holetown), in the name of King James I.
The early settlers struggled to develop a profitable export crop and faced difficulties in maintaining supplies from Europe.
However, the Sugar Revolution, the introduction of sugar cane from Dutch Brazil, in the 1640s was highly lucrative and over the next decade more than two thirds of English emigres to the Americas went to Barbados.
But while this shift to sugar yielded huge profits, it came at a great social cost. Thousands of West African slaves were shipped across the Atlantic to work the plantations and workers suffered from low wages and minimal social services.
It is estimated that between 1627 to 1807, some 387,000 Africans were shipped to the island against their will and the country shifted from having a majority white population to a majority black population.
On 28th August 1833, the British Government passed the Slavery Abolition Act, and slaves across the British empire were granted emancipation.
Barbados remained a British colony until internal autonomy was granted in 1961.
The country became fully independent on November 30, 1966, during a time when the country’s economy was expanding and diversifying.
Since then, the Barbadian Parliament has remained a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, which is modelled on the British Westminster system of government.
In 2008, British exports to Barbados stood at £38 million, making it Britain’s fourth-largest export market in the region.
In recent years a growing number of British nationals have been relocating to Barbados to live, with polls showing that British nationals make up 75–85 per cent of the Barbados second home market.