By Sir Ronald Sanders
Of all the fanciful reasons imputed to the decision of the government to make Barbados a Republic, shedding its monarchical status with Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State, the most surprising has come from the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British House of Commons, Tom Tugendhat.
The Foreign Affairs Committee, comprised of parliamentarians from all political parties in the House, is a serious body. It has produced important and influential reports in the past. Therefore, when its chairman makes a statement, it would be imprudent just to dismiss it.
‘The Times’ newspaper quoted him as saying on September 23, eight days after the Barbados government’s decision was declared: “China has been using infrastructure investment and debt diplomacy as a means of control for a while and it’s coming closer to home for us. British partners have long faced challenges from rivals seeking to undermine our alliance. Today we’re seeing it in the Caribbean. Some islands seem to be close to swapping a symbolic Queen in Windsor for a real and demanding emperor in Beijing.”
As head of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tugendhat should have been better informed. The Barbados government was no more influenced by China to change its status to a Republic, than it was under pressure by the British government to continue to share Queen Elizabeth as the Head of the two separate realms.
It is unfortunate that some in the international community regard small states as inexpert, seeing them as ready objects of manipulation by big powers through either coercion or enticements. Thus, the presence of China in the Caribbean, where it has made investments that have aided economic development, is characterised as “a means of control”, as Tugendhat puts it.
Discounted altogether is that, in many Caribbean countries, China has given much-needed loans and grants when others have been significant by their absence, or where, by their presence, they institute unhelpful policies of ‘blacklisting’ countries without consultation, or blocking much-needed loans from international financial institutions on criteria that takes no account of the vulnerability of small states.
Do loans translate into coercive influence over small Caribbean states? The answer is unreservedly no. Loans must be repaid, including Chinese ones whose main attraction is their longer repayment periods and lower interest rates. If their rivals met their terms, competition would win out.
In any event, amid the COVID-19 crisis, China has shown no desire to forgive debt or to defer interest payments to give developing countries more breathing space. However, unlike the members of the Paris Club of official creditors (mostly G7 countries), China has deferred principal payments on loans.
If anything, it is other powerful states that provide space for China in the Caribbean by not offering money on competitive terms and by refusing to support issues that are vitally important to Caribbean States. Among those issues are curbing Climate Change, promoting debt forgiveness in the epoch of COVID-19, and removing the skewed criteria of per capita income that prohibits many Caribbean countries from access to concessionary loans.
Whether large and powerful nations accept it or not, governments of small states are not vassals; in making foreign policy and domestic decisions, they make them in the context of what is in their best interest. That choice may result in upsetting one or other of powerful rival states, but it would be wrong for them to believe that Caribbean governments are incapable of making reasoned decisions in their country’s interests.
On other comments made about the Barbados’ wish to proceed to Republican status, should it do so it will not cease to be a member of the Commonwealth of Nations which stopped being “British” in 1949 on the independence of India and Pakistan and their becoming Republics.
At that time, it was accepted that the British Crown would be the “Head of the Commonwealth” and, as such, “the symbol of the voluntary association” of its members. Of the 54 member states of the Commonwealth, 31 are Republics.
There also appears to be a perception that, in swearing allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II in Barbados and other Caribbean countries, fealty is being sworn to the Queen of the United Kingdom. This is not so. The Queen is head of state of each of her realms separately. So, in each country when the oath of allegiance is made, it is to the sovereign as head of that state only.
Another point worth making is that if, in becoming a Republic, the choice is made for a non-executive president (as was recommended by a Constitutional Commission headed by Sir Henry Forde in 1998), no change in the system of government will occur in Barbados or any other county that follows that pattern.
The decision of the Barbados government, which has been in contemplation for 17 years, resides in one overarching consideration. It is this: the people of Barbados have a right to decide that their Head of State should be a symbol of their nation – someone who is from, and of the country, who lives within it, who shares its challenges and its benefits and who encompasses their common identity. That decision has not one jot to do with external influences. It is simply a national conclusion whose time has come, logically, emotionally, and intellectually.
Will other Caribbean monarchical states do the same? Highly likely they will, for the same important reason that motivates Barbados. But because their constitutions, unlike Barbados’, requires them to hold a referendum in which the majority of the electorate vote in favour (and they have to obtain a two-thirds majority vote in the elected House), the political parties – in government and opposition – have to agree to proceed.
More importantly, they will have to jointly explain the implications to the people, or political rivalry and distrust of politicians will defer the change. Unless they do so, “God Save the Queen/King” may still be sung alongside the national anthems of remaining Caribbean realms for another decade.