As Elizabeth gives way to Charles, realms consider severing ties
When Prince Edward, the youngest son of Queen Elizabeth II, visited Antigua and Barbuda in April, the country’s prime minister told him that the nation, one of 15 in which the British monarch is head of state, wished to “one day” become a republic.
After the queen’s death last week, Prime Minister Gaston Browne revealed a timeline: He plans to hold a referendum on casting off the monarchy “probably” within the next three years.
“This is not an act of hostility,” Browne told ITV News, but a “final step to complete the circle of independence.”
The passing of Elizabeth, a unifying figure more beloved than her son, King Charles III, comes as several Commonwealth realms are reassessing their relationships with the crown.
Leaders across the Commonwealth, an association of 56 nations, most of them already republics, expressed sadness over the monarch’s death. But many of those countries, former outposts of the empire, have also been engaged in a public reckoning over the legacies of colonialism, including calls for atonement, reparations and independence.
“The accession of Charles is of course putting this debate front and center: What are we doing with this British, distant, White monarch as our head of state?” said Kate Quinn, an associate professor of Caribbean history at University College London.
The remaining realms include Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Jamaica. Even before Elizabeth’s death, the debate was raging, particularly in the Caribbean, where a confluence of factors, including the Black Lives Matter movement and recent scandal over Britain’s mistreatment of migrants from the British West Indies after World War II, cast a harsh spotlight on the sins of empire.
Last November, Barbados ditched the queen as its head of state and became a republic, swearing in its first president in a ceremony at which Charles condemned the “appalling atrocity of slavery” and praised islanders for forging their new path “with extraordinary fortitude.”
Then there were this year’s royal tours.
Prince William and his wife, Catherine, visiting the Caribbean on behalf of Elizabeth on her Platinum Jubilee, were met with protests and calls for an apology and reparations for slavery. Photos of the pair riding the open-top Land Rover that Elizabeth and Prince Philip rode in 1962 echoed a colonial past.
In Jamaica, William called slavery “abhorrent,” but stopped short of apologizing. Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness told them the nation would be “moving on” from the monarchy.
(Holness remembered Elizabeth last week as a “close friend” of Jamaica and said he was praying for the people of Britain “as they grieve the loss of their beloved Queen.” Left unacknowledged: She was Queen of Jamaica, too.)
Other realms in the region have indicated interest in following Barbados’s lead. A constitutional reform commission in Belize is poised to consider, among other topics, whether the Central American nation should declare a republic.
“Within our region, there is a definite push toward bringing home the head of state,” Henry Usher, Belize’s minister of constitutional and political reform, told The Washington Post. “I think it’s important that we can’t be having a head of state that’s living thousands of miles away and is not in tune with what’s happening locally. … The rallying cry in the Caribbean is that the people are sovereign.”
Bahamas Prime Minister Philip Davis told the Nassau Guardian last week that a referendum on becoming a republic is “always on the table.” Pressed for details on the timing, a spokesman told The Post the prime minister was observing 10 days of mourning and declined further comment.
“The voices are getting louder,” Quinn said. “I think we’re in a particular historical moment where a number of factors are coalescing that could create fertile ground for the proposed changes to succeed.”
After Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, with the sun already setting on the British Empire, she and Philip embarked on a six-month tour of the Commonwealth.
Speaking on Christmas Day from Auckland, New Zealand, she said the Commonwealth was not at all like “the Empires of the past.”
“It is an entirely new conception, built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty and the desire for freedom and peace,” she said. “To that new conception of an equal partnership of nations and races I shall give my heart and soul every day of my life.”
Over the first several decades of her reign, many imperial possessions declared their independence. Several became republics.
But the end of Empire did not bring an end to the consequences of empire. Historians and advocates for reparations say inequities in wealth, education and health care in many realms are rooted in colonialism.
But severing ties with the monarchy can be easier said than done. Nearly every constitutional reform commission in the Caribbean since independence has recommended declaring republics, and leaders in several nations have pledged to do so — but have faced obstacles.
Belize can abolish the monarchy through legislation, as Barbados did, though Usher said the government plans to hold a referendum on reforms from the constitutional review. Other realms have constitutions that require the passage of a referendum — some with a simple majority; others with a supermajority.
The Gleaner, Jamaica’s national newspaper, criticized Holness’s government this week for suggesting that a referendum on the subject wouldn’t take place until the next election, in 2025.
“A referendum on any issue relatively close to a general election is likely to morph [into] a plebiscite on the government,” the newspaper editorialized, “rather than a rational pronouncement on the question at hand. That should be avoided.”
In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remembered Elizabeth last week as “one of my favorite people in the world.” She was head of state for nearly half of the country’s existence, present at seminal moments in its history. Polls show Canadians have a deep affection for her, but are cooler on Charles.
Charles and his wife, Camilla, were greeted by modest crowds in Ottawa when they visited in May. They also faced calls for an apology over the Crown’s “ongoing failure to fulfill its treaty agreements” with Indigenous peoples.
But while polls show declining support for the constitutional monarchy, the bar for declaring a republic is high: It would require a constitutional amendment backed by both houses of Parliament and all 10 provincial legislatures. Trudeau said this week that Canadians are “almost entirely” preoccupied with other issues.
Australia came close to removing the monarch as head of state a quarter-century ago and recently elected a pro-Labor government. But new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is in no rush to address the divisive issue.
After his election in May, he appointed his country’s first-ever “assistant minister for the republic,” tasked with explaining and expanding support for a referendum on declaring a republic. He has said such a vote would not come until a second term — should he win one.
Since Elizabeth’s death, Albanese has avoided the subject.
“Now is not a time to talk about our system of government,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Sunday. “Now is a time for us to pay tribute to the life of Queen Elizabeth.”
In a country known for rule-following, most republicans struck a similar tone. The few officials who went further were immediately lashed.
“I cannot mourn the leader of a racist empire built on stolen lives, land and wealth of colonized peoples,” Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi tweeted. “We are reminded of the urgency of Treaty with First Nations, justice & reparations for British colonies and becoming a republic.”
Right-wing lawmaker Pauline Hanson called for the Lahore-born Faruqi to “piss off back to Pakistan.”
Eric Abetz, chairman of the Australian Monarchist League, told The Post that Faruqi was “nearly dancing on her majesty’s grave,” and that such comments would backfire in a referendum.
The 1999 referendum failed due to schisms among republicans.
Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters it was likely that the country would become a republic in her lifetime —she’s 42 — but she didn’t believe it was “on the agenda anytime soon.”
Elizabeth’s death hasn’t yet stirred signs of republican pushes in other Pacific realms.
In the Solomon Islands, the government and opposition leaders issued statements praising the queen. In Papua New Guinea, where Elizabeth was known as “Mama Belong Big Family” and “Missis Kwin,” Prime Minister James Marape’s heartfelt eulogy hinted at difficult times ahead.
“Her Majesty was the anchor that held our country within the Commonwealth,” he wrote.
Left unsaid was what happens to a ship when its moorings snap."