Jamaica’s drift towards republicanism: Possible consequences for the Caribbean

By Dr Derek O’ Brien, 26 May 2016
Queen Elizabeth II visits Jamaica in 2002 (photo credit: Afternoon Tea)
Queen Elizabeth II visits Jamaica in 2002 (photo credit: Afternoon Tea)

Despite consensus among Jamaica’s political parties about the desirability of replacing the monarchy with a republican form of government, the need for popular approval in a referendum may ultimately thwart the initiative. Moreover, despite Jamaica’s influence in the region, differences in constitutional requirements in other countries in the region may limit the broader impact of a referendum outcome favoring republicanism – writes Derek O’ Brien.  

Jamaica’s new Government, led by the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which recently won the narrowest of majorities in the 2016 elections, has declared its intention to amend the Constitution to replace the Queen with a non-executive President as the head of state.  The JLP can reasonably expect to enjoy the support of the opposition People’s National Party (PNP) as the Bill passes through Parliament since this is exactly what the PNP promised to do when it took office back in 2011.  However, the support of the opposition, though vital if the Government is to secure the 2/3 majority it needs in both Houses of Parliament, will not be enough in and of itself. Removing the Queen will involve an amendment of one of the Constitution’s “specially entrenched” provisions and will, therefore, require, in addition, the approval of a majority of Jamaica’s citizens in a referendum.

This piece addresses two issues that will be crucial to the success or otherwise of this attempt to reform Jamaica’s Constitution. The first concerns popular attitudes towards the monarchy generally in the Caribbean region. The second concerns the difficulty of effecting constitutional amendment where it requires prior approval by a majority of citizens in a referendum.

Caribbean realms and republics

With the exception of Dominica, which was one of the last countries in the region to gain independence and the only one to do so as a republic, all of the other independent countries in the region embarked upon independence as constitutional monarchies. Such loyalty to the British Crown requires an explanation, especially in a region that had been so ravaged by the experience of slavery and where the majority of its citizens were direct descendants of those former slaves.

Incongruous as it may now seem, however, the region’s loyalty to the Crown can in fact be traced back to the era of slavery and the mistaken belief amongst many former slaves that Queen Victoria had played a crucial part in their emancipation. As a consequence, the Queen was viewed as a symbol of liberation, and colonial administrators in the nineteenth century were adept at exploiting the annual Emancipation Day celebrations to further encourage loyalty to the Crown. Even after Queen Victoria’s death, local participation in special activities designed to memorialise and celebrate the British royal family, such as Empire Day, funerals, jubilees and coronations was encouraged as a way of reinforcing veneration of the Crown.  As Anne Spry Rush has observed, “from at least the turn of the nineteenth century imperial propaganda…helped to develop in West Indians habits of mind that created strong ties of loyalty to the British monarchy”. The result was that “the British monarchy became part of the fabric of everyday life” in the Caribbean.

Aware of the popularity of the Crown and its usefulness both as a symbol of continuity and as a foundation for nation-building in the post-independence era, the region’s independence leaders, with the possible exception of radical anti-imperialists such as Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham in Guyana, were at great pains to proclaim their loyalty to the Crown. There was thus never any question when Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago became the first countries in the region to attain independence in 1962 that they would do so as constitutional monarchies. Though the Joint Select Committee that sat to consider submissions from members of the public about Jamaica’s independence Constitution received several memoranda calling for Jamaica to become a republic, and the People’s Freedom Movement argued for the inclusion of a provision in Jamaica’s independence Constitution that would allow its citizens at a later date to determine in a separate referendum the question of whether Jamaica should become a republic, such proposals were  “heard politely, but rejected unceremoniously”.

Attitudes amongst political leaders towards retaining the Crown as head of state have, however, shifted significantly since the independence era. The numerous constitutional review commissions across the region that have reported on the issue within the last two decades have been overwhelmingly in favour of abandoning constitutional monarchy in favour of republicanism. The only exception is Belize which believes that retaining the link with the Crown will ensure that Britain will come to its aid in the event of an invasion by its neighbour, Guatemala. Yet, since gaining independence, only two countries in the region have actually abandoned constitutional monarchy for republicanism - Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica having embarked on independence as a republic. The  transformation of both Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago to republicanism was motivated by a conscious rejection of the Queen as a symbol of the old colonial order.

In Guyana, the People’s National Congress (PNC), led by the anti-imperialist Forbes Burnham, had been careful to ensure that the Independence Constitution included a provision for Guyana to become a republic if the National Assembly should so resolve by a majority vote of all its elected members after 1 January 1969. Having won an outright victory in the elections of 1968, the PNC wasted no time in implementing this provision, which they considered to be a crucial step in achieving meaningful decolonisation. As the then Minister for Information explained:

The British Crown is the symbolic head of Great Britain and it is from that country that we have struggled so long for our independence. It may be that some, very few, among us still accord to the British Crown a position of high idealism. But I cannot recall the British Crown successfully raising its voice in a public forum against British colonialism imposed upon millions of us across the world who now struggle to make our way as independent peoples. The fact that the British Crown today does not control the decisions of the British Government hardly seems an argument in favour of our retaining allegiance, however symbolic that allegiance may be.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the transformation to republicanism was, in no small part, a response to the Black Power Movement, which swept across the region in the late 1960s and early 1970s, demanding a decisive break with the “historically white and racist imperial past”. Following the so-called “February Revolution” in 1970, orchestrated by the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC), in which a number of protesters lost their lives and a number of NJAC leaders were arrested and imprisoned, the Prime Minister, Eric Williams, established a Constitutional Review Commission to review the country’s 1962 independence Constitution and to make recommendations for its reform. Though the Commission made numerous recommendations for reform, one of the very few actually to be implemented was a proposal that Trinidad and Tobago should become a republic with a President as head of state. In the Commission’s view:

[This] is no more than an expression of the fact that independence must involve the creation of indigenous symbols of nationhood. Among young people in particular the British Sovereign has no symbolic meaning. The thrust since Independence has been towards the discovery of a new identity which involves leaving behind the colonial heritage of subjection, imitation and external dependence. The oath which the Governor-General now takes on assuming office brings the problem sharply into focus. He swears to be faithful and bear true allegiance to HM the Queen. To most ears this is anachronistic. His oath quite obviously should be faithfully to serve the people of Trinidad and Tobago and to defend and uphold its Constitution.

Accordingly, when Trinidad and Tobago adopted a new Constitution in 1976, it made provision for a presidential head of state, elected by an electoral college comprising all of the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Constitutional review proposals for a Jamaican “Republic” 

Unlike the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, few other governments in the region have even attempted to follow up on the recommendation of their constitutional review commissions to replace the Queen with a President. This is in part because in many countries, as in Jamaica, such a constitutional amendment would require prior approval in a referendum. But even where a referendum is not expressly required by the constitution, a government may be reluctant to effect such a fundamental constitutional reform without the mandate afforded by a plebiscite of its citizens.

This has been the case in Barbados where, despite the recommendation of its 1998 Constitutional Review Commission that Barbados should become a republic, the Government decided that, even though it could easily have attained the 2/3 legislative majority in both Houses of Parliament, which is all that is required by the Constitution, it could only effect such a fundamental reform following approval in a referendum. A Referendum Act was introduced in 2005 and a date was fixed for the referendum to coincide with the general election in 2008.  In the event, however, the referendum was not held in 2008 and has been deferred by successive governments ever since. The ruling Democratic Labour Party has, however, recently announced plans to proceed, without holding a referendum, to introduce legislation to replace the Queen to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Barbados's independence in November 2016 and that legislation is currently making its way through Parliament.

Such an option is not open to Jamaica and victory for the JLP in a referendum to replace the Queen is by no means assured. This is, in part, because there has been no reliable poll on popular attitudes towards the Queen in Jamaica. It is also, in part, to do with the region’s “amendment culture”. In the four constitutionally mandated referendums that have been held in the post-independence era - in Guyana, Nevis, the Bahamas, and St Vincent and the Grenadines - only one has been won by the government and that was the referendum held in Guyana in 1978, which is widely believed to have been rigged. The most recent referendum held in St Vincent and the Grenadines in 2009 is of particular interest here since amongst the proposals included in the Constitutional Reform Bill that was put to voters in the referendum was a recommendation that the Queen should be replaced by an elected President as head of State. Despite enjoying the support of the government, the Constitutional Reform Bill was rejected by 55% of voters in the referendum. It is, of course, possible that St Vincentians rejected the Bill because they did not approve of the other reforms that were being proposed, but their rejection of a Bill that the Government had worked so hard to promote must be worrying for other governments in the region that need the support of voters in a referendum in order to effect constitutional reform.


The argument that the Queen is an anachronism and a residual symbol of a colonial order that ought long since to have been excised from the region’s independence constitutions is compelling. As the distinguished Caribbean constitutional scholar, the late Simeon McIntosh, has observed, for so long as the Queen remains as head of state:

We purport to define ourselves as a political community in terms of our links to the British Crown. We live, we say, in a monarchical society. And this is no simple political status, for it has all sorts of social, cultural and even psychological implications.

The referendum in Jamaica, if and when it is held, will, therefore, be watched closely by the other constitutional monarchies in the region. Jamaica was the first country in the region to gain its independence in 1962. It is also the most populous, and is culturally very influential. This does not mean, however, that the other constitutional monarchies in the region will automatically follow Jamaica’s lead if it votes to become a republic. This is because the constitutional hurdles to be overcome differ so greatly from country to country. As we have seen, where approval in a referendum is required this may be difficult for any government to achieve, but even more so in countries like Antigua, St Vincent and Grenada, where the approval of a 2/3 majority of voters is required.

Where all that is required is a special legislative majority, as in the case of Barbados and Belize, it should be much easier for a government to make the switch to republicanism, provided that it either has enough seats in parliament in its own right or can rely on the support of the opposition. In Barbados, because it has a slender majority, the Government will have to rely on the support of the opposition and it is not clear as yet whether this will be forthcoming. In Belize the position is, as noted above, complicated because of the territorial threat posed by Guatemala. Though in the longer term it is reasonable to conclude that the Caribbean is on a path that will eventually lead to republicanism, it would be premature at this point in time to sound the death knell for constitutional monarchy in the region.

Derek O’ Brien is a Reader in Public Law at Oxford Brookes University. He has published numerous journal articles on Caribbean constitutional law, and recently completed a monograph on the Constitutional Law Systems of the Commonwealth Caribbean for Hart Publishing. He is currently working as a co-editor, with Richard Albert and Se-shauna Wheatle, on The Oxford Handbook of Caribbean Constitutions, which is due to be published in 2018.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.


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