Reflections on the Republic of Jamaica

Saturday, November 28, 2015

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ON November 18, in the course of his presentation in the Privy Council/CCJ debate, Senator and attorney-at-law Arthur Williams argued that Jamaica should remove the Queen as Jamaica's Head of State. For Senator Williams, the time for the abolition of the monarchy had "long passed."

Prime Minister

In making this statement, Senator Williams was essentially reiterating the position advocated by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller on a number of occasions. For example, at the time of her swearing-in in January 2012, the Prime Minister said:

"I love the Queen, she is a beautiful lady, and apart from being a beautiful lady, she is a wise lady and a wonderful lady... But I think time come." (

Prime Minister Simpson Miller's perspective is in keeping with an article of faith among leaders of the People's National Party since at least the time of Michael Manley. Neither Manley fils nor former Prime Minister Patterson hid their desire for Jamaica to become a republic.

Almost invariably, leaders who argue for an end to the monarchy in Jamaica do so on the grounds that abolition will help to complete the circle of Jamaica's independence. They argue that we are not fully independent as long as we retain our allegiance to Her Majesty.


It is easy to support this perspective; for, if anything, independence should mark us out as a people wishing to exercise self-determination and sovereignty. It should also mean that we are prepared to develop our own symbols of authority and respect, identify our own heroes, generate our own sources of national pride and appreciate history from the standpoint of our own people.

None of this necessarily undermines the wellsprings of our heritage; so, we can retain our links with the Commonwealth, celebrate the diversity of our cultural milieu, and admire aspects of other countries. But independence should trigger in us the desire to proceed in the world on our own terms, and without relying on institutional structures that owe their origins to colonial control.

Thus, Independence implies discontinuity in fundamental senses; and yet, at the time of our Independence, our leaders opted to retain the Queen as the Head of State, and took the additional step of ensuring that the monarchy could not be removed with majority support of the electorate in a referendum.

Conservative Approach

What factors prompted our leaders to adopt such a conservative approach at a time when the concept of "independence" may have counselled alternative possibilities?

In the first place, our leaders -- and the population as a whole -- may have been influenced by the power of the familiar. Jamaica, after all, became a monarchy in 1494 when the Tainos discovered Columbus on our shoreline, armed with weaponry and the flag of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Throughout the period from 1494 to 1962, with a short exception for Cromwell's Republicanism, we were subjects of one Crown or another. At independence time, therefore, there may have been a certain comfort in continuity.

Secondly, familiarity as a consideration may have been strengthened by factors not easily measured, but present nonetheless. So, for example, at least some of our indigenous leaders had been socialised and educated in keeping with British values, and shared Anglophilic sentiments, even as they sought to establish our independence. Retaining the monarchy, then, served as a sign that, although we wished to proceed on our own, we also intended to remain within the British sphere of influence.

Other Countries

Thirdly, some of our leaders may have been keen to continue the monarchical embrace in order to distinguish us from other countries, some newly independent. India, which assumed Independence in 1947, and republican status three years later, came to self-determination amidst sectarian violence and the partitioning of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan. The uncertainty associated with India and Pakistan may have prompted our leaders to remain with the tried and tested monarchical form from the British Empire.

Similarly, it may be that our leaders were influenced by certain uncertainties in British Guiana from about 1953, and in Cuba from about 1959. To take the former case, Her Majesty's Government has taken the extraordinary step of suspending the Guianese Constitution, owing to local unrest and fear of communist control in the territory.

And in the latter, Cuban State actions, as well as actions by the United States of America, created an environment in which Jamaica saw it as beneficial to promote continuity. "We are with the West" was a pithy but deliberate signal on the part of Bustamante's first Independence government: remaining with the British monarchy was confirmation of the decision to keep Jamaica away from unsettling political influences.


Fourthly, Jamaica may have retained links to the Crown as a way of demonstrating our "readiness" for Independence. From 1960, the United Nations General Assembly had affirmed in the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Territories and Peoples that a territory's readiness for Independence should not be a factor in deciding whether they should be allowed to determine its political future.

But, notwithstanding this Declaration, some Jamaican leaders apparently considered it appropriate to show that we were ready for Independence -- this readiness was demonstrated by our mastery of the Westminster system, and presumably by our willingness to continue our governmental system with the Queen as the symbolic head.


In relation to the foregoing points, it is possible to identify a strong strategic component in the approach taken by Jamaica's leadership. But the final two considerations I wish to mention are not strategic. One concerns Norman Manley's genuine admiration for British constitutionalism.

In explaining the position taken by the Joint Committee of the Jamaican Parliament in 1962, Manley pere said:

"This system of parliamentary government over the centuries has been evolved by the British people, who certainly have displayed the most unique genius of any people in history for devising a form of government acceptable to people." (Quoted in Rex Nettleford (ed), Norman Manley and the New Jamaica (1971), pp 300-301).

To some extent, Norman Manley's admiration for the British Constitution may have arisen from his life experiences, but there seems to have been no significant opposition to his perspective within the Joint Committee of Parliament responsible for preparing the draft Jamaican Constitution.

As I have noted elsewhere, it is but a short step from Manley's strong endorsement of the Westminster system as a whole, to the view that the Queen should be retained in the Constitution as a symbol of continuity within the system which Manley regarded as tried, tested and proven. ("Constitutional Renewal in Jamaica: Republicanism?", Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law (2015), p 221.


The second factor not based on strategic considerations was the genuine popularity of the Queen in Jamaica, at the time of Independence. At Jamaica's Independence celebrations, Princess Margaret, representing the Crown, was welcomed by enthusiastic crowds, and, it is said that many Jamaicans had photographs of the Queen in their homes.

At the time of Independence, too, the Jamaica Labour Party affirmed its loyalty to royalty in its Constitution, which sought to instil "in the hearts of the people reverence for God, loyalty to the Queen and respect for lawful constituted authority."

Of course, the popularity of the monarchy as an institution predated the onset of Independence. In colonial society the monarch symbolised the pinnacle of both the society and the government. Among the groups that controlled what Louis Lindsay (then of the Department of Government, UWI) aptly called "symbolic manipulation", the monarch personified not only the British nation, but also the Jamaican nation. Accordingly, Jamaican subjects of the Crown, wishing to express patriotism or national pride, were encouraged to do so through respect and admiration for the monarch.

Generally, therefore, it was not surprising that the Jamaican State opted to retain the monarchy as a leading, and deeply entrenched, institution at the time of Independence. As Professor Trevor Munroe (also then of the Department of Government, UWI) noted in his book, The Politics of Constitutional Decolonisation, there were attempts, at the time of Independence, to place the debate on republicanism on the public agenda; but these efforts seem to have been placed aside in the face of support for retaining the monarchy.

Then and Now

That, as they say, was then; what is the situation now?

In the 53 years since Independence, proposals to abolish the constitutional authority of the monarchy have been advanced in the public sphere. These proposals -- as implicit in Prime Minister Simpson Miller's statement quoted above -- are built on the premise that the monarchy, as a quintessentially British institution, does not properly serve the purposes of modern Jamaica.

Within this way of thinking, the installation of a local Head of State (and not a distinguished representative of a foreign Head of State) would serve not only to relocate the symbolic features of sovereignty in Jamaica; it would also provide a psychological link break from the history of superiority and inferiority associated with colonial relationships.

Some Jamaicans, therefore, argue for the establishment of a Jamaican republic as a means towards the fulfilment of historical forces -- giving more substantial form to our independence. But there are additional considerations pointing in the same direction. Jamaica today is significantly more democratic in outlook than it was at 53 years ago.


As part of this enhanced democratic tradition, many would question the virtue of the hereditary principle used in determining the country's Head of State. By the same token, it would be difficult to find in Jamaica today, a substantial body of opinion in favour of the divine right of rulers. To the extent that the monarchy still rests on inheritance and vague notions of divinity, it will not be supported by many.

At the same time, republican sentiment in Jamaica today derives strength from enhanced notions of egalitarianism in society. Royalty, based as it is on hierarchical relations, seems broadly incompatible with the quest for social equality among citizens. Why, it may be asked rhetorically, should a distant, foreign monarch reign over citizens who do not perceive themselves to be "subjects" in any sense?

Into this equation too, some analysts add the question of race: for example, on the occasion of the Queen's highly successful visit to Jamaica in 1983, Fred Archer, a newspaper columnist who expressed general support for the monarchy, argued that "it is obviously unfitting that a white foreign monarch should continue as Head of State of a mainly black populated independent country for all time."

Limited Role

Another consideration working in favour of republican sentiment is the limited role of the monarch in local affairs. What, it may well be asked, is the purpose of the monarch in our political or social relations today? As noted above, the monarch in the past served as a symbol of national unity; but this seems scarcely to be true in the present era. And if the purpose of the monarch is to inspire unity, then it is easy to argue that a Jamaican President, living within the polity and fully acquainted with our issues, would serve this purpose more appropriately then a British royal.

Nor should it be believed that republican status for Jamaica would imply, or lead to, a breakdown in good relations with the United Kingdom. Dominica, which became a republic on independence in 1978, interacts positively with Britain, and indeed, one of its nationals -- who has lived and worked in Britain -- is currently in the contest to be Secretary General of the Commonwealth, with joint support from both countries.

Likewise, both Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, entered independence as monarchies, and subsequently assumed the republican mantle. Both republics remain active members of the Commonwealth (with Sir Shridath Ramphal of Guyana having served with distinction as Secretary General); and there is no significant evidence that the republican form has hindered diplomatic exchange with Britain.


Supporters of the status quo in Jamaica put forward at least three arguments. One is that the monarchy has promoted stability and democracy in post-independence Jamaica, virtues that should not be disregarded. In this regard, they sometimes point out too that republican governments in neighbouring Latin American countries seem more prone to coups d'etat than countries that retain the monarch as the Head of State.

This line of argument is not convincing. To be sure, some Latin American countries have been all too subject to unconstitutional change and authoritarian control; but these realities are not necessarily caused by republicanism.

On the contrary, the situation in particular Latin American republics needs to be understood in light of the specific political circumstances in those countries. To place the entire burden of socio-political and historical problems in a country down to its republican status is to ignore much of the traffic in that country.

Moreover, to say suggest that republicanism in itself is the cause of Latin American challenges is to disregard the fact that the United States of America, with all its faults, has had a stable republican structure in place since 1776. It is also to disregard the fact that the three Anglophone republics in Caricom have shown no greater tendency to political instability than other countries of the region.


A second set of arguments advanced by supporters of the status quo is based on pragmatism. It is sometimes suggested, for instance, that economic and other circumstances in Jamaica were more propitious during the colonial period, and that, having the monarchy here carries no financial cost and does no harm to society.

One republican response to this approach is, first, that social and economic conditions in the country have actually improved for a majority of the populace since Independence, although serious and obvious challenges remain. So, the premise of the pragmatic argument may be faulty.

Also, even if we accept that conditions have deteriorated since independence -- as many may be inclined to do -- this deterioration has occurred during the monarchical period. If anything, then, this would bring home the point that the retention of the monarchy does not enhance our economic and social circumstances.


My view is that the monarchy has been retained largely for symbolic purposes, and so, we should hardly expect that this retention will have any bearing, one way or the other, on the socio-economic realities that we have to face in Jamaica, circa 2015.

On the other hand, the retention of the monarchy continues to confirm, by not very subtle means, the acceptance of the inherent superiority of things British over things Jamaican. This is no longer acceptable.

And, because it is no longer acceptable, we should not be deterred from making the change on basis of pragmatic arguments about the cost of changing buttons and badges for ceremonial purposes. Such considerations will always pale into insignificance when compared with considerations based on the self-esteem of a people.

Time Come

More than 20 years ago, the Jamaican Parliament appears to have accepted that the country should become a republic. The Joint Select Committee of Houses of Parliament on Constitutional and Electoral Reform in its Final Report stated:

"This Committee recommends that the new Jamaican Constitution should create a Jamaican Republic with the Head of State being the President who would be above purely partisan politics and be given additional powers of appointment."

Time come and long pass.

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