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The first President of Barbados takes office on 30 November, 55 years after the country became independent from the United Kingdom and completing its transition to a republic.
This Insight looks at the background to that move and how a Commonwealth Realm ceases being a constitutional monarchy.
The Caribbean island of Barbados was first settled in the 1620s, making it one of the earliest English (and subsequently British) colonies.
After forming part of the short-lived West Indies Federation in 1958, Barbados decided to become independent in 1966. The UK Parliament recognised this by passing the Barbados Independence Act 1966 (118KB, PDF), which gave Barbados “fully responsible status” (independence) within the Commonwealth.
Section 5 of that act allowed the Queen, by Order in Council, to “provide a constitution for Barbados”. This took the form of the Barbados Independence Order 1966, which was laid before the Barbados Parliament on 22 November 1966 and came into force on 30 November. The Constitution of Barbados formed a schedule to that order. This was drafted by a Constitutional Conference comprising political parties in Barbados and the then UK Secretary of State for the Colonies.
At that point, Barbados chose to become a member of the Commonwealth, a voluntary association of independent countries. It also chose to remain a Commonwealth Realm, which meant the Queen became its head of state as “Queen of Barbados”. For the past 55 years, the Queen has been represented in Barbados by a Governor-General.
A movement for Barbados to become a republic began more than two decades ago. In 1996 a Constitution Review Commission was mandated to explore the appropriateness of maintaining Barbados’ link with the Crown. In 1998 it recommended that Barbados become a parliamentary republic.
In 2005, the country replaced the London-based Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as its final court of appeal with the Caribbean Court of Justice in Trinidad and Tobago. A referendum on becoming a republic was planned in 2008 but never took place. Finally, on 15 September 2020, the Government of Barbados announced its intention to cease being a constitutional monarchy, therefore removing the Queen as its head of state.
In a Throne Speech (the Barbados equivalent of the Queen’s Speech), the current Governor-General, Dame Sandra Mason, said the time had come for Barbados “to fully leave our colonial past behind”. “Barbadians want a Barbadian head of state,” Dame Sandra added. “This is the ultimate statement of confidence in who we are and what we are capable of achieving.”
Amending the constitution to become a republic
In order to become a republic, the Barbados Parliament had to amend the Barbados Independence Order 1966, something that required a two-thirds majority. Although some questioned whether this was possible, as an independent country Barbados could amend or repeal any part of its statute book, including acts and orders passed by the UK Parliament before 1966.
The Constitution (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, 2021 was introduced to the Barbados Parliament on 20 September and was passed unanimously on 6 October. This effectively transferred the responsibilities of the Governor-General to a new position of President, elected by Parliament. It meant that the oath of allegiance would be to the state of Barbados rather than to the Queen.
On 12 October 2021, Dame Sandra Mason was jointly nominated by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition as the first President of Barbados. She was elected by the Barbados Parliament on 20 October and will formally be sworn in today (30 November).
At midnight tonight (4am GMT) the Prince of Wales will represent the Queen at a ceremonial handover in Bridgetown’s National Heroes Square.
Role of the UK Parliament
As an independent country since 1966, Barbados did not need the UK’s authorisation to become a republic. However, Westminster will have to pass consequential legislation to avoid any confusion in its domestic law.
When Mauritius became a republic in 1992, for example, the UK Parliament passed the Mauritius Republic Act 1992. Section 1 of that act said that any relevant UK act or instrument would continue to operate as if Mauritius had not become a republic.
The UK Government hasn’t yet introduced legislation in relation to Barbados, and there is not necessarily any urgency to do so.
Barbados has chosen to remain a member of the Commonwealth, which already includes several republics. Before 2007, a Commonwealth Realm transitioning to a republic had to reapply for membership. This is no longer the case and Barbados will become the first country to remain a member having ceased to be a constitutional monarchy.
Tonight’s ceremony is the first of a two-stage process. Next the Government of Barbados plans to hold a consultation on drafting a new constitution.
About the author: Dr David Torrance is the Commons Library specialist on monarchy and the constitution
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