This is the dark heritage of the British Empire, but there is a lighter side too.
The world of Woodside collided this week with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s royal tour of the Caribbean. Eager to please, the young couple are modern and liberal, but they represent an ancient privilege — because what else is a monarchy?
In a speech to dignitaries in Jamaica on Thursday, Prince William, second in line to the throne, strongly condemned Britain’s “disgusting” history of slavery. Too late. There had been recent demonstrations in Kingston, the capital, and other stops on their tour demanding British reparations for slavery.
The omens were bad from the start. Earlier in Belize, a royal visit was cut short amid a blaze of publicity when people objected. Prince William’s courtiers had forgotten to do their usual meticulous homework – no one had asked the hosts for permission to land a helicopter in the middle of a football field.
Back in London, newspaper columnists declared that the days of the big royal visit were certainly numbered. Shots of smiling crowds, a kick-around with Jamaican-born English footballer Raheem Sterling and a jam session at Bob Marley’s house also didn’t go down well with critics: “The bowing and scratching is becoming increasingly absurd,” noted one commenter.
Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced to his royal guests his intention to hold a referendum on secession from the monarchy and proclamation of a republic. Other Commonwealth kingdoms are debating after the example of Barbados, which recently deposed the Queen as head of state.
Is the time for the global monarchy over?
Perhaps the only surprise is that it took so long. Why would areas thousands of miles away want a constitutional link to London and the royal family? And doesn’t Britain have a historical responsibility for the institution of slavery in the West Indies?
But the winds of change are not blowing as hard as reports suggest. “Republicans sometimes talk about the Queen ‘hanging on,'” says Robert Hardman, author of Queen of Our Times. “After more than 65 years, it’s quite a bracket.”
Fifty years ago, a State Department memo confidently prophesied that Jamaica was on the verge of becoming a republic. But five decades later, the Queen is still the island’s head of state. The Crown in Jamaica and elsewhere has proved durable because it stood above partisan local politics.
After independence, Jamaicans retained ties to the Crown, seeing it as a bulwark against the ambitions of overpowered politicians. Constitutional tinkering has also never been a priority for voters. Republicanism is a totemic issue only for the political class, and the royal family is very popular. Even the abolition of slavery is associated with Queen Victoria.
But if Queen Elizabeth II’s far-flung subjects are sometimes annoyed by royal fluff, they no longer like the presumption of their politicians. Throughout the 1990s, opinion polls in Australia recorded a solid Republican majority. But voters convincingly rejected a republic in a referendum held at the end of the decade, despite overwhelming support from newspapers of all political persuasions and the cultural elite. Australians were outraged at the thought of MPs electing one of their own as President.
In 2009, Ralph Gonsalves, the head of government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and a sidekick of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, also put a republic to the vote. His attention-grabbing referendum came a day before a Commonwealth summit in the Caribbean that the Queen would chair. Goncalves was amazed that 56% of voters were against. Fidel was less surprised: he had warned Gonsalves about the move, saying the crown was good for stability. Though a revolutionary, “Castro was a pragmatist,” said former Commonwealth Secretary Sonny Ramphal. “That’s why he persevered.” Pragmatism is probably why Elizabeth II has endured in the Caribbean.
In fact, in the 1960s, monarchy was falling out of fashion in Canada, and riots broke out in Quebec during a royal tour. But after watching President Richard Nixon’s humiliating resignation over Watergate, Canadians decided the split between the head of state and the head of government had its charms. They remain loyal subjects of the crown to this day.
There was no referendum in Barbados when the British flag was lowered. The politicians did not trust the voters to make the “right” judgment.
Nothing stays the same forever. The Queen’s death will no doubt make constitutional “housekeeping” more attractive to many of her realms. Elizabeth II is the only monarch the former colonies have ever known. As her heir Prince Charles is well aware, there is a risk of a “run on the crown” if she leaves.
But nobody is proposing leaving the Commonwealth, the club of countries that once formed the British Empire. Quite cleverly, Prince Charles managed to get himself confirmed as the eponymous leader.
Undoubtedly, the palace needs to work harder ahead of the next royal tour, and the royal entourage should also be more racially diverse. But don’t write off “The Firm,” as they’re known, just yet. The appeal of the monarchy remains strong; its adaptability to the changing times is a hereditary trait.
More from other authors at Bloomberg Opinion:
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• From aristocracy to meritocracy, the revolution in Britain’s top schools: Adrian Wooldridge
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens was editor of The Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and before that was its chief political commentator. He is a board member of Times Newspapers.