Jamaica’s new Prime Minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, has recently announced the pledge to replace the British monarch as head of state and make the island a republic.
Speaking at her inaugural ceremony earlier this month, the country’s first female PM said the time was right for the island to have its own indigenous head of state. “I love the Queen; she is a beautiful lady,” she adds, “but I think time come,” said Mrs Simpton-Miller.
Although Jamaica declared independence from British colonial rule in 1962, Queen Elizabeth II has remained the official head of state. Transforming the country into a republic would sever that link.
The 66-year-old leader of the People’s National Party also said she will replace the Privy Council in London with the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice as Jamaica’s highest court of appeal. She said this will “end judicial surveillance from London”.
“The prime minister’s proposal shouldn’t come as a surprise,” says Richard Adeshiyan, former editor of UK national black newspaper, New Nation. “This issue has generated constant debate across the island for the past decade with many questioning the benefits the Queen provides for Jamaica and why it must cut the remaining colonial umbilical cord.”
“There have long been accusations of foreign meddling in the island’s justice system and its inability to enforce the death penalty due to the powers of the London-based Judicial Committee of the Privy Council — Jamaica’s highest Court of Appeal,” adds Adeshiyan.
Portia Simpson-Miller’s republican proposal, though, is likely to divide opinion on the island and Jamaicans across the globe, with many ordinary Jamaicans still having huge sentimental regard for the Queen.
Only last year a survey for the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper by Johnson Survey Research found that 60 percent of Jamaicans believe the country would be better off under British rule.
“But you need to take these findings with a big health warning and look at the sample population and how the question was framed,” says Patrick Vernon, a second-generation Jamaican politician in Britain.
“People see corruption and tend to get nostalgic about the past,” adds Hackney councilor Vernon. “During British colonial rule corruption was on a different scale: wealth and power sucked out of Jamaica went to London.”
British-born Nadine Drummond, of Jamaican descent, says the Queen is a figurehead who provides no direct or indirect benefit to Jamaica or Jamaicans.
“Jamaicans are primarily of African descent and looking to post-slave and colonial masters serves no purpose for our identity or development as a nation,” says Drummond. “Jamaica has a lot of problems and the Queen does not deserve to be head of our state if she is unable or unwilling to assist in our continued development.”
Brian Meeks, a professor at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica said in a recent interview with TIME.com, “The Queen’s our head of state, but we still need a visa to visit her…and that’s one of the many underlying incongruities pushing us toward a republic.”
“Britain also occupies a different place in the mind for countries like Jamaica, where slavery was part of colonialism, than it does for countries like Canada or Australia,” added Meeks.
All eyes will be on the Prince Harry’s Diamond Jubilee tour which takes in Jamaica this March, his first official trip on behalf of the Queen. The itinerary for the foreign visits has not been released but Queen’s grandson is almost certain to meet Simpson-Miller.
Cllr. Patrick Vernon, nevertheless, says it is unlikely Jamaicans would see significant changes on a practical level. Ties between Britain and its former colony have weakened over the years, with “North America playing a more prominent role” and a republic would continue its Commonwealth membership.
Abandoning the monarchy, though, is an important “symbolic” and even psychological message, especially ahead of this year’s 50th anniversary of independence, he says.
Cllr. Vernon anticipates change “wouldn’t happen overnight” but most likely a matter of years rather than months. There is a lot to think about, he says, from “constitutional reform” to “deciding the best presidential model” to even things “like rebranding governmental letter-headed paper” and of course how much this will all cost.
This symbolic break from the past, especially if the prime minister calls a republican referendum, could be a golden opportunity to “recast the constitution and initiate wider political debate,” says Vernon. Jamaica finally grasping this “right to self-determination” would represent a coming of age for the country, he adds.
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