Queen Elizabeth II is the
monarch of fourteen countries in addition to the United Kingdom. Barbados’s
transition to a republic has revived debate over the future of the Crown.
Queen Elizabeth II is the
longest-serving British monarch in history, having ascended to the throne in
1952 at age of twenty-five. She is also the queen of more than a dozen other
independent countries that were once under direct British colonial rule. In
2021, Barbados became the latest country to sever its ties with the Crown. Will
others follow suit?
Queen Elizabeth is not only
the monarch of the United Kingdom (UK), but also of fourteen other countries,
including Canada and others across the Asia-Pacific and the Caribbean. These
are known as the Commonwealth realms. They are distinct from the Commonwealth
of Nations, a loose grouping of fifty-four countries that were once part of the
British Empire but most of which are not still subjects of the queen.
Together, there are some 150
million people in the Commonwealth realms, the most populous of which are the
UK, Canada, Australia, Papua New Guinea, and New Zealand.
These countries are all
independent and sovereign states. Still, the role of the queen is in many
places a subject of controversy, since many gained their independence through
uprisings against British colonial rule.
Commonwealth realms are
constitutional monarchies, meaning the monarch’s powers are largely symbolic
and political decisions are made by an elected parliament and implemented by
prime ministers. The queen is thus head of state but not head of
government—meaning she is not involved in day-to-day governing. (In the United
States, by contrast, the president is both head of state and head of government.)
The queen does have some
constitutional duties, the most significant being the approval of new
governments. Depending on the country, she may formally approve legislation,
appoint certain officials, or grant state honors. In non-UK realms, the queen
appoints a royal representative to carry out these duties. This figure is known
as a governor-general.
In exceptional circumstances,
the Crown also has what are known as “reserve powers,” or the authority to
unilaterally override other branches of government. This has happened rarely
since World War II, the most notable example being Australia’s 1975
constitutional crisis, in which the governor-general dismissed a sitting
Most fundamentally, the
purpose of the queen is to serve as a nonpartisan symbol of the nation,
constitutional continuity, and moral authority—official documents are often
marked with the royal seal and the queen’s visage featured on local currency.
Her many trips to the Commonwealth realms have helped kindle an affection and
loyalty even in countries where the republican movement is strong, such as
Jamaica. The royal family has long been a source of British soft power and
diplomatic influence, though that has been undermined in some realms due to
accusations by Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle of racism within the family.
Nearly twenty former British
territories renounced their monarchies and became republics after World War II,
including India, Nigeria, and Pakistan. This has generally meant replacing the
queen with another head-of-state figure, often a president whose role is also
largely ceremonial. For countries that saw their monarchies as unwelcome
remnants of colonialism, this was the final step in distancing
themselves from its last vestiges.
The 1970s saw the last major
wave of departures, with Caribbean countries Dominica, Guyana, and Trinidad and
Tobago. Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, left in 1992. Barbados is the latest to
exit, having officially left the monarchy behind by swearing in a
president on November 30, 2021.
Barbadian leaders framed the
move as a long-awaited culmination of independence: “The time has come to
fully leave our colonial past behind,” said Governor-General Sandra Mason
in announcing the exit. The date was set to coincide with the fifty-fifth
anniversary of Barbados’s independence from the UK.