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Jamaica Considers Cutting Ties with British Monarchy

During her 2002 visit to Jamaica, Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands with Portia Simpson-Miller. (AP Photo)

January 12, 2012

If newly elected Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller has her way, Jamaica may soon dispense with the monarchy in favor of a republic. In her inaugural speech on January 5, Simpson-Miller stated that as Jamaica prepares to celebrate 50 years of independence from the United Kingdom this year, “time come” for Jamaica to cut the final link between itself and its former colonial master. After winning the election in a landslide vote that delivered her People’s National Party (PNP) two-thirds of the seats in parliament, Simpson-Miller certainly has the support to move the proposal through the legislature. However, beyond the parliament, the decision would also be put up to public referendum. Despite some recent anti-British sentiment, analysts question if it would obtain the necessary votes.

Jamaica is currently a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state, represented in Jamaica by the governor-general of Jamaica. The governor-general is appointed by the queen and plays a largely ceremonial role domestically. Simpson-Miller has proposed replacing the governor-general with “our own indigenous president as head of state,” who would play a ceremonial role similar to that of the present governor-general.

The proposal to cut ties with the British monarchy has circulated in Jamaican politics for decades, most recently in the 1990s. It is nothing new in Commonwealth countries: regional neighbors Guyana along with Trinidad and Tobago dispensed with the monarchy shortly after independence, and republican proposals have circulated in Canada and Australia. Proponents of breaking ties with Britain question what real benefits the monarchy provides for Jamaica. Jamaicans do not have an automatic right to British citizenship, for example. In an opinion piece for The Guardian, Jamaican journalist André Wright calls the relationship “outdated” and discusses Jamaicans’ continued anger at Britain for the slave trade. Anti-British sentiment on the island has also been raised by a number of decisions by the London-based Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC)—Jamaica’s highest court of appeals—which has made enforcement of the death penalty on the island impossible. Critics complain this hurts the country’s ability to combat rising crime. Simpson-Miller described it as “judicial surveillance from London” and would like to replace the JCPC with the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice. Further, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s October 2011 proposal to cut off foreign aid to Commonwealth countries such as Jamaica that criminalize homosexuality was poorly received on the island, and led to accusations of foreign meddling.

However, despite this sentiment, analysts question if Jamaicans really wish to do away with the queen. “Jamaica has a history of being very pro-monarchy,” says Richard Fitzwilliams, an expert on the monarchy for Voice of America. In a June 2011 poll conducted by the Jamaica Gleaner, 60 percent of respondents believed the island would have been better off if it had remained a British colony. In interviews conducted by the Jamaica Gleaner in downtown Kingston, pro-monarchy respondents expressed concern over whether the country has the financial resources to be fully independent. “Although we are independent… we still depend on foreign countries to assist us in many things,” said one Kingston resident. Additionally, an interview with Jamaican protocol expert Merrick Needham in the Jamaica Observer points to the large financial cost—a minimum of $2.5 million—cutting ties would incur for activities such as staging a referendum or removing the royal insignia from military uniforms and government bureaucracies. “In the short term, and our present serious financial circumstances, has anyone thought of the costs?" he asked.

Prince Harry is set to visit Jamaica later this year as the queen prepares for her Diamond Jubilee, and he is expected to be well-received. For her part, the queen has said the matter of dispensing with the monarchy is “entirely a matter of the Jamaican government and people.”

Learn More:
 

  • Read an AS/COA News Analysis on the election that delivered Portia Simpson-Miller to power.
  • Access the website of The British Monarchy to learn about Queen Elizabeth II’s role and responsibilities as Queen of Jamaica. 
  • Visit the website for King’s House, the residence of the Governor-General of Jamaica.
  • Read Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller’s inaugural address on the website of the Office of the Prime Minister, or watch a webcast of the event from the Jamaica Gleaner.