Editorial | Meghan, Harry and Jamaica’s sovereignty
A dozen days after Britain’s Prince Harry wed the Black American actress, Meghan Markle, this newspaper argued that while her entry into Royal Family “may not have moved the dial on the injustices against the Windrush Generation”, the marriage suggested that the Mountbatten-Windsors were willing “to embrace a multiracial, multicultural Britain”. But that, we insisted, shouldn’t prevent Jamaica from proceeding with a “divorce (from) the monarchy”.
Just over a year ago, in the midst of the controversy over the decision by the Sussexes to step away from being working royals and find their own way in the world, we felt that the “soap opera, tinsel town” flavour of the affair was another opportunity for Jamaica to have a “serious look at our constitutional arrangements that make the British monarch this country’s sovereign”. In other words, Jamaica should repatriate its symbol of sovereignty and make itself a republic. It is a theme to which The Gleaner has returned several times since then.
Recent events, though, bring a new urgency to this matter, requiring the Holness administration to act with dispatch in delivering on a principle in which it says it believes. Otherwise, it should explain why Jamaica should persist in “loitering on colonial premises”, as Barbados’ prime minister, Mia Mottley, put it, invoking one of her predecessors, Errol Barrow, when she announced her intention to make Barbados a republic by the time of its 55th anniversary of independence this November.
It remains an unfathomable question, in this day and age, why the matriarch of a dysfunctional British family, or her progeny, should be Jamaica’s head of state and titular embodiment of our authority to govern ourselves and, therefore, our national aspirations. After all, our Government acts in the name of the sovereign, the Queen.
The absurdity of this circumstance was underlined during that much commented interview that Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, gave the American television host, Oprah Winfrey, about their decision to walk out of the institution of royalty and their place in Britain’s constitutional arrangement. Meghan felt that there was an absence of support when she was at the receiving end of racist tropes by the British press.
But even more worrisome – or it ought to be for Jamaica, and other non-white ex-British colonies that retain the Queen as head of state – is the question that Meghan claims was asked of her husband by an unnamed member of the Royal Family about the likely skin colour of their then unborn son, Archie. The family member wanted to know how dark Archie would be.
Ponder that! Meghan Markle, born to a white father and black mother, is a light-skinned woman. Prince Harry is white. While the duchess would not be out of place in Jamaica, the vast majority of Jamaicans are visibly black. Similarly, the populations of the majority of other Commonwealth countries are either black or brown.
There will perhaps be arguments about the context of the question, whether Prince Harry misheard and/or misinterpreted the remark, or about the rank of the Royal who asked it. However, the fact that it was raised at all highlights the disconnect between the institution within which our sovereign resides and her Jamaican – and perhaps other black and brown – ‘subjects’. In this regard, the case for Jamaica’s repatriation of its sovereignty is as compelling as it is unimpeachable.
The good thing is that there is political consensus in Jamaica about where the country’s sovereignty should reside. Both Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ Jamaica Labour Party and the parliamentary Opposition are agreed that there should be a home-grown, non-executive president. It should therefore be a matter on which majority should be won in the constitutional referendum that would be required to change the head of state.
Last December, Lloyd Barnett, the highly respected constitutional lawyer who has presided over commissions whose work led to constitutional amendment, proposed that the long-hanging issue of the head of state should be among a package of constitutional reforms settled by the island’s 60th anniversary of independence in 2022. Among the other issues on Dr Barnett’s agenda were having the Constitution enacted by the island’s Parliament and making the Caribbean Court of Justice Jamaica’s final court.
Around the same time as Dr Barnett’s proposal, the opposition parliamentarian, Mikael Phillips, tabled a private member’s motion calling on the legislature to instruct that the Government proceed with the preparations for a referendum on the question of the head of state. That motion remains somewhere in legislative purgatory. Neither has the Government commented nor acted on Dr Barnett’s suggestions.
At this stage, with nothing having happened, and 17 months to go, it seems unlikely that anything can be achieved in time for next year’s independence celebrations. However, Prime Minister Holness can’t be unaware of the issues of dignity stirred by the Harry-Meghan-Baby Archie-skin-colour affair and the stresses that this issue is likely to place on the Commonwealth as an institution of which the Queen is head. This is not a matter, therefore, on which our Government can remain silent or aloof.