By Amilcar Sanatan – UWI Student
November 29, 2009
Trinidad and Tobago News Blog
The Commonwealth is a voluntary intergovernmental organisation that covers fifty-three independent states. The collection of nations that belong to the organisation and the two billion people they represent justify its existence. The Commonwealth organisation has established itself throughout the former colonies of the British Empire and the world.
We, Caribbean people, acknowledge the common purpose and the benefits that the organisation provides to our development. We cannot deny the value of many of its initiatives that have impacted lives through its investments in gender, sport, the public sector, education etc. Also, the organisation benefits our region largely because it can address the disparities between rich and poor nations through the declarations and agreements that help mould attitudes among governments and other international organisations which typically do not apprehend our voices.
Contrariwise, some may argue that the fragile organisation during controversial moments in its history such as issues on Rhodesia and South Africa discredit the possibility of ever having a “true” multi-racial purpose-driven Commonwealth of Nations that work as equals. Indeed, we must be knowledgeable of the history of the Commonwealth which would reveal England’s initial imperial agenda insidiously sewing Empire’s new clothes, but we must also know the persistence of the Caribbean, Asian and African nations in their struggle to define what a meaningful ‘Commonwealth’ is.
By the 1960’s, the Third World members held an Afro-Asian majority of the Commonwealth membership and has since advanced spirited and at times courageous (and unmet) visions forwardly at every Commonwealth forum up to today. Unlike the United Nations or the Organisation of American States, the Commonwealth organisation can closely listen to the views of the Caribbean more intently because of the power and influence we can employ by literal numbers; therefore, it is in the region’s interest to continue to be an active member in the organisation.
In 1949, the London Declaration set in stone that members who desired to be full members in the Commonwealth should recognise the “Head of the Commonwealth” – today, the Head of the Commonwealth is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. One should note that all Heads of the Commonwealth have been British monarchs although there have been calls by a number of leaders to form a rotation system for that position.
The Head of the Commonwealth, more specifically Queen Elizabeth II does not intervene nor identify with political proceedings of the organisation. Interestingly, the Commonwealth holds that Queen Elizabeth II’s heir will not indubitably rise as her successor as the Head of the Commonwealth but it is dependent on a decision made by the Heads of Government that would determine the future of this highly ceremonial and symbolic role.
In light of this, it is the purpose of this article to make the case for the replacement of the Queen as the Head of the Commonwealth because her current position in the organisation is a powerful symbol that appends to our legacy of colonialism and is therefore inimical to the Caribbean region and our children and this issue must be immediately and adequately addressed by our leaders.
It is easy to argue that Queen Elizabeth II’s position in the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth itself is not an extension of Empire. I am not of the view that the Commonwealth organisation is a meeting place of sophisticated loyalists of the Crown advancing a neo-colonial agenda.
However, I strongly believe that the symbolism of Queen Elizabeth II is more than just her geniality and representation as the fountain of honour of this free association. On this chip of the earth, we do remember she also represents the forces of capitalism in its imperial stages, disregard for indigenous cultures, divide and rule strategy, brainwashing and perpetuation of inferiority concepts to the point of self-hate and blood.
This is deeply seeded in the minds of our people who refuse to recognise how colonial we still are and see colonialism as a vacuumed era of occupation and independence as the final leg of liberation; thus, history is thrown to the dustbins and we fail to learn from our mistakes.
One may argue that Queen Elizabeth II is inspired by her moral obligation to her former colonies, and the Commonwealth is the organisation through which reconciliation is met by England’s investments in human and material resources that appear to not leave us orphan. Such a postulation is an examination of colonialism and the Commonwealth at the surface level where one does not consider the psychological challenge of the Caribbean which is faced with the amazing task of building and knitting itself on their own with limited resources.
Nevertheless, it is the duty of our leaders and ourselves to adequately address the legacy of colonialism that still persists in the consciousness of our people. We all acknowledge the power of symbols. The understanding of symbols was expressed in Dr. Eric Williams’s nationalist sentiments to transform Trinidad and Tobago into a Republic.
Similarly, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines has made a bold step through the November 25th 2009 referendum which would allow citizens to vote on a new constitution that would remove the Queen of England as the Head of State and empower an indigenous President. Gonsalves insisted, “The end of the monarchical system and its replacement by a home-grown, non-executive President is of immense practical and psychological significance”. I agree.
And yes, the role of the Queen in the Commonwealth is ceremonial but the Commonwealth cannot be held entirely responsible for fixing psychological realities of the ordinary people of the Caribbean. Our leaders must form consensus in their decision to change the Queen from being the symbolic Head of the Commonwealth.
The advent of colonial occupation dismantled the Caribbean woman/man’s psyche and that had and still has a harmful impact on the economic and social reality of our people. As ambitious and passionate as the call that I make on behalf of my colleagues here at the university and the wider population, one can see the logic our leaders might engineer by maintaining tradition and therefore not challenging the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth.
Queen Elizabeth II is eighty-three years old and it may be “irreverent” to dismiss her position in the organisation as she grows more vulnerable with age. Conversely, it should be known that Queen Elizabeth lived for one hundred and one years. For this reason we must constantly check the length of time our sympathy and gratitude persists at the expense of our people.
The Commonwealth prides itself on not being an arm of empire or a group in which England can exert their dwindling European and world influence in a bigger way. It holds to the values of the “upright man or woman” and believes in common purpose. This is what the commonwealth is at its centre! Such a perception of the heart of the Commonwealth may be seen in their Declarations, website and in the innocent primary school student’s completed Social Studies project.
The common thread among the nations of the Commonwealth is the experience of colonialism and survival of empire. Colonialism arguably has some positives but the destruction of family life, education, economies and the policy prescriptions for underdevelopment are more salient descriptions of the process. Which memory of the Commonwealth should our children cherish: the celebrating hands waving in anticipation of the Queen of England’s arrival with the hope she would pass an enthralling glance at us or Shridath Ramphal, diplomatic soldier, fighting on the front line for the Third World in world policy decisions?
We should learn from past examples. India did not want to join a “British Commonwealth” and today we are members of the “Commonwealth”. Likewise, President Nkrumah of Ghana proposed a Secretariat at the Prime Minister’s Meeting in 1964 when many within the ranks were sceptical of giving an office such power in the organisation.
So should our Caribbean leaders be assertive in the stance for our people to call for the rotation of the position among various nations or the dismissal of the position of the Head of the Commonwealth entirely at the upcoming Heads of Government Meeting. It would be silly of us to believe that becoming independent states was the end to colonialism when subtle and intricate symbols of colonialism mark our lives everyday.
Constitutional decolonisation is only a beginning. Colonialism in the Caribbean is a social fact as real as race and class. Consequently, decolonisation is a continuous process which must be examined and re-examined generation after generation.
Queen Elizabeth II reigned when nationalist and liberation movements dismantled Empire into the Commonwealth (from time to time one must ask oneself: this is the Commonwealth to whom?). Even when we do not have a constitutional connection to England and we more and more create our space in the Commonwealth organisation, we cannot overlook the implications of continuing to have a symbol of a dark past as the Head of an organisation where we are an influential majority.
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