On Saturday, April 23, 2022, the Earl and Countess of Wessex visited Saint Vincent and the Grenadines as part of the celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee.
The government had a full day of activities planned for the Royals, that included visits to the SVG Community College, the Arnos Vale Playing Field, the Botanic Gardens, where there was a tree planting ceremony, and a reception at Government House hosted by H.E Dame Susan Dougan, Governor General and Queen’s Representative in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Prior to, and even since the visit, there have been discussions in the local media as to the relevance of the visit of the royal couple, and whether or not our government should have welcomed them to these shores.
The visit must however be seen in its wider context, that is its legal and constitutional significance which is either conveniently ignored or deliberately avoided. This country’s existing constitution, the Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Constitution Order 1979, that has its foundation in the West Indies Act of 1967, lays out the powers of the Queen in relation to Associated States wishing to become independent. It is in this context that we must view the relevance of the visit of the royal couple since our constitution of 1979 retained Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, as the Head of State of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
This position although largely ceremonial and possessing no executive functions or significance, does bestow on members of the Royal Family (The Queen, her Heirs and Successors) certain privileges and requires of them the performance of certain duties relating to our parliamentary type government. Most of these functions are performed by the Governor General acting as the Queen’s representative on the advice of the Prime Minister, and in many instances represent a formality, primarily in the case of appointments to certain offices as specified by the constitution. What all of this means is that until we change our constitution, the highest law of the land, the Queen, or any of her representatives in the family may choose to visit this country and we would be obliged to offer the appropriate courtesies within the established protocols.
The 2009 Referendum: A missed opportunity
In 2009, the Unity Labour Party government lead by Comrade Ralph, presented to Vincentians the opportunity to change the country’s constitution and replace it with something more indigenous. The constitution of 1979 had been essentially handed down to the newly independent former colony by the former colonial masters who offered a template-like document that resembled that of the other countries that were gaining their independence at the time.
It is important to note here, that this process of constitution reform began with the support of both government and opposition, with the leader of the opposition seconding the motion on constitutional reform that was raised in parliament by the Prime Minister. The proposed constitution was to be a much different document, as its contents were to reflect who we are as a people, of our image and likeness capturing the diverse yet inclusiveness of the Vincentian society. An independent Constitution Review Commission that included representation from a wide cross-section of the society, was set up to coordinate the process, and was tasked with capturing the views of Vincentians regarding the fashioning of the new constitution. The consultations were extensive and at the end a very comprehensive report was compiled, which resulted in a draft proposed constitution that would be put to a referendum vote to be accepted as the new supreme law of the land.
Somewhere along it became clear that the opposition NDP began to analyse the process of reform through partisan political lenses and viewed its success as a political advantage for the incumbent ULP administration. This led the opposition to initiate a vicious campaign of lies and misinformation against the proposed constitution, and with that the adoption of a “vote no” position. One of the provisions of the proposed constitution was the replacing of the Queen as the Head of State with a homegrown president, thus making Saint Vincent and the Grenadines a Republic. This provision was especially attacked with a variety of lies and suggestions intended to scare the Vincentian public into voting against the proposed constitutions by making the retention of the Queen as Head of State significant to the continued existence of our democracy. The opposition NDP, dishonestly and disgracefully promoted a narrative suggesting replacing the Queen meant that countries such as Russia, Iran, and our good and kind neighbour, Venezuela, would somehow assume some increased role in the governance of our country through the Head of State.
They made a number of dubious connections and repeated baseless claims that the Prime Minister would put his head on the EC dollar or that he would install himself as president for life. Vincentians were told that once the Queen was no longer Head of State, that Vincentian nationals who lived and worked in the UK, but had retired at home, would lose their pensions and that our nationals would need visas to travel to the UK as a result. With the repeating of these lies, intended to drive fear into the minds of Vincentians, a number of them believed, and with the persuasion of the opposition NDP, voted against a progressive, relevant and modern constitution crafted by Vincentians, for Vincentians.
It is against this backdrop, that we examine the conversation surrounding the visit of the Royal Couple, and question what could have been had we voted differently in 2009. To be sure, Vincentians can lay blame at the feet of a dishonest opposition for derailing the process of constitution reform, that would have given birth to a Republic with a homegrown President, twelve (12) years before Barbados. As we reflect on the events on Saturday, April 23, 2022, we do so accepting that the rejection of the 2009 proposed constitution in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines remains a missed opportunity in the development of our ever maturing nation.