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From a Queen to a King to What? Belize Still Waiting in 2024

Queen Elizabeth

Posted: Monday, April 22, 2024. 8:40 am CST.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Breaking Belize News.

By Dylan Vernon, Real Story #8, April 15, 2024.

In my Fifteen Proposals for a People’s Constitution, I argue that replacing the British monarch as our Head of State must be more than symbolic. Changing nothing else will simply mean that we move from being a parliamentary monarchy to a parliamentary republic with a Belizean figurehead. When the time does come, how can we make it more substantive than just changing figureheads? My proposal for a directly elected national leader (often called a president) leading a Cabinet with members from outside the legislature will receive intense opposition from those who benefit most from the existing power dynamics. But prior to even discussing this or any proposal on what kind of republic we want to be, we have to agree that we want to be one. Even in 2024, that part does not seem straightforward.

Looking Back: Republic Talk in 1963

Photo shows W.H. Courtenay, C.L.B Rogers and George Price signing on to the self-government Constitution in London in July 1963.

In pre-independence Belize the majority public sentiment leaned decidedly towards imitating British parliamentary model and practice. But, since the nationalist movement began in the 1950’s there were always alternative voices. Most significantly, just before the constitutional talks in London in 1963, powerful elements in the governing People’s United Party (PUP) were advocating for what even today would be denoted as revolutionary reforms. Then Governor Peter Stallard, writing to Whitehall in a 21 June 1963 letter, reported, with relief and satisfaction, that:

“The PUP proposals follow generally the lines we [the Governor’s Office] suggested, and we have at least succeeded in steering them away from the proposal to follow Singapore’s Constitution about which [W] Harrison Courtenay, at one point, was very enthusiastic. I suppose the main feature of the proposals now put forward is the suggested change from a unicameral to a bicameral legislature.”

The Governor’s brief demonstrates that some PUP leaders were not only seriously advocating for a unicameral legislature, but also for Belize to someday become a republic. At that time in 1963, Singapore was moving to independence as a republic, with a unicameral legislature elected partly by proportional representation and with a President (elected by parliament) with more powers than a Governor General. Clearly, the dominant imperialist hand of the British torpedoed these ideas from influencing the self-government Constitution. Of interest, is that in the very same June 1963 letter, the Governor dismissingly reported that the opposition National Independence Party (NIP) had advanced a proposal for the legislature to be elected by proportional representation. That too, of course, was scuffled.

Republicanism in the 1981 Consultations

There is a narrative in some quarters that there was no opposition to having Belize remain a parliamentary monarchy in 1981. However, a careful review of the record reveals that, while not dominant, the calls for Belize to become a republic were not insignificant. In almost every public consultation a handful of citizens questioned why the White Paper for a Constitution for an Independent Belize dismissed the republic option.

Examples included citizens such as Lita Hunter-Krohn, Assad Shoman (speaking for several communities), Stewart Krohn, Emory King (of course) and Alexandra Coye. Alexandra Coye’s submission was particularly comprehensive, passionate and articulate, and she did not back down from cross-examination from some members of the Joint Select Committee (JSC). A citizen by the name of A.S. Johnson wrote a strong letter to the JSC with informed and solid arguments for a republican form of government for Belize. Even the Public Service Union was open to the option of the Head of State of Belize being a President.

The questions and proposals on the republic issue forced some members of the JSC to offer justifications for the monarchy proposal and also to make a concession to amend the White Paper. Members of the JSC revealed that the issue of Belize becoming a republic was intensely debated in Cabinet before the White Paper was presented to the House on 31 January 1981. Co-chair of the JSC, V.H. Courtenay informed that Cabinet’s decision to maintain the status quo was influenced by (i) respect for the attitudes of some parts of the population, and (ii) the “particular circumstances of Belize.” The latter, of course, referred to the Guatemalan claim and fear of jeopardizing both the timing of independence and a defense arrangement. Said Musa, also a member of the JSC, further conceded that going for the monarchial system was a matter of “public policy” in relation to “current circumstances” and appealed for the constitutional monarchy arrangement to be viewed as temporary.

However, the proposals for republicanism from the public were impactful enough for the JSC to include a significant amendment to the White Paper. Amendment #15 in the Report of the JSC stated:

“Add a new clause to paragraph 58, to allow, in the event of the contemplated change form a Monarchical system of government to a Republican system, such a change in the form of the constitution, without affecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, be achieved by the approval of the people expressed as the main issue at General Elections.”

Belize delegation at the London Conference – April 1981

This curiously worded amendment was approved by the National Assembly on 27 March 1981 and formed part of the package of proposals that the Belize negotiating team took to London for the Constitutional Conference in April 1981. As I informed in a previous TIME COME piece, the British side killed the Belize proposal on republicanism. The British convinced the Belize side that it was unnecessary to include such a clause in the new constitution because the Belize parliament would have the power to transition Belize from a monarchial to a republican system at any time (after five years) simply by amending the Constitution. My own view is that if some form of the JSC amendment had been included in the 1981 Constitution, the issue of abolishing our constitutional monarchy would have been more visible and so more debated after independence.

 The Queen Survives the 1990s Reform Campaign

Since 1981, the only organized education and advocacy campaign for Belize to become a republic was led by the Society for the Promotion of Education and Research (SPEAR) in the 1990’s. This SPEAR call became part of its package of proposals for political reform and it was eventually adopted by some 100 NGOs and community groups in the People’s Manifesto: Century 21 launched by civil society groups in 1997.

Based largely on the success of the sustained civil society advocacy, the Political Reform Commission (PRC) was established in 1999, and the republican issue was one of its key points of debate. As we now know, the PRC commissioners were deadlocked on Belize moving to a republic even if it only meant replacing the then Queen with a Belizean Head of State. As in 1981, a key argument that won the day was that any such move then (in 1999) could jeopardize Belize’s security in light of the Guatemala claim. Without this security concern, as held by a few commissioners, the PRC would have recommended ditching the constitutional link to monarchy.

Public Views on Monarchy Today

Currently, there is no critical mass of organised Belizeans advocating just for the part of replacing the British monarch with a Belizean Head of State. In fact, a May 2023 poll by Lord Michael Ashcroft indicated that if a referendum were held then, 48% of the 510 Belizeans polled would vote to remain a constitutional monarchy, 43% would vote for a republic and 9% said they didn’t know or would not vote. The Ashcroft poll seems credible even if marred by the overly biased categorization of the views of those polled. For example, on one end of the spectrum, the Ashcroft poll states that 28% of Belizeans polled are “committed royalists”, while on the other end 25% are “angry abolitionists.” Not objective me thinks.

Yet a poll is but a snapshot in time and circumstances do change over time. Ashcroft’s poll did report that in ten years’ time (May 2033) 48% of respondents would vote for Belize becoming a republic, 39% would not and 13% don’t know. What are these circumstances that can change?  As in any referendum, the most decisive variables are the competing campaigns for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote. Such campaigning has not yet happened in Belize and the positions and actions that the main political parties take will be pivotal to the result.

PUDP ‘Talk’ Republic

On this matter, leaders in both the governing People’s United Party (PUP) and the Opposition United Democratic party (UDP) agree that Belize should become a republic soon. Around the time of the visit of the British royals in 2022, both Prime Minister Briceño and his Minister of Constitutional and Political Reform made statements to this effect, including to the international press. The Leader of the Opposition has also stated that he is on board with this course of action. While all that is constitutionally needed for Belize to abolish King Charles III as our Head State is a two-thirds vote in the House of Representatives, both political parties are on record in stating their support for a referendum to decide the matter. (And did you notice that our current Constitution states that the executive authority of Belize is still vested in a Queen who is no longer alive?)

If the People’s Constitution Commission (PCC) recommends, and if the government permits, the republic issue could be part of a package of constitutional reforms in a referendum. The key point here is that if both major political parties put their muscles and finances of their political machines in action for a ‘Yes’ republic vote, it will more than likely happen. One danger is that the main parties only end up supporting Belize becoming a republic without any other substantive reforms. Another is that the two main parties support becoming a republic but are divided over other reforms to the extent that everything crashes. As much as referenda are the zenith of democracy, political parties often cannot resist the opportunity to abuse them.

Lingering Inaccuracies and Fears

However, if the majority of Belizeans do not even want to get past the first base of removing the British monarch as our Head of State, we are in deep trouble. Without the decisive act of decolonization to make Belize a republic, we won’t get the chance to decide what kind of republic we want to be. And our own political history since 1981 and the experiences of our Caribbean sister states tell us that meaningful constitutional change is unlikely if a state remains a parliamentary monarchy.

So, what is still stopping us? The fears and misinformation that some Belizeans have and express are well known. Allow me to use this opportunity to refute the most prevalent of these once again.

  1. The term ‘republic’ is not positive or negative in itself.  Some in Belize place a negative spin on the term – due, in part, to the historical association of ‘republic’ with Latin American autocracies in the last century. However, ‘republic’ simply refers to a form of government in which the people and their elected representatives hold supreme power. So, Belize is not yet a republic because a monarch is our as Head of State. The 75% of states in the world that are republics, can be categorised as parliamentary republics (such as Barbados), presidential republics (such as the United States) or hybrid republics (such as Guyana). In short, republics are not intrinsically good or bad — it depends on how they are governed.
  2. The Belize dollar will not devalue. The value of the Belize dollar is fixed to the US dollar by the Central bank of Belize and has nothing to do with the King nor his image.
  3. Belize will not be kicked out of the Commonwealth of Nations. Of the 54 countries that are members of the Commonwealth, a full 39 do not have the King as head of state and these still participate fully in Commonwealth programmes. Barbados is the most recent example.
  4. Belize’s good relations with the UK will not be affected. The 39 Commonwealth states that do not have the King as head of state still maintain cordial bilateral relations with the UK. The ‘monarchy’ itself has stated that this will continue for any remaining states that want to become republics.
  5. Belize will not be obligated to officially call itself ‘The Republic of Belize’. We can if we want. But we can just be Belize (as Barbados is still just Barbados). Or choose another adjective as in ‘the Commonwealth of Dominica’ or the ‘Co-operative Republic of Guyana’.
  6. Belize’s security will not be compromised. This is not 1981 nor 1999 nor time for the ‘harrier mentality’. The Guatemala claim is now at the International Court of Justice for peaceful resolution and the threat of invasion is far-fetched. Indeed, the so-called defence guarantee from the UK ended in 1993 and there is no formal agreement that BATSUB training forces or other UK forces would defend Belize in the case of an invasion. Most importantly, even if the British were to come to Belize’s defence, whether the King is our Head of State or not has nothing to do with that decision. This would be a decision of the British Government.

Why Wait!

For sure, the fear of Belize’s security being compromised if Belize ditches the monarchy is a constant thread from the pre-independence period to today. Recently, a new twist on the excuse is ‘let us wait until after the ICJ rules’. Actually, the way things are going with the PCC and with a general election due in less than two years, it seems unlikely that a referendum on any constitutional reforms will happen before the ICJ rules.

That being said, my own view is that we did not and do not need to wait based on security fears (for the reasons stated at #5 above) nor do we need to wait for the ICJ to rule. This waiting thing reminds me of the argument used before independence that the UDP, in opposing the timing of independence until after the Guatemalan issue was resolved, was, in effect, giving Guatemala a veto on our independence. Similarly, in waiting for the Guatemalan issue to be settled before we become a republic, we are, in effect, giving Guatemala a veto on our sovereign decision making won through independence.

In fact, if Belize had taken the decision to become a republic before the ICJ took up the case, would it not have been viewed by the judges as one more act of decolonisation by exercising sovereignty with the full confidence that all of Belize is ours?

After the ICJ rules in Belize’s favour, the committed monarchists will still be around, and some will be making other excuses to wait. Hopefully, they will be the minority. If not, Belize’s abolitionists will truly become angry.

As SPEAR argued in 1996, replacing the British monarch can “increase people’s sense of ownership and identification with the nation through a Head of State who is not the cultural and political appendage to another country’s past but rather one who truly embodies and represents our values, experiences and aspirations as a people.” If done right, the transition of Belize from a parliamentary monarchy to a republic should be a catalyst for both revolutionary constitution-making and nation-building. Let’s not lose the opportunity again this time.

 

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