Mason’s powers have not changed; as when she was governor general, she will continue to be a marginal, almost entirely symbolic presence in Barbadian public life. Indeed, to the extent that the decision to make Barbados a republic and cut ties to the queen was controversial, it seems mostly because the change was too subtle for many to understand.
Yet this tiny country of some 287,000 people has nevertheless provoked much global chatter about a question that’s relevant everywhere from the Caribbean, to Oceania, to Western Europe, to my own homeland of Canada: Just how much longer are we planning on doing this whole monarchy thing?
The seamless nature of Barbados’s constitutional change is a reminder that monarchs are hardly irreplaceable in the modern age. The institution of a figurehead president who performs monarch-like rituals — pinning medals on Girl Scouts, cracking champagne bottles on new submarines and the like — might deserve criticism on its own terms, but as a democratic alternative to a hereditary king or queen, it’s now a well-proven rebuttal to monarchist cries of “If not this, then what?” India, Israel, Ireland and dozens of countries in between all operate on the Barbados model, but for the slightly more ambitious, there’s also the South African model, where the job of prime minister and symbolic “head of state” are fused into a single office (a recent poll suggests this is the type of republic Canadians are most interested in).
The outcome least worth betting on, however, is a staid, taxpayer-subsidized hereditary royal family remaining an entrenched and respected institution in any country for much longer — especially Barbados’s Commonwealth cousins, who live under royal families that aren’t even residents.
After most of this world’s royals lost or abandoned their remaining discretionary political powers in the early 20th century, their redeeming grace was supposedly their symbolic strength — a purportedly inherent skill at providing their subjects with unimpeachably inspiring exemplars of civic character. Then, when the century progressed and the uncharismatic dowdiness of idle, sheltered kings and queens proceeded to underwhelm, monarchists insisted that by the dawn of the next century a new generation of princes and princesses would surely inject fresh life into the institution. Instead, the present era of monarchy has unfolded against a backdrop of unprecedented attention toward the hideous personal toll the human dog and pony show of performative royalty takes on its youngest members.
This is embodied in everything from the habitual misery of Japan’s princesses to the now exceedingly well-chronicled hell that was the life of Lady Di after she married into the House of Windsor. Having the princelings marry outside royalty doesn’t seem to have proved to be much of a shot in the arm, either, given, as Graeme Wood noted in the Atlantic, case studies suggest “normal people who end up marrying into royalty . . . tend to be, at best, extremely unsophisticated and naive or, at worst, sociopathic gold diggers.” Readers can decide for themselves what description applies to Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.
Monarchists respond to the world’s stumbling dynasties with fierce denial, doubling-down on defending royalty’s imagined virtues (National unity! Role models!) with increasingly few examples to cite. They seem particularly ill-prepared for the passing of Elizabeth II, the woman who more or less single-handedly defined the norms of postwar royalty, but lacks a comparably enterprising heir — literally or spiritually — and in any case, was clearly unable to persuade the Barbadians. Her chirpy letter of congratulations, coupled with Prince Charles’s attendance at the ceremonies, raises the question if even royals themselves believe in the inherent worth of monarchy, or are simply trying to ride out their decline with dignity.
Barbados is the first stable democracy to abandon monarchy since the African island of Mauritius itself cut ties to Queen Elizabeth in 1992. Though Mauritius is a considerably bigger country, it’s less well-known, and its break attracted comparatively little attention. Barbados’s decision, by contrast, coming in a moment of global monarchical malaise, has captured imaginations around the world. To this planet’s remaining royal subjects, their message is simple: You don’t have to go on like this.