It’s been a long time in the making, but after 55 years of hurt (well, fatigue, boredom, and nagging political haemorrhoids), independence is finally coming home to Barbados.
Thanks to Bajan Prime Minister Mia Mottley making good on decades of unfulfilled manifesto commitments, aborted referenda and broken promises, on November 30, 2021, ‘Little England’ will cease to be the Weybridge of the West Indies and will become the latest in a long line of former New World plantocracies to have cleaved itself from the last vestiges of colonial yokery. Vive la Republic!
This isn’t to say that everyone is pleased to see the Queen, at 96 years old and on her last legs, collect her P45 next Tuesday, not least because of the UK’s decidedly dodgy reputation these days. Mired in Tory government sleaze and corruption, with Brexit showing little, if no return on its multi-billion-pound gamble, daily D-Day landings of migrant boats rocking up on the UK’s shores and, among other woes, a PM who’s increasingly MIA, one can forgive establishment organs like The Times’ a little jingoism.
Writing in last Saturday’s edition, Matthew Campbell whined that Barbados was “becoming little China” as it was now “awash with cash from Beijing” and, sin of sins, “simply swapping one colonial master for another.” Me-ouch. Give that man some catnip before he scratches these uppity little natives’ eyes out.
This ‘changing of the guard’ was announced officially in September, 2020 in a speech written by Mottley but read by the governor general, Dame Sandra Mason. Quoting Barbados’s first PM, Errol Barrow’s cautionary line about Britain, “loitering on colonial premises,” Mason, who, like Mottley, is a lawyer and QC by trade, said, “The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind. Barbadians want a Barbadian head of state.” Last month, Mason was elected Barbados’s first president after securing two-thirds of the votes from both its Houses of Parliament. That’s manifest destiny for ya.
The Times’s sour grapes echoes British establishment bellyaching over a loss of power, influence and status, not just on the world stage, but at home. As my father used to tell me, growing up in colonial British Guiana as the bastard son of former chancellor of the judiciary, Sir Kenneth Sievewright Stoby on a sugary diet of Pathé newsreel propaganda, pomp and circumstance, “We thought these people [the British] were gods.” It wasn’t until he and my mother emigrated to Britain in 1962 that he discovered that the average Briton lived in cramped, decrepit, Anglo-shantytown conditions, and that all that ‘rule Britannia’ guff was nothing more than a supremacist myth designed to keep compliant Brits in line.
It was this sort of imperialist claptrap that prompted the Tories’ foreign affairs committee chair and yelping attack dog, Tom Tugendhat MP, after Mottley’s announcement, to claim that a Chinese investment of $490 million in Barbados’s infrastructure had forced her hand on the monarchy question.
With the ink barely dry on Mottley’s 2020 speech, Tugendhat frothed in the Times, “Some islands seem to be close to swapping a symbolic Queen in Windsor for a real and demanding emperor in Beijing. It’s interesting because of course the UK is really not a monarchy, we’re a republic pretending to be a monarchy. The Crown in Parliament after all is simply a recognition that the people are sovereign.” Whatever.
Like a jilted ex-husband crying over a bitter divorce, Tugendhat accused Beijing of trying to undermine Britain’s position in the Caribbean with “debt trap diplomacy” loans of $600 million to Cuba, $1 billion to Antigua and Barbuda, $1.9 billion to Trinidad & Tobago, $450 million to the Bahamas and a $2.7 billion loan to Jamaica.
The reality, however, is while Barbados undoubtedly benefits from Chinese financial support, particularly in terms of much needed infrastructure, it’s Britain that’s becoming a colony of the People’s Republic, and other foreign powers.
Despite barring Chinese investment in strategic areas such as the UK’s 5G network and nuclear power (let’s see how long that lasts) China continues to build a diverse portfolio of UK goodies. According to mega-financial consultants Grant Thornton, the number of Chinese investments in the UK during the first half of 2021 reached pre-Covid-19 levels, with a 44% increase year-on-year. Having plummeted by 68%, deal value during the period was still an impressive £144 billion.
Nearly 200 British companies are either controlled by groups or individuals based in China and Hong Kong or count them as minority shareholders. A list of investments drawn up by the Sunday Times includes Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, Heathrow Airport, Northumbrian Water, pub retailer Greene King, and Superdrug.
Chinese investors own nearly £57bn of shares in the UK’s 100 biggest listed companies, including a 49% stake in HSBC worth £45bn. Investments valued at over £1bn have also been made in pharmaceutical powerhouse AstraZeneca, oil and gas firms Shell and BP, and alcohol company Diageo, with added investments in at least 17 independent schools, Lotus Cars, Barnsley, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester City football clubs, Cineworld and Odeon UCI cinemas, and the QHotels group.
This of course is aside from the 13.4% of total UK company assets that are foreign owned, which underlines the ‘joke’ that being British is about driving a German car to an Irish pub for a Belgian beer, before travelling home, grabbing an Indian curry or a Turkish kebab on the way, to sit on Swedish furniture and watch American shows on a Japanese TV after booking a Caribbean holiday on a Korean laptop. And the most British thing of all? Suspicion of anything foreign.
Over the years, locals and expats I’ve spoken to about the Queen’s impending swansong have often been far from rhapsodic. Bajans generally shrug their shoulders, say HRH has had a good run but it’s time to move on. Gammon-faced expats on the other hand, shrug their shoulders, mumble about the British ‘brand’ and claim that getting rid of the Queen will mean a loss of ‘prestige’. When I point out that there’s nothing prestigious about being the head of a family that makes the Kardashians look classy, more often than not the comeback is, “Well, what would they do if they got invaded?” Considering that the last invasion of a Caribbean island was Grenada in 1983, by the US (following a military coup), and at the request of several Caribbean states, and the island’s governor general, the likelihood of anyone invading resourceless, strategically insignificant Barbados is slim, unless they’re planning to corner the market in golf courses, Anglican churches, and rum shops.
Despite a relationship dating back to 1625 (which makes it one of Britain’s oldest former colonies), in Barbados’s pandemic hour of need, did the ‘mother country’ run to its aid, as thousands of ‘Windrush generation’ Bajans had done for the UK after the war? Did it hell!
While my ancestral home of Guyana, an economically challenged South American state of less than a million people, was able to donate vaccines to Barbados, as did the US, India, and of course, China, the UK failed to make direct donations of its AstraZeneca supplies. Even Cuba sent hundreds of doctors and nurses to Barbados and India donated $100,000 to buy PPE equipment, which would make its way to the one public general hospital on the island, ironically named the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Britain, meanwhile, gave nothing, preferring instead for government ministers and their cronies to line their pockets millions with pounds of taxpayers’ money back home.
With a population of 300,000 and a land mass a third of Greater London, tiny Barbados doesn’t just shame the UK, it makes a mockery of the bigger players in the post-colonial Anglosphere. For all their ruddy-faced, baton-wielding, anti-vax bellicosity, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand are little pussycats when it comes to thinking about cutting the umbilical cord between themselves and ‘the motherland’. The ‘CANZUK’ alliance, which is part of the Commonwealth Realm of states headed by the Queen, is big on noise, but quiet on action. Meanwhile, Barbados joins Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Dominica in the Caribbean republic league, all of which dropped the Queen in the 1970s; the last country to remove her as head of state was Mauritius in 1992.
To use a well-worn expression, lifted from ancient Greece (along with the Elgin Marbles, among other artefacts), imperialist kleptomaniacs used to say that, ‘the Sun never sets on the British empire’. But with Barbados, the Caribbean ‘jewel in the crown’, finally bidding farewell and adieu to Her Maj, Britain now sees its dwindling global influence disappearing over the horizon. With quixotic Charles the placeholder King waiting in the wings, and the rest of ‘The Firm’ battling multiple, well-publicised problems, once the Queen goes, I suspect the House of Windsor will become little more than a house of cards.
Suffice it to say, come November 30, I’ll be raising a glass of rum punch in homage to the Old Girl. Regardless of one’s politics, she has been a remarkable figurehead and the longevity of her reign, if nothing else, is worthy of respect.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.