Crown vs. Republic

“No matter how silly the idea of having a queen might be to us as Americans, we must be gracious and considerate hosts.” -- Frank Drebin, The Naked Gun

I promised not to give a running commentary on the news, and I am breaking that promise right out of the gate. On December 1, Governor-General Sandra Mason of the Caribbean nation of Barbados became its first president, as the country abolished its monarchy. The defenestrated monarch was none other than Elizabeth II, who in addition to reigning over the United Kingdom, was the Queen of Barbados.

Barbados’ constitutional amendment creating a republic calls attention to the fact that the British monarch reigns over 14 countries in addition to the United Kingdom, and that we may see more of these countries sever ties with the monarchy over the coming decades. Lingering attachment to the monarchy, an artifact of the devolution of the British Empire, in which a number of former colonies retained a legal tie to the Crown. In fact, before the middle of the 20th centuries, many former countries of the Empire did not have distinct citizenships. Their nationals were simply “British subjects.”

Not every member of the Commonwealth of Nations, those nations once part of the British Empire, maintains the monarchy. With Barbados changing camps, 34 of the 54 Commonwealth members are republics. The three most noteworthy abolitions of the monarchy were Ireland in 1949, India in 1950, and South Africa in 1961. The first two were clear examples of decolonization, as Ireland and India both considered the British monarch to be a foreign ruler and sought to underline their independence from the United Kingdom. The South African case was more complicated, as the apartheid regime withdrew from the Commonwealth altogether in 1961, only rejoining after Nelson Mandela became president in 1994.. (White Afrikaners are largely of Dutch descent and had little attachment to the monarchy to begin with. They only came under it after losing the Boer War.) In the case of Barbados, the link to the monarchy remained a colonial tie to the end, and Barbadians never forgot the monarchy's role in sustaining the slave trade.

The more interesting cases, though, are the 20 countries that still recognize Elizabeth as head of state. The three most prominent examples are Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. These were three of the first British possessions to become self-governing as “dominions” (1867, 1901, and 1907, respectively), and gained internal independence in a slow evolutionary way. Initially, none had full autonomy over foreign policy, and all retained the Britain monarch as head of state, represented by a governor-general. It is probably no coincidence that these three were white settler countries in which most residents were descendants of British settlers. None of the three sought a break with the United Kingdom on the scale of the American Revolution, or of the Irish or Indian independence movements. While the Canadian aboriginal peoples and New Zealand Maori were of course not of British descent, they had treaty relationships of their own with the British Crown, and viewed the British as guarantors of proper treatment by settlers.

Why do they still keep the Crown today, beyond constitutional inertia? The Canadian commentator Charles Adler hints at the real answer when he writes “there is not a single problem in Canada, whether it's Covid19, affordability, floods, opioid addiction, or anything else, that will be solved by abolishing Canada's constitutional connection to the Monarchy.” The monarchy endures in countries like Canada because they are stable and prosperous. The monarchy does not contribute visibly to any of their internal problems, nor would its abolition make a significant material difference. Political scientists distinguish between the person of an individual monarch and an impersonal institution called The Crown (and that is indeed where the Netflix show gets its name), and the ideas embodied in “The Crown” reflect the arguments for keeping it.

As Canadian constitutional law scholar Philippe Lagassé puts it:

The Crown serves many functions in the Westminster system. The Crown serves as the concept of the state. It can mean the Sovereign or the monarch. The Crown can also refer to the executive generally and sometimes Cabinet. In other cases, the Crown can refer to one part of Parliament. And the Crown has a role in the courts, too. Many of these functions seem to overlap and appreciating their differences can be especially difficult because the Crown is personified by a single person, the Queen. But understanding how they are differ [sic] is vital to grasping how Westminster states operate.

Australia is a weird case in comparison to the straightforward lack of a republican push in Canada and New Zealand. Australia has a serious republican movement, endorsed by various elements on both sides of the Australian party divide. It held a failed referendum on ending the monarchy in 1999, although the defeat was engineered by monarchist Prime Minister John Howard. In Canada, and to a lesser degree New Zealand, the monarchy buttresses national identity. In Canada, the monarchy underscores the country’s distinctiveness from the United States, and it is no accident that one of the first things Americans notice in Canada are the images of crowns on highway signs and Queen Elizabeth’s image on the money.. Australia’s development of a national identity has been in opposition to Britain rather than the United States, and having a British queen as head of state can get in the way. Australian diversity and multiculturalism, the repudiation of the White Australia policy, and Australia’s greater participation in Asian affairs all lead to support for a republic. Governor-General John Kerr’s dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s government in 1975 also damaged the monarchy by creating the impression that The Crown was taking sides in partisan politics.

Another issue is personal regard for Elizabeth II. In nearly 70 years on the throne, she has amassed a following in the Commonwealth with numerous visits to her “realms.” It is common to hear the argument even from within republican movements that the question of changes to the monarchy should be delayed until her reign is over. Many observers suggest that Elizabeth’s successors will not be able to steer the monarchy to a comparable level of esteem.

So the trend will be toward greater discussion of republicanism in the Commonwealth monarchies. Australia and New Zealand continue to have active republican movements. The Canadian push has been less strong, but the Angus Reid Institute released a poll in the wake of the Barbados change stating that 52% of Canadians do not want Canada to remain under the monarchy indefinitely, and want to debate a republic after Elizabeth’s death.

The symbolism of Prince Charles yielding office to the new President of Barbados is an interesting precedent. He may be doing that ceremony a few more times as Charles III.


Rovinsky, David J. “Evaluating Australian Republicanism: Lessons from Canada.” Presented to the Australian Identities Conference, University College Dublin, July 1996.