British monarchy tour amidst doubt
06 March 2012, 18:03
London - From sun-kissed Caribbean beaches to icy north Atlantic tundra, Queen Elizabeth II's family has begun a celebratory tour to mark her 60th year on the throne - just as questions are being raised about dumping the monarchy in the far-flung outposts of Britain's faded empire.
Prince Harry has opened celebrations in Jamaica, the nation that is most vocally stirring opposition to the queen's role as head of state of 16 nations and 14 smaller British dependencies, and Prince Charles will travel to Australia, where the prime minister has raised doubts about continued allegiance to the crown.
While the 85-year-old monarch commands respect across her dominions, opinion polls show republican movements in some countries would gain momentum if Charles takes the British throne as expected.
Harry, third in line to the throne, meets on Tuesday with Jamaica's Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, who says the queen is a "lovely lady" but insists her country must sever remaining links to Britain, in part because of the shameful legacy of slavery.
"It is important to us because it is part of a journey, a journey that started when our ancestors were dragged, sold into slavery and brought here and elsewhere in the Caribbean," Simpson Miller said in an interview.
Millions of Africans were transported as slaves to Caribbean colonies until Britain abolished its slave trade in 1807.
Some analysts believe that if Jamaica, which won independence in 1962, removes the queen as head of state, others in the Caribbean - like the Bahamas, Barbados and Grenada - could follow suit.
"My intuition is that if the issue is well presented, the people of the remaining Caribbean monarchies would welcome the change," said Havelock Brewster, an economist who has served as a Guyanese ambassador.
Most already have wide political and judicial independence and see the monarch's role as purely symbolic. Since the creation of the 33-nation Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in 2010, many have embraced allies closer to home.
During the so-called imperial century that began in the early 1800s, Britain's empire took in about 400 million people, but dwindled sharply through the 20th century, as nations including India, Ireland and a host of African countries won independence. Since she was crowned in 1952, the queen's domain has shrunk from 32 nations to 16.
Some sparsely populated outposts are too small to be viable alone, others are - at least temporarily - reliant on British funds as they struggle with sluggish economies, or the impact of natural disasters.
While opinion polls show monarchist sentiments are in decline among the young, many older people outside Britain claim pride in their British links and retain a fierce loyalty to the queen.
"We must keep a close and a good and a healthy relationship with the United Kingdom because we need Britain to support us," said Edmund Maduro, a retired civil servant in the British Virgin Islands.
Yet few outposts actually rely on Britain for funding or leadership. When it distributes aid money, London shows no favouritism to those who maintain ties with the queen.
In the Pacific, where Britain's naval mastery won it a swath of territory in the late 18th century, opinions are divided.
Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard, born in Wales, has long argued that Queen Elizabeth II should be the last British monarch to rule over her country. She enraged monarchists when she declined to curtsey, a traditional show of respect, during the queen's October visit.
Opinion polls, however, show support for an Australian republic has fallen since a proposal to replace the queen with a president was rejected in a 1999 referendum.
"I think with young people, there's a total lack of engagement with the issue either way," said John Warhurst, deputy chairperson of the Australian Republican Movement.
In the South Pacific's Papua New Guinea, where leaders chose voluntarily to appoint the queen their head of state, and the nearby Solomon Islands, there's also little clamour for change.
"Britain and the queen tend to have little significance apart from appearing on our money," said Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii's Centre for Pacific Islands Studies and a native Solomon Islander.
In New Zealand, many indigenous Maori people feel strong ties toward the monarchy, fearing certain rights guaranteed them by the country's founding document - the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi - could be undermined if links to Britain were axed.
Fiji, the South Pacific island nation which dumped the queen in a 1987 coup, will belatedly remove the monarch's image from its currency in June.
Elsewhere, sentimental ties to Britain remain strong.
In the north Atlantic, Bermuda - the largest of Britain's dependencies - has seen leaders' calls to ditch the queen rejected by the public.
Gibraltar, the British outcrop which borders Spain, has clashed with the United Nations over its desire to retain ties to the monarch over Madrid's objections, while Falkland Islanders bristle at Argentina's claim that the disputed South Atlantic islands should be stripped of links to London.
In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper last year renamed the country's armed forces, restoring "royal" to their titles for the first time in 40 years, and ordered his nation's embassies to each hang up a portrait of the queen.
Festivities in Canada will include a May visit by Prince Charles and his wife Camilla. Yet many wonder if the heir can ever command the popularity enjoyed by his mother.
Polls have repeatedly shown Canadians would prefer to end constitutional ties to Britain than have Charles as monarch; surveys in Australia and New Zealand show support for republican movements would soar once he takes the throne.
David Shearer, leader of New Zealand's opposition Labour Party, insists the heir's future role must be decided soon. "I don't like the idea of waiting for the queen to die before deciding what we want to do as a country," he said.