Editorial | Sir Patrick should promote constitutional reform
Sir Patrick Allen is among the elite of the elites who have been appointed by Queen Elizabeth to the Order of St Michael and St George. There are, at the latest count, 2,250 members of that order. Sir Patrick, though, is in its top tier – one of 125 Knights and Dames Grand Cross who carry the letters GCMG after their names. The order’s Grand Master is Prince Edward, Duke of Kent.
Sir Patrick was awarded the knighthood, and the honours that come with it, because of his job as governor general of Jamaica, representative of the Queen, the constitutional monarch of the island, who lives in Great Britain. It would be impractical for Queen Elizabeth to regularly pop across to Kingston to consult with Prime Minister Andrew Holness, or the Opposition leader, Peter Phillips, or to sign this or that act of Parliament, or to fulfil the many other responsibilities given to the governor general by Jamaica’s Constitution, or those to which he is obligated by statute.
The fact is that contrary to the popular narrative, the governor general’s job is neither trifling nor merely ceremonial. It is a serious constitutional position that has grown more expansive as Jamaica’s democracy matures and custom and practice mingle with the Constitution and legislation to define the role.
That is why the controversy that erupted last week over the image on the badge of the Order of St Michael and St George, which Sir Patrick wears on ceremonial occasions pinned to his left breast, transcends sensitivities over the important matter of racial stereotyping to encompass Jamaica’s continued constitutional transitioning and the debate over how fully it owns its sovereignty.
First awarded to British loyalists on the now Greek Ionian Islands after their occupation by Britain after the Napoleonic wars, the badge is based on Raphael’s early 16th-century painting of the Archangel Michael trampling Lucifer. The image of a white angel with his left foot on the neck of a black, or dark-skinned devil, reminiscent of the white American policeman’s knee on the neck of black George Floyd, whose death last month triggered anti-racism demonstrations globally. The English translation of the order’s Latin motto, Auspicium Melioris Aevi, which appears on the badge, is, ironically, “augury of a better age”.
It is good that Sir Patrick is sensitive to “the negative emotions that the image has caused” his fellow Jamaicans – more than 90 per cent of whom are of African descent – especially at this time of heightened awareness of the systemic racism faced by black people around the world.
In that regard, Sir Patrick’s decision that he has suspended personal use of the insignia of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) containing the offending image is welcomed. “This also follows his acknowledgement of concerns raised by citizens over the image on the medal, and the growing global rejection of the use of objects that normalise the continued degradation of people of colour,” a statement issued by the Governor General’s office on Friday, said.
Hopefully, the tradition-bound monarchy, too, is sensitive to the times and will urgently review not only the heraldry associated with this order but all others that fall under its seal as part of a broader assault on racism in Britain and around the world.
In the meantime, until the emblem’s revision, Sir Patrick, in keeping with his self-declared appreciation of the feelings of Jamaicans towards the imagery, should invite Caribbean counterparts who may also be members of the order to do likewise.
This issue, at the same time, brings back to the agenda the question of how Jamaica should structure its government and who, or what, ought to be the symbols of its sovereignty. Indeed, it is ironic that controversy over the badge couldn’t have so directly involved Jamaica 40 years ago. For in the 1970s, Michael Manley’s government barred Jamaica’s governors general from accepting knighthoods, a restraint under which the then holder of the office, Florizel Glasspole, chafed. Governors general were appointed to the Order of the Nation, of which they could be the only members. It was not until after Mr Manley’s government left office towards the end of 1980 that Mr Glasspole was made a knight, to become Sir Florizel. Mr Manley was in favour of Jamaica becoming a republic, with an executive presidency. Edward Seaga and his Jamaica Labour Party disagreed. By the 1990s, there was consensus, at least, on replacing the governor general with a non-executive president, who, possibly, would be appointed by Parliament.
This issue of making Jamaica a republic is one of the constitutional issues Prime Minister Holness promised to address during his term of office, which is rapidly coming to an end without any discussion of the matter. This matter, as well as Jamaica’s accession of the Caribbean Court of Justice to replace another United Kingdom-based institution, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, as its final court, should be seriously discussed during the campaign for the imminent general election for early implementation by whichever party that forms the next government.