November 1, 1981 – Antigua and Barbuda became an independent state within the Commonwealth of Nations with Queen Elizabeth as the first head of state (constitutional monarchy) and Right Honourable Sir Vere Cornwall Bird as the first prime minister.
Independence meant that affairs of the country were now the responsibility of the Prime Minister and the locally elected Cabinet and law making was now the responsibility of the national parliament. In the international community the nation was on entitled to equal rights on various issues relating to international trade, policies and treaties.
At independence Antigua and Barbuda became the 157th member of the United Nations and the newest member of the Commonwealth. Antigua and Barbuda. The twin-island nation also became a founding member of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) in 1981.
In 1978 the ruling administration indicated to England the desire to move towards political independence. They were reminded of the two main criteria which needed to be satisfied; namely, that the change should be clearly shown to be the wish of the majority of the people of the associated state, and that there should be a constitution to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of the citizens.
1st Criteria – Majority Support for Independence. Going into the general election held in April 1980 all three political parties, namely the Antigua Labour Party (ALP), the Progressive Labour Movement (PLM) and the Antigua Caribbean Liberation Movement (ACLM) all included a commitment to independence in their respective manifestoes.
The ALP won thirteen (13) seats (58.04% of votes cast) at the election, to the main opposition party PLM’s three (3) seats (39.26% of votes cast). Barbuda ran an independent candidate with a secessionist agenda who though accounting for 1.53% of total votes, gained 67.87% of the votes in that constituency.
For the British, the election result reflected the support of the majority for independence.
2nd Criteria – Constitution for the Nation. Once reelected the ALP Administration established an independence committee to consider all aspects of moving away from Statehood in Association to full political independence. This included a sub-committee charged with the preparation of a draft constitution.
A draft independence constitution was debated in the Antigua Legislature in July 1980 then published and made available for to citizens.
Arising from the fulfillment of the two criteria the British Parliament moved to amended as required to move the process forward. Accordingly, the records reflect: HANSARD 14 July 1981 → Lords Sitting Antigua Termination of Association Order. Lord Skelmersdale rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 24th June be approved.
“My Lords, the order will be made under Section 10(2) of the West Indies Act 1967, which requires that any order made under that section be laid in draft before Parliament and approved by Resolution of each House. The order will terminate the status of association between the United Kingdom and Antigua. It is proposed that it should take effect on 1st November this year. Antigua will then become a fully independent sovereign state.…”
The process continued with a constitutional conference at comprising at the Lancaster House, England from December 4th to 16 1980. A delegation of 30 comprising politicians, lawyers and trade unionists represented Antigua and Barbuda. The conference reviewed the draft constitution from the Antigua Legislature which was debated in July along with changes proposed by members from the opposition which had not been included and looked at the secessionist request from the Barbuda representatives.
A revised draft keeping Antigua and Barbuda as a single nation was concluded under the guidance of the British and subsequently approved by the Antigua Parliament by May of 1981. Specific to Barbuda, the British noted
“The British Government have, of course, given very full consideration to various Barbudan requests for separation from the associated state before Antigua becomes independent…A revision of the 1976 Barbuda Local Government Act of the Antigua Parliament has been introduced to give effect to the new provisions, and safeguards for Barbuda’s future have been provided by entrenched clauses in the new constitution….. we are satisfied that the future social and economic development of Barbuda has now been properly and constitutionally provided for. Meanwhile, the measures which have been taken this year will confer on the tiny adult population on the island of Barbuda a unique degree of devolution of authority to allow them to conduct their own affairs within the state. This does not exist anywhere else in the Commonwealth Caribbean.” https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1981/jul/08/antigua-termination-of-association
At the stroke of midnight on 31 October 1981, the Union Jack was lowered from the flagpole at the St. John’s Recreation Ground, and replaced by the new Antigua and Barbuda flag. Church bells pealed, fireworks lit up the skies, and guns boomed from three British warships and one ship each from the United States and Venezuela which sailed into St. John’s, the capital, to salute the new nation. Princess Margaret, appearing on behalf of her sister, Queen Elizabeth II, presented the instruments of state to new Prime Minister Vere Cornwall Bird.
On Sunday, 1 November 1981, the flag of the new nation of Antigua and Barbuda was raised for the first time as the country became a fully sovereign and independent state. Sir Wilfred Jacobs become the country’s first Governor-General.