Britain’s Answer to Separatism – Lessons for Us

by Vasantha Rajah

President Rajapakse’s recent comments on the British-model of power devolution have provoked a healthy debate. He has vaguely expressed his willingness to follow the British way to pacify separatism within a unitary setup. Interestingly, many commentators from both sides have responded negatively. ‘British circumstances are different therefore inappropriate for us’ is the crux of their arguments.

True, we cannot dig up the British solution to separatism and arbitrarily impose it on our soil. Two decades of war and deep-rooted distrust would not permit that. But never underestimate the significant lessons we can learn from our former colonial ruler. After all, the British were the original architects of our state structures in their own image – though the British themselves had to dramatically modify their system as recently as the turn of the 20th century to conciliate a similar problem to ours: separatism.

The Scottish National Party was openly campaigning for a separate state, and it was gaining significant electoral victories in Scotland on that demand. Thanks to embedded democratic traditions in Britain the Scottish struggle did not develop into an armed conflict. The London government did not outlaw the SNP; it did not prohibit anybody from campaigning on separatism; and, it did not send an English army to occupy Scotland. If it did, the Scottish movement would undoubtedly have taken the war path and the SNP would have ended up as the ‘British LTTE’.

Thus, there is a vast difference in the way the two phenomena grew in the two countries. That does not mean, however, there is nothing for us to learn from the manner Britain – particularly the Labour movement -placated a growing separatist challenge.

Tony Blair’s New Labour that came to power in 1997 granted a regional parliament to Scotland and a separate Assembly to Wales, disregarding Tory objections. The strategy did appease the rising tide of separatism. [I shall deal with the discrepancies related to the ‘homeland’ concept in comparison to the Sri Lankan context later. I am aware of the fact that in Britain the concept of Scottish/Welsh homelands – Scotland and Wales – is non-controversial, and therefore, acceptable to all sides, while in Sri Lanka the ‘Tamil homeland’ concept is a highly contentious issue. Thus, the north-east merger has become an intractable problem for a durable peace settlement.]

Let me briefly explain the immediate background of the Labour’s Scotland Act. [For clarity’s sake I shall not mix up the Welsh and Irish cases here.]

Scottish separatism was marching relentlessly to new heights in Britain, particularly during the Thatcher period. The English majority kept voting the Tories into power (from 1979 to 1997) while the Scottish minority has been ineffectually voting Labour throughout this episode. Things came to a high point when Margaret Thatcher imposed the infamous poll-tax. The Scots were furious. The separatist Scottish National Party (SNP) found the poll-tax issue and the newly found oil wells in the north as a lethal combination to promote the separatist case. The Scots blamed the English majority for putting the ‘oppressive’ Tory party to power.

Scottish minority’s political impotence in the face of English-domination of the Westminster parliament was becoming obvious. With new economic prospects of oil-wealth in sight why should the Scots suffer for the ‘political whims’ of the English, it seemed. The SNP’s popularity was on the rise.

Just like 1994 saw the end of seventeen years of oppressive UNP rule in Sri Lanka, 1997 marked the end of eighteen years of Conservative (Tory) rule in Britain.

The new Labour government moved fast to introduce the Scotland Act (1998) devolving substantial powers to a regional Scottish parliament within a ‘unitary’ setup. The Act explicitly recognised the ‘Scottish homeland’ concept and their right to self-determination. Thus, the Scottish separatist ebb was effectively stifled and an impending constitutional disaster – in case the separatist SNP becomes Scotland’s largest political party – was avoided.

However, an irritating lop-sidedness, an inconsistency, in Britain’s new political arrangement remained unaddressed. Within the new structure, the English MPs cannot participate in Scottish regional affairs, while the Scottish MPs who are in the London parliament can, in matters pertaining to the English majority.

This discrepancy has rattled many on the English side. A campaign to have a regional English parliament – leaving the London parliament to play the higher role of a ‘supreme’ parliament to deal with issues common to the entire country – can thus be seen gathering momentum. In other words, the present set-up is seen as a ‘halfway house’ that needs further refinement.

Clearly, Britain’s unique traditions and political culture – of not having a written constitution etc. – helped the Labour government to move fast and devolve power disregarding the inconsistency.

Sri Lanka’s unique situation does not leave room to do things in that manner. We, no doubt, need a seductively unambiguous constitution in black and white, and that can only emerge as part of a negotiated peace settlement. Two decades of brutal war necessitates this. Representatives from all three communities should do this, and the peace talks should rise above its present limitation of negotiating an ‘interim administration’ – the albatross that frustrates any headway for the peace process.

Negotiating half-way solutions – ignoring core issues related to the whole constitution – is a futile exercise. It is a recipe to heighten suspicion and distrust. It has come up against a brick wall and turned the adversaries into ‘porker players trying to call the bluff’.

In the ‘interim set-up’, whatever the government proposes is perceived by the Tamils as a trap to maintain Sinhala/Buddhist supremacy; and, whatever the LTTE proposes is perceived by the Sinhalese as a Tiger-ploy to reach its separatist strategy. Both sides have good reasons to say so. Thus, the task is to break this vicious circle and move the peace process forward.

Undoubtedly, Geneva talks in late February to review the LTTE-GOSL ceasefire agreement was a breakthrough, in a symbolic sense – a necessary step to turn the tide in the right direction. Yet, it lacks positive steps to rectify the fundamental fallacy of the peace process’s existing format – the troublesome agenda for an interim administration.

Understandably, it is not possible to switch from one format to another overnight. So, the initiative for the change should come from outside the ongoing talks – a massive media campaign, for instance.

An outline, or an image, of an appealing final solution that can easily capture the imagination of all communities, in my view, should be its centrepiece.

The terms ‘federal’ ‘unitary’ ‘union’ etc. are too abstract, and do not mean much to the man on the street. What people need is a powerful image of a solution which they can picture. Above all, it is here, the British wisdom becomes handy for us.

So, if we are to learn from the British experience, we should design a setup that anticipates the way the British model is evolving. We can, for instance, propose two regional parliaments – one for the northeast and one for the rest of the country – and a Supreme (Central) Parliament where the highest levels of defence, economic and judicial powers are vested.

After decades of bitter experience it is not difficult to convince the ordinary people of all races that it is in their best interest to have the highest courts, highest level of military command and island-wide economic planning secured at the centre – admittedly, if a well-crafted constitution is in place to protect the rights of nationalities and individuals for everyone’s satisfaction.

[”Country of all, and voice for all” – says A placard at the candle light vigil, held on Dec 31, 2005; The vigil was organized by The National Anti War Front at the Independence Square – Pic by Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai]

The powers to be devolved to regional parliaments, of course, would be a matter to be negotiated through the peace process. The extent of regional powers would depend on the degree of equality (power-sharing) epitomised at the centre. If the power-sharing at the centre is designed for everyone’s satisfaction then the pressure to increase regional powers would diminish. Economic-efficiency’ interests of the island as a whole – as single geographic unit – will replace the sectarian interests of ethnic groups; virtues of mutual cooperation will replace suspicion and hatred.

All previous piecemeal approaches to peace, including the ‘Indo-Lanka Accord’, lacked this fundamental difference. None of them bothered to harmonise self-ruling clout in the regions with power-sharing arrangements at the centre.

If a media campaign along above lines could change the perception of all communities then the peace process’s cynosure should pass from the regions to the centre; its paradigm should shift from the regions to the centre.

The dynamics of the fast integrating world economy are already shaping the instincts of all communities to see the mutual benefits of having a strong, democratic, central administration. The task, however, is to remove ‘the fog’: the prejudices that poison the Sinhala/Tamil mindsets. An improved image of the British solution to separatism could be the starting point to do just that.

Finally, let me come to the most controversial issue – the desirability of having a single regional parliament for north-east. Many seem to think the north-east merger would be a disaster for stable peace. Their calculations seem to me to stem from the peace process’s present ‘piecemeal’ standpoint. Once its paradigm shifts – to perceive regional democracy from a wider perspective of a power-sharing centre – a north-east merger, I believe, would be an asset for peace and democracy, not a hindrance.

Within the envisioned political setup, the north-east electorate’s heterogeneity will, I believe, surface in a positive way. Even the eastern Tamils, not just the Sinhalese and the Muslims there, are a different kettle of fish who would not tolerate domination from any quarter. Therefore, regional MPs representing variety of interests and outlooks in the north-east regional parliament will be a blessing for vibrant democracy. Eastern plurality will be a buffer against dictatorial tendencies; thus, an asset to northern democracy in particular.

The proposed media campaign should convince all citizens that the war is not an option, that coordinated island-wide infrastructure projects and mutual entrepreneurial investments would be the bedrock of a united country, that the war will push the country towards more misery and divisions.

Elsewhere I have shown that Anuradhapura is best suited to be Sri Lanka’s future administrative capital – the ideal location for the Supreme Parliament. It already has all basic amenities to build a dynamic city and relieve over-crowded Colombo from demographic pressure. Its central position in relation to all parts of the country would make it the perfect venue for the Central administration. From the UN’s poverty elimination angle, it would help eradicate the present imbalances in economic development, creating jobs and economic vitality. Sethusamudra Project, as a future focal point in the South Asian economy, will have positive effects on the north-central region, and the development of the north-central city of Anuradhapura as Sri Lanka’s main cultural centre will immensely contribute to the island’s tourist industry.

Therefore, I suggest, the evolving British model can be adapted to suit the Sri Lankan context. And, we can propose to all communities the image of two regional parliaments overseen by an Anuradhpura-based supreme parliament as a viable alternative to be negotiated. This, I believe, should be the central theme of a media campaign that needs to be launched parallel to an ongoing peace process.

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One Comment

  1. This model does allow the judicial poweres vested with the Supreme parliament. The concept of Supreme parliament, in my opinion, makes the regional Parliaments sub-ordinate. In the British model of devolution, Parliaments of Scotland, Wales and North Ireland are sub-ordinate. I think the author suggests substantive devolution to the regions and power sharing at the centre under a unitary set up.

    Devolution is a form of unitary government in which the central government delegates certain limited legislative and executive powers to the regions. The regions so created constitutionally have no separate sovereignty because the sovereignty is undivided and rests solely with the central government. Therefore, the power of the regions can be revoked or partially withdrawn at the will of the central government.

    Federalism on the other hand involves a ‘Union without unity’, a division of power between the centre and the constituent regions. A federal system has two system of governments – the centre and the regions – both exist on the basis of equality, both act directly on the people within their own spheres of authority and neither has powers to encroach on the authority of the other. The sovereignty in a federal system is divided between the two governments.

    Therefore, in my opinion, the concepts ‘unitray’ and ‘federal’ do matter. It is up to the Sri Lankan government to convince the sinhal people that federalism does not divide the country.

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