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Selected Writings - Dr. Adrian Wijemanne
Devolution in the UK and Sri Lanka
Hot Springs, 1 September 1997
1. Democracy in the U.K. is based on many commonly held convictions on a variety of subjects. One of these is the Universal understanding that Scottish, Welsh and Irish people resident in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the right to decide, by a majority decision of their own, on the nature of their governance. This is the right that is denied to the Tamil population of the northeast province of Sri Lanka by the Sri Lanka government and by the Sinhala people as a whole.
2. In the U.K. it is perfectly legal for political parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ( and even in England ) to advocate, and work openly for, the complete sovereign independence of each of these regions from the U.K. resulting in the division of the U.K. into separate states. For many years there have been political parties which do just this - the Scottish National Party (SNP, currently led by Alex Salmond, MP) in Scotland, Plaid Cymru (PC, currently led by Dafydd WigIey, MP) in Wales and Sinn Fein (SF, currently led by GerryAdams, MP) in Northern Ireland. Each of these parties has MPs elected to the British House of Commons.
In Sri Lanka the very opposite is the case. Since 1983 it is illegal to advocate independence for any region which would result in the break-up of the unitary, single-all island state of Sri Lanka into separate states. Representation in the Sri Lankan parliament is available only to those political parties which foreswear any such aspiration.
3. At successive general elections in the U.K. the great majority of MPs from Scotland and Wales have been from the Labour Party and only a small (but in Scotland a growing) number have been from the separatist parties. In Northern Ireland, similarly, the great majority of MPs have been from the Ulster Unionist Parties with a very small number from Sinn Fein.
In Sri Lanka the opposite is the case. The majority of MPs from the northern and eastern provinces taken as a whole at the general election of 1977 (the last general election before the outbreak of war) were from the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) which was committed at that time to securing a separate state in the northern and eastern provinces for the Tamil majority resident therein.
4. There are different responses by the three major political parties in the U.K. to the separatist tendency in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but all are united in a desire to preserve the Union i.e. the U.K. as a single state. The Conservatives hope to do this by spelling out, in rather general terms, the advantages of the Unionand the disadvantages of separation. It is an appeal to economic and material well-being.
The Labour Party hopes to preserve the Union by devolving substantial powers over local affairs (including taxation in Scotland) to separate parliaments in Scotland and Wales. The Liberal Democratic Party believes the Union will survive only under a formal federal constitution with separate legislative and executive bodies in each region (England as well) and an over-arching central guvernment for defence, foreign affairs, currency management and economic stability. In respect of Northern Ireland all three parties are agreed that the will of the majority of the resident population there for the continuance of the Union must prevail. None of these political parties and, indeed, not a single individual in the 56 million population of the U.K. believes it either right or possible to suppress the separatist tendencies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by military force.
In Sri Lanka the opposite of this belief is near universal - the Sri Lanka government and the overwhelming majority of the Sinhala people believe it to be both right and possible for Tamil separatist nationalism in the north-east province to be crushed by military force whereafter a limited devolution of powers not only to the Tamil dominated north-east province but also to other regions of the country would assuage the separatist inclination in the former and satisfy the desire for participatory democracy in the latter.
5. At the
general election held in the U.K. on 1st May `97 the Conservative
Party failed, for the very first time in its history, to win a
single parliamentary seat in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland;
all 167 seats won by it were in England, one of the
In Sri Lanka despite the vote at a general election, of the overwhelming majority of the resident population (Tamil dominated) of the northern and eastern provinces for independence, no significant devolution of powers was proposed; instead military repression of the by now-armed separatist movements was launched. After 4 years of war the Indian backed devolution of powers to countrywide provincial councils failed to arrest the Tamil nationalist determination for total independence. Since then 10 further years of warfare portend a long and unwinnable military imbroglio for one of the world's poorest states.
6. It is appropriate now to take a brief look back to an earlier experiment With devolution in the U.K. In 1979, the Labour government led by Jim Callaghan held referenda in Scotland and Wales to ascertain the views of their respective populations on devolution. In Scotland the vote on that occasion fell short of the 40% (of those voting) required for devolution. In Wales the vote was 4 to 1 in favour of continuing the existing Union. In the 18 years that have elapsed from 1979 to 1997 there has been a substantial growth in the separatist tendency in each territory. Only time will tell whether the devolution now to be implemented will arrest this tendency or exacerbate it. In the latter event, if separation becomes inevitable, it will be resorted to by peaceful means without recourse to force either for or against.
7. It is an interesting and very significant fact that in the 18 years between the two referenda in Scotland and Wales, both regions received especially favoured treatment by the government. To use an American phrase there was "reverse discrimination" on a substantial scale. Government expenditure per capita in each of these regions was, and is, considerably higher than in England. It is so in Northern Ireland as well though no referendum was held there either in 1979 or this year. Benign government failed to assuage nationalist aspirations in all three territories. Discrimination against a people is not necessary for nationalist separatism to grow. Irrespective of whether a government is discriminatory or benign, nationalist aspirations grow; discrimination merely converts them into a tinder box ready to explode at the first attempt at military suppression.
8. Earlier in this paper mention was made of the universal understanding in the U.K. that military force was not to be used to preserve the integrity of the state from break-up by internal separatist pressures. It was not always so. For 300 years ending in 1922 the British state used military force against Irish nationalist separatist guerrillas, who fought to secure an independent state for themselves on the island of Ireland where the Irish constituted the majority of the resident population. That great effort failed to extinguish Irish nationalism. It is that bitter experience of successive British governments in their own backyard that lies at the root of the current accommodating attitude towards nationalist secession. It determined also, the policy of accommodation towards the Indian independence movement which led to post-World War II decolonization.
9. The current policies of the Labour and Liberal Democratic Parties - devolution and federalism respectively - hope to arrest the tide of nationalism from a drift to outright separation and independence. Such a hope can be rationally entertained only before a separatist movement takes to arms in support of its cause. They have no utility as a means of ending an armed conflict between the state and separatist nationalist guerrillas as the British experience in Ireland, mentioned above, so vividly illustrates. There a raft of Home Rule legislation, ending with the Home Rule Act of 1912, failed to arrest the tide of armed insurrection or the eventual splitting up of the U.K. into two in 1922.
10. Both the U.K. and Sri Lanka face armed separatist nationalists today. In the U.K. the armed conflict is in Northern Ireland where the IRA carryout an urban guerrilla campaign, which spills over into mainland Britain from time to time, from time to time, with the object of separating the province of Northern Ireland from the U.K. and joining it to the Irish Republic. Only a minority of the Roman Catholic minority of the population of Northern Ireland support the IRA in that effort. The Protestant majority in Northern Ireland opposes separation from the U.K. and wants the Union to continue as at present. Despite the support of only a minority of the population and being outnumbered 100 to 1 by the British forces in Northern Ireland the IRA has kept the conflict going for 29 years and it is by no means over. yet though a ceasefire is currently in force.
11. In Sri Lanka the situation is different both qualitatively and quantitatively. The Tamil'decision to establish a separate state for themselves in the north-east province had the support of the overwhelming majority (69% ) of voters in this area at a general election The LTTE, which is the armed separatist group fighting for independence, seeks to implement that majority vote. The IRA and the LTTE are, therefore, qualitatively different - the former opposed by the majority and the latter acting in accord with the already publicly expressed will of the majority of their people.
Quantitatively the difference between the two is as polar. Whereas the IRA is known to number around 300 fighters the LTTE is 30 times that number. Whereas the IRA is opposed by the formidable forces of the British army and the British state, the LTTE is opposed by much less powerful adversaries in the Sri Lanka army and the Sri Lanka state. The IRA has kept the conflict going for 29 years now; the LTTE for 14 and is undoubtedly capable of many more decades of conflict.
12. Devolution in the U.K., in Scotland and Wales, is expected to stave off, at least for the time being, a nationalist drive for total separation and independence. Only time will tell whether this object will be achieved or whether the opposite will be realised i.e. whether it will fuel the fires of separation. In Sri Lanka much more is expected of devolution - that it will end a bitter war now in its 15th year by weaning the Tamil people of the northeast province away from their desire for independence and their support for the LTTE, thus leading to the latter's demise. The dice of history are loaded heavily against such a consummation.