The pangs of British Union and the predicaments of Uva Provincial Election

10712789_10154661509140637_7536898339568231204_nRajan Philips

Once again I am trying to hit two birds with one stone – writing about the Scottish vote and the Uva vote in the same article. The Scottish referendum has come and gone and the British Union has survived the challenge but only at the cost of public promises from Westminster about significant constitutional changes in the immediate future. The Uva vote is underway even as I write this article to meet my generous deadline, and the election results will be known by the time it reaches those who are glad to suffer reading it. I will not pretend that Uva and Scotland are comparable, but I can say that as Sri Lankans, given our colonial heritage and current international image, we cannot avoid having our commentaries on local political developments informed by developments abroad. There are lessons that we can draw from the Scottish experience even as there are plenty of areas in the Sri Lankan state and government where such lessons can be applied. I can also say that much of the Uva Provincial election demonstrates that our political leaders are learning nothing and forgetting everything about democratic and participatory politics.

Democracy and participatory politics were the ultimate victors in the Scottish referendum on independence, while the ultimate losers in the Uva election have already been identified as the hapless voters in the Saturday Island editorial. Despite the heightened anticipation and the momentous consequences of the referendum, no one in power either at Westminster or Holyrood could throw their weight around during the campaign and in the conduct of the vote. Everyone including state and government leaders, political campaigners and the media scrupulously obeyed the rules of the referendum. The Scottish grass root administration worked like clockwork in conducting the referendum, with Scotland’s 32 local councils taking responsibility for the operation of 5,579 polling stations in 2,608 poling areas including the counting and announcing of results Council by Council, with the Chief Counting Officer left to announce Scotland-wide tallies at breakfast time for the whole of Britain.

 

In Uva, the people lost the election even before they cast their votes. There have been more news stories about everything that was going wrong with the election than about the issues that exercised the people, and about the platforms that contesting parties were offering for consideration. Violence and abuse at all levels became the rule and when a journalist asked whether Uva in 2014 is bad as what Wayamba was in 1999, the beleaguered Election Commissioner bemoaned that in Wayamba matters started getting out of hand only on election day. But great preparations must have been made to stage what is now known as the “poll plunder” in Wayamba, and we will soon find out whether Uva has been spared of or victimized by a similar plunder.

 

If the Yes vote won, Scotland would have gone on to become independent on March 16, 2016. But the meaning of the referendum is that it is the ultimate exercise in self-determination, and that either vote (Yes or No) is an expression of that self-determination. And no one can appreciate that nuance better than the people of Scotland, for as Hugh MacDiarmid wrote in 1927 that “the absence of nationalism is, paradoxically, a form of Scottish self-determination.” There was no absence of nationalism in this referendum, but there was a greater acceptance of the process and the willingness to abide by the results and move on. If the Yes side won, the British government would not have stood in the way. The process of separation would not have been easy at all, but we can safely say that for all its complications it would not have become a blood bath like the partition of British India. As I mentioned last week, Britain keeps living up to its old reputation in doing things much better at home than it used to in the colonies.

 

There is another aspect to this referendum. The referendum was made possible because Scottish nationalism had no truck with violence at any time. The repeated Quebec referendums in Canada would not have been possible if Prime Minister Trudeau had not taken the strong measures he did to quell the rise of political violence among the French Canadian separatists, while allowing the separatists to make their case democratically and without violence. The problem with political violence is that it unleashes unintended consequences far more than it achieves intended goals. The ultimate cost of political violence in the cause of national self-determination, is the permanent foreclosure of the referendum option. The chicken or the egg argument can go both ways in the case of Sri Lanka – whether the unlikelihood of a referendum precipitated the violence, or the abortive violence has foreclosed the referendum option; but insofar as the search for the truth is a practical question, postwar Sri Lanka can learn quite a few lessons from the Scottish experience, not only from the referendum but also its aftermath.

 

The lesson to learn from the role of the British government and parliamentarians is not that they were being hypocritical in opposing Scottish separation while supposedly supporting separatism in other lands, but that they were honest in canvassing for the “Better Together” (No) option while being open to the possibility of Scotland separating from Britain by voting Yes in the referendum. In fact, the campaign for unity stood for more than the monosyllable – No. It projected a more positive “Better Together” option, promising changes, and at times crossing the line in pointing out the dangers of separation. More importantly, the British government did not try to co-opt or charter Scottish salesmen to sell Britain in Scotland. That would have been a disaster. Instead, the British establishment stood aside and let the people of Scotland organically debate and determine their future.

 

And the people of Scotland included everyone who is a British citizen living in Scotland regardless of race, religion or ethnicity. The premise was to be territorially inclusive and not tribally exclusive. The referendum ethos gave free rein to the two contending sides to make their case as best as they could. Those who were campaigning for the No side were not ostracized or condemned as traitors, and they were able to make their case for a united Britain while affirming their pride in the uniqueness of Scotland. As I wrote last week, the intervention of Gordon Brown in the final stretch of the campaign, after the No side had blown away its 20 point lead, stopped the bleeding of Labour supporters from the No side to the Yes side. It was a successful Scottish comeback for a highly substantial and articulate politician after his rather unsuccessful stint as British Prime Minister.

 

Underlying the surge in the Yes support was the Scottish disaffection with Tory England. The legacy of Margaret Thatcher is as much reviled in Scotland as it might still be loved in parts of England, and poor David Cameron came close to picking up the pieces from the follies of the Iron Lady who insisted that she did not know how to turn. The referendum and the prospect of a break-up forced Cameron, not to send the British Army to Glasgow (that voted Yes), but to make vows of far reaching constitutional changes. The changes will go far beyond addressing the Scottish question, to address the Welsh question, the Northern-Irish question, but most importantly the question of England itself. To use the old cliché, Britain is living in interesting times. While constitutional changes will take their course, the immediate lesson is that no one in Britain is swearing by its unwritten unitary constitution. Nor is anyone stretching the argument of proportionality to the limits of absurdity. The utterances of the UK Independence Party have so far contributed to political hilarity without any diminishing of political civility. We can blame Britain endlessly for its colonial evils, but that need not prevent us from learning how Britain minds its own internal business.

 

It was in Uva that the British left the bloodiest scars of colonial rule in Sri Lanka, two hundred years ago. There is enough history about the Uva rebellion of 1818 and its brutal suppression. But the political question today is whether our political leaders can still claim rhetorical mileage from the 1818 rebellion, or whether they should be held accountable for what they have done, and not done, to make positive changes to the lives of the people living in the Uva Province. Equally, will it not be hypocritical to condemn British action in 19th century Uva, while turning a blind eye to what the military is accused to be doing in the 21st century Northern Province. In Uva, as well as in the North, political and electoral calculations are supervening humanitarian considerations.

 

First family bandyism is in full flow in Uva, while there is no flow of water for the drought-stricken population. Water bowsers rolled in to give water and buy votes, and money was doled out as additional compensation even as the Election Commissioner’s objections were predictably overruled. Political leaders and observers are paying bookmakers’ attention to Uva elections as a precursor to the Presidential election apparently divined for January, 2015. But there has hardly been any discussion about the controversial Uma Oya project undertaken with Iranian funding and engineering support, despite serious technical, social and environmental concerns raised by former Irrigation Department officials and current activists. A whole general election was fought in 1970 on the then (Dudley Senanayake) government’s plans for Mahaweli diversion and development. Now a provincial election has come and gone, but no one of consequence said anything about the Uma Oya scheme. It is tragic, more than it is strange.