Jammu: Delivering the first Mufti Mohammad Sayeed Memorial Lecture, Indian-born British politician and economist, Lord Meghnad Desai, on Monday said that in any movement for regional independence or autonomy, “opinion of majority people must be taken while rights of minority must not be forgotten”.
“There is a lot to learn from the British experience in this regard, which they did in devolution of power among four of its (Great Britain’s) regions,” Desai said.
Without mentioning or even referring to Jammu and Kashmir, Desai, at the very outset, told the audience, “As a stranger, I have decided not to speak of your problems but to tell you my problems or our problems in Britain.”
It was Desai’s first visit to Jammu & Kashmir. In his 22-minute speech, Desai referred to the Scottish and Irish movements for independence and how they later turned into autonomous regions.
The memorial lecture was titled, “Devolving Power: The British Experience”.
Desai, who moved to London in 1965, described the “very inventive solution” to the Northern Ireland problem in which separate referendums were held for minorities and majorities.
Desai said that the United Kingdom had one of the most centralised Constitutions. “There was one Parliament, except for Northern Ireland,” he said. “Everything was done through London and White Tower, and there was very little scope for regional variations in the country.”
“There was England, which is the large and dominant part; there was Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland… all these four units were under one single authority, cabinet, parliament and monarch,” he explained. “Over the years, 50 odd years, there was a steady devolution of power because there was a movement in these various regions for more devolution of power.”
“The movements were democratic… they were expressed through formation of new parties or through old parties which were in these regions and came to prominence,” he explained. “One reason perhaps for this desire for devolution was that the British Empire was gone and Britain had lot of economic difficulties adjusting to inflation, unemployment, slow growth and so on.”
“On the one hand, it (the UK) decided to join the European Union, which is a very amazing thing for a sovereign country to do, and now we are trying to withdraw from EU,” he said. “But at the same time, people thought if they had own autonomy in their region they might be able to perform better than the centre did. They could themselves look after their people’s welfare.”
Desai said that this movement for devolution of power first kicked off from Scotland in 1970. “In 1979, the Conservative Party was in a fragile majority and it passed a Scotland Act in 1979 that Scotland can have its own assembly to deliberate on certain matters,” he said. Desai is himself a member of the same Conservative party.
“But to test public opinion, a public referendum was held in Scotland, in which Scottish people were asked whether they wanted devolution of power or not. But a maverick Labour Party MP put an amendment saying that the referendum would only be valid if 40% of the electorate votes to support it… a single majority would not do it. Voting had to be enough so that we see it as the people’s expression rather than the expression of a committed minority,” Desai said.
A referendum was held in 1979, he said, in which “the Yes vote was larger than the No vote, but the overall turnout was only 60% and, therefore, the majority did not constitute 40% of the total electorate and the experiment failed. Unfortunately, the Scottish Nationalist Party at that point withdrew support from the government.”
The next stage of the Scottish movement was when the Conservative Party with Ms Thatcher at the head came to power, he said. “Conservative Party did not win a single seat in Scotland… the seats went to either Labour Party or Scottish Nationalist Party,” he informed.
“People of Scotland said that we do want to ruled by somebody we did not elect to be Prime Minister. Then there was a big Scottish independence movement and it became a sort of all-party community movement… all Scottish community came together and started discussing and debating as to how Scotland will become independent,” Desai narrated.
Scotland had joined England in 1707, Desai informed. “There was an Anglo-Scottish treatment at the time of merger by which the Scottish Parliament was abolished and it became part of the Westminster Parliament (in London).”
Desai said that the Scottish people now demanded a Parliament of their own. “That demand started in the early 1990s when the Conservative Party was in power. They did not concede it. When the Labour Party came to power in 1998, a Scottish Act was passed but there had to be a referendum about how much power had to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. There was 80% turnout in that referendum. This clearly established a majority and validated the Act. The Scottish Parliament could now legislate on many issues including national health, education and it could change rates of income tax,” Desai said.
“It was a big concession in terms of fiscal autonomy,” he said about the fixing of tax rates by the Scottish Parliament.
“The next phase was the Scottish movement for independence from United Kingdom,” he said. “A bill was passed by the Westminster government allowing a referendum in Scotland for independence.”
This bill was passed but no condition – like that of 1979 – was put as to what proportion of electorate should approve the decision, he explained. “English people had no interest in it… there was no anger about independence of Scotland,” Desai said.
“But when it was held, 55% voted against Scottish independence! Scottish people said that they wanted stay with UK but with their own parliament,” Desai said. “They were also against leaving the European Union.”
“There was a very civilised Constitutional debate as to what kind of power should be devolved to Scotland,” he said, adding that this particular question in UK politics was around for the past 40 years.
“This movement of devolution was unstoppable and in Wales, the Welsh people were also asked if they wanted independence… UK invaded Wales in the 13th century,” Desai told the audience.
In Northern Ireland, he said, there was a very peculiar situation. “Ireland became independent of UK in 1920 but there was partition of Ireland and 6 counties of Northern Ireland decided not to be independent but rather stay on with mother colony, UK, and they were called Unionists,” he said.
“The difference was because much of Southern Ireland was largely Catholic and regarded Protestant clergy as oppressors, whereas in Northern Ireland a number of people had come across from Scotland and settled there and they were strongly Protestants,” he explained. “So, Northern Ireland was divided between Unionists (Protestants) and Nationalists but Unionists were in majority and when Ireland became independent, Northern Ireland stayed as part of UK.”
Desai then referred to the violence and sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland. “IRA and terrorism and counter-terrorism by Protestants lasted through much of 20th century. In 1998, a treaty was signed between Republic of Ireland and the UK and a referendum was conducted as part of the Good Friday agreement to bring together Nationalists and Unionists in a single government.”
“That was a very interesting experiment,” he said of the referendum. “It was conducted separately for the Protestant community and the Catholic community. There had to be a majority in each community before the decision could be accepted, because Protestants were in majority and Catholics in minority in Northern Ireland and it was vice-versa in Southern Ireland.”
“Separate referendums were conducted so that each community would support the final agreement and that is a very inventive way of tackling minority-majority problems. The minority has its own rights and should not be brow-beaten by the majority to do things which they do not want to do,” Desai said. “We now have a government which has to have both Catholics and Protestants… they have to sit together.”
“Unless they don’t sit together, the rule goes back to the centre at Westminster,” Desai informed. “There was a history of partition but now there is peace in Northern Ireland.”
“Great Britain was a highly centralised country but now it is a country of four regions; of four nationalities or four nations,” Desai said. “It is a big cultural transformation for a country in which one region dominated the whole country. But there is highly decentralised power now.”
There were street demonstrations, agitations and strikes, Desai said, “but at the end of the day a reasoned argument prevailed that ultimately we have to reflect the opinion/wishes of the people. But the way wishes of people are checked has to be carefully calibrated, so that the decision is not driven by the fanatical minority.”
“There are other experiments right now going on in Spain,” Desai said, referring to the Catalonian movement for independence. “But the written Spanish constitution does not allow any such division. So there is complete breakdown between Catalonia and Spain and it is not very certain whether people of Catalonia want independence from Spain or not,” he maintained. “They have not tried the British way.”
“I hope that in several EU countries where regional movements are gaining momentum, whatever they decide, they will consult the people… consult people carefully and make sure that you get genuine opinion of majority people while at the same time not forgetting the rights of the minority. It is a very tricky situation but I think there is lot to learn from the British experience,” Desai said, concluding his lecture.