Listening to the speeches of the British Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons, following on the recent riots in Britain, I was struck by a few principles that should be enunciated again and again. However we should also note the way in which any country, any politician, will pick the principles that are most convenient to them at any moment. This is eminently understandable when a country faces a crisis, so we should not for a moment marvel at David Cameron’s stress on maintaining law and order when violence breaks out that threatens the innocent. Even though the BBC showed scenes, while telecasting the Prime Minister’s speech, of what seemed frightening police brutality in dealing with suspects, we must suppress our distaste – provided of course that no permanent damage is done, a proviso that will need to be considered carefully – in recognizing the need to protect the innocent and make it clear that violence will not be tolerated.

While a crisis continues, and it concerns one’s own country, it is the principles relating to the restoration of law and order that will be paramount. However, when other countries are concerned, it will be other principles that are stressed. This may seem hypocrisy to those who are adversely affected, but we have to recognize that this is simply a facet of human nature, and few people bother to discipline their natures when they see no benefits to be gained from doing so. On the contrary, when there seem to be gains to be made from sanctimonious pronouncements, they will be made insistently, with a ruthless eye to what might be termed the balance sheet.

To digress for a moment, the British capacity to pontificate while guarding their own interests came home to me vividly a few years back when I was helping to edit Derrick Nugawela’s excellent autobiography, ‘Tea and Sympathy’. In describing his work as a leading tea planter, he noted how he had tried to improve things for his Tamil estate workers, only to be told by his Managing Director from London that funds could not be available for this.

The Managing Director, as he painted him, was a thoroughly nice man, with whom Derrick maintained cordial relations for decades. But the man was adamant about the fact that his allegiance was to his shareholders, and that the bottom line was profit. He had to make sure that dividends had to be paid, and unnecessary expenditure, however worthy, had to be avoided.

The appalling manner in which the British treated the plantation workers did not prevent British newspapers, immediately after the estates were nationalized, inveighing against the conditions suffered by these Indian Tamils, and presenting them as deliberate discrimination by a Sinhalese government. I have always seen that sleight of hand as a brilliant example of how the British operate, and why we must be extremely cautious in accepting their sympathy. But to think of these practices as springing from hypocrisy would be a mistake. I have no doubt that the journalists who described the suffering of the Indian Tamils in the mid-seventies were perfectly sincere. It was simply that they were myopic, not caring to wonder what had been the situation before the estates were nationalized, not caring to think about the motives about those who had suddenly drawn the attention of the media to conditions on the plantations, a subject that had been sedulously avoided when they were under British ownership.

This situation is, I should note, also relevant to my main theme, which is the distinction we need to make between grievances and the violence that can accompany expression of those grievances. While, as we have been arguing consistently, we have to deal firmly with such violence, we must always be mindful of grievances amongst the vulnerable that burst out in violence. Sadly, there was not enough attention to this in the speech of the British Prime Minister. He talked at length about the moral failure of those who had resorted to violence, and I can appreciate his determination to make it clear to them that violence would not be tolerated. But, difficult as it might have been, he should I think also have paid attention to the deep-seated sense of grievance which had motivated some of those who had resorted to violence.

This is difficult. One has to be extremely careful not to seem to encourage violence, not to discourage the forces of law and order that must be supported in their efforts to control and eliminate violence. One cannot in any way seem to suggest that violence is justified. But one should not be insensitive to the feelings of those who feel disempowered and therefore resort to actions that the more privileged, such as the Prime Minister, will never think of because they have other ways in which to ensure remedies for their own grievances.

Ed Miliband: “Different people have different views… but there are no excuses”

In this regard I thought that the speech of the Leader of the Opposition got the balance correct. Unlike our own opposition, he made it quite clear that he was opposed to violence, and that he stood with the government in its efforts to deal with this firmly. But he also noted the need to look more deeply into the causes of social unrest, and to deal with these sympathetically. Listening to him, I was proud that the young man had been to Corpus Christi College, and that he made up for the utterly self-centred hypocrisy of his brother who sadly shares that distinction. David Miliband, had he been Leader of the Opposition at this state, would have dripped with sanctity, having fallen heavily on the side he thought would bring him greatest political and electoral advantage.

One of the problems with being firm about those who resort to violence from a position of weakness is the argument that they have no option. The Guardian, typically perhaps, quoted a youth worker who declared that the ‘underlying cause was that many young people felt “trapped in the system“.’ I cannot stress strongly enough that the argument cannot be used to justify violence. But the need to look into underlying causes is paramount, even if ultimately it can be seen that a Guardian type assertion of resentment without careful analysis of the reasons for that resentment is not very helpful.

With regard to Sri Lanka, those Britishers who attack the state relentlessly claim that Tiger violence was the result of the refusal of the Sri Lankan state to engage in reforms when asked for these peacefully. While certainly successive governments must take responsibility for backtracking from agreements that had been reached, it should also be noted that ongoing discussions did lead to reforms, even if these could have been faster and more far-reaching. And it should also be noted that the threats of violence that accompanied the movement for reform by Northern politicians created suspicions that restricted progress.

S. Thondaman 1913-1999

Contrariwise, the commitment to cooperation evinced by the Leader of the Indian Tamils, with peaceful protests when movement was slow, led to rapid reform that has certainly reversed the appalling discrimination from which the Indian Tamils suffered at the time of the British Plantation Raj. A community that received no benefits whatsoever when they were the hirelings of the British have equal treatment as regards social services, their housing is much better than in the past, and their political representation is back now to proportionate levels. All this has resulted from their measured involvement in mainstream politics. Certainly more could be done, but I believe the failure to move forward on the base built by the senior Mr Thondaman is because of a failure of concentration now on the part of the Indian Tamil political leadership, not failure on the part of the Sri Lankan government to respond positively to practical requests.

I hope then that representatives of those who fell ‘trapped’ by the British social and economic system will work towards reform on the lines of the senior Mr Thondaman, not Mr Prabhakaran or those he influenced so disastrously during his years of dominance. Similarly I hope that Mr Cameron, while dealing firmly with violence, will not forget the need to deal sympathetically with the reasons behind it. And I hope that, with the active cooperation of the Opposition, he will be able to make the relatively deprived in Britain, those who feel themselves oppressed, whether with good reason or not, see themselves as fully empowered participants in British society.

Daily News 15 August 2011