By Ravi Perera –
Although the way to San Jose could be inquired for more musically , finding the way to Latimer House has apparently become a lot more urgent to those in Sri Lanka. In the past two months we have seen so many, high brow, middling and even those who wouldn’t know the difference between Latimer and a latrine attempting to give guided tours of that evidently significant house in England. Even eminent figures like Ranil Wickramasinghe the leader of the opposition, and Rohitha Bogollagama former Minister for foreign affairs have taken upon themselves the burden of explaining the importance of this house to those of us living a good 8,500 Kilometers from Great Britain.
It is a fact of our post colonial existence that operational methods, precedence and traditions of foreign institutions particularly those such as parliaments and courts of law are of significant relevance to our institutions. For example, where on any aspect our parliament has no clear regulations, we will look at the practices of the British Parliament for guidance. Similarly, although not binding, judgments of foreign courts have enormous persuasive value in our courts. In addition, we as a country have periodically endorsed various international covenants which also oblige us to comply with standards they import.
Before the European colonization began, the world was a very large place. In those times it was inconceivable for a person born in Sri Lanka to make a trip to Europe; for that matter for a man living in Anuradhapura even to travel to Matara would have been a formidable undertaking. Distances then were true frontiers. In those times it is unlikely that Sri Lanka would have had a population of more than a few hundred thousand, most of them living in the settled agricultural lands in the North Central areas. A good part of the island was covered with thick jungle, where evil spirits lived and wild animals roamed. The traveler to Matara would have had to find his way through the jungle with only barely visible tracks to walk on. Such a journey would have been an adventure that would be attempted only by the bravest and that too only once in a life time.
In ancient times different civilizations, established in various parts of the world, seem to have existed with only a vague idea of the other. Unless there was a physical threat from one, what one civilization did was of little consequence to another. But during the five centuries of European colonization and thereafter, the world has contracted immensely. While the physical shrinking has been tremendous, the contraction in the minds of men, in terms of identification as well as the sense of unification with other, dissimilar races, is even more remarkable. As a consequence, a judge of a Sri Lankan court does not feel any discomfiture in wearing the robes and wigs as worn by an English judge, of an altogether different culture and climate. When the Speaker of Parliament walks in with the Mace (carried by a servant of the parliament) to a house divided into government benches and that of the opposition, he does not feel awkward in the least in mimicking the ideas, customs and traditions of a European race which had subjugated his ancestors with the force of weapons. We often see members of parliament, dressed in the national costume, raising issues of parliamentary privileges and powers just like they do in the big house by the Thames.
But is this adaptation so easy and simple? Can a race of people with a totally different history, culture, ways of looking at things and even physical appearance copy and mimic ways and methods of another race and make them work as well? After all, the British not only proved themselves a strong and vigorous race capable of carving out a world-wide empire, they also brought forth ideas and created institutions which have endured and flourished. British ideas and institutions such as parliaments, courts of law, democratic institutions, scientific advances, literature and a million other things today almost define a more advanced form of human existence. We take it for granted that such institutions and ideas that the British thought as suitable for their civilization will equally hold good for us as well.
For instance, it is not even thinkable in England today, that a politician would use violence or attempt to rig elections by unlawful methods. Obviously in that society a person takes to public life out of different considerations and motives. In Britain rarely do we have life time politicians who aspire for political office in their early twenties and stay in office even when they are in their seventies, as mere vegetables. Although a much richer country, the elected enjoy very few benefits of office; most ministers, judges, public servants take the train to work in the UK even today. They don’t have an army of servants, bodyguards, political staff etc as we do. On most surveys of quality of life, the United Kingdom is among the top ranks. By contrast our show here is a vulgar cavalcade of careerists, showoffs, thugs, comedians and conmen. In Sri Lanka even the spouses of such people enjoy a life style which is scandalous considering the reality of life for the rest of the population.
Coming back to the two gentlemen who, among others, wrote about the Latimer House principles, can it be said that they are truly politicians of the British model? We cannot think of a single party leader in British history who would have continued as leader with the record of electoral and other failures associated with the Ranil Wickramasinghe leadership. But every defeat is explained away, as every defeat could be, with the wish that the next time around would be different. Rohitha Bogollagama was elected to parliament on the basis of UNP votes and thought nothing of crossing over to the government side to enjoy the perks of a ( and as rumour has it very well so) Ministerial office.
Even if the British parliament were to impeach a judge, that process will take place in a different culture, almost another world. Their media would be a fearless and vibrant participant in the whole progression of the impeachment. It is unlikely that the British public would allow the impeachment of a judge purely because it suits the legislature. Their political parties and the MPs would be responsive to public opinion. Impeachment after all is a “judicial process” resulting in finding fault with and penalizing of a person. Such a process cannot be a situation where MPs vote on party lines. It also is a situation where one arm of the government is intruding into another, directly affecting the division of power. That process cannot be a mock trial where some interested parties achieve their ends by any means. The core values, standards and the sense of fair play that have defined most English institutions will be the greatest defense against subverting such a process.
It was once argued by somebody that Hinduism is essentially an Indian religion, meaning that its appeal is overwhelmingly restricted to a certain kind of people. A people who eat, dress, walk, look at things in a certain way, have certain kinds of tastes and are identifiable in appearance also find spiritual appeal in that religion. Outside of the Indian Sub-Continent, to other people, races and those of a different up-bringing, Hinduism evidently has no appeal and as a result finds very few converts. Whatever the truth of this argument concerning religious beliefs, we may wonder whether in a similar way, ideas such as constitutional, parliamentary and common law systems which characterize the method of government in the United Kingdom will have the same efficacy in societies such as ours.
On the way to Latimer House we will find a bigger house called the Parliament House. That being the case will we ever find the way to Latimer House?
Read the Sinhala translation here. Translation by Yahapalanaya Lanka.