A narrative of deep commitment to two beloved countries – Lord Naseby’s SRI-LANKA
By Neville Ladduwahetty
The title of this book comes from a line in an epic poem by John Milton on England’s Civil War. Although the book is a narrative of the many contributions by the Author to further the interests of Sri Lanka, it is more about the armed conflict and its aftermath that attempted to alter the political future of Sri Lanka. Therefore, it is fitting that the Author chose a line from a poem that deals with a Civil War that defined the political future in his own country – the United Kingdom. The link is intriguing because the Author decided to identify himself with Naseby – a village in Northampton South, that was the constituency from which he, then Michael Morris, was elected as a Member of the British Parliament for twenty years. Even more so is the fact that Naseby is where the historic Battle of Naseby took place as attested to in a letter from Oliver Cromwell dated 1645 informing the Speaker of the victory of England’s Civil War. This battle at Naseby that defined the end of England’s Civil War resulted in altering the political character of England for all time.
The book was first published by Unicorn Publishing Group in 2020. It includes Forewords by The Rt. Hon. Baroness Boothroyd, House of Lords, and by a former President of Sri Lanka, H.E. Chandrika Bandaranaika Kumaratunga, together with a narrative covering Nineteen Chapters and Appendices divided into three Sections.
Michael Morris’s abiding interest and fascination with Sri Lanka, which he repeatedly refers to as “my beloved country”, can only be understood from the experiences and relationships he and his young family forged when he assumed duties as Marketing Manager of the Reckitt & Colman Group in Ceylon. Equipped with an Upper Second degree in Economics from Cambridge, Michael Morris and his young wife Ann and baby arrived in Sri Lanka in May 1963.
One of those special relationships that had a profound and lasting influence on Michael’s young life and future was with the late Anandatissa de Alwis who was the head of J Walter Thompson. What started out as a telephone call and an invitation to dinner to inform Michael that he intended to contest the next election was the turning point for both, and as it turned out, for Sri Lanka too. According to Michael, “Both of us found the evening a really stimulating experience as we bounced ideas off each other, so much so that we arranged to meet every Tuesday evening to talk politics and electioneering. Towards the end of my stay he said: “You should think of entering UK politics as you clearly have quite a bit to offer” (Chapter Two). Continuing, he states, “I owe him a huge thank you for sowing the seed that eventually germinated on 28 February 1974 when I was elected MP for Northampton South with a majority of 179” (Chapter Two). “However, it might never have happened had not my dear late friend Anandatissa de Alwis played tennis, given me dinner regularly and discussed the prospects of standing for election to the Parliament later successfully becoming the Speaker of the Sri Lankan Parliament. I only became First Deputy Speaker to the UK Parliament but he ‘lit the lamp” (Chapter Nineteen).
These deeply felt sentiments expressed by Michael Morris, now Lord Naseby, reflect a deep sense of gratitude to his dear late friend for lighting the lamp that launched his political career in UK, which became his launching pad to devote a lifetime to help Sri Lanka in every possible way.
Most Sri Lankans know of Lord Naseby as the valiant soldier who undaunted by all the challenges thrown his way by the UK bureaucracy, persisted and secured the dispatches sent by UK’s Military Attache in Sri Lanka, Lt. Col. Anton Gash under provisions of the UK Government’s Right to Information Act. Notwithstanding all these efforts that spanned from March 2014 until May 2016, he received “fifteen dispatches – claiming to be all there were – covering thirty-eight pages” of highly redacted material (Chapter Sixteen & Appendix VII). The relentless effort expended by him reflects his persistence to secure vital material with which to challenge the charge of war crimes leveled against the Sri Lankan Government and its Military.
Most Sri Lankans are not aware of his other contributions to further the interests of Sri Lanka. With a view to establishing bonds between the UK Government and Sri Lanka, he created the All-Party British Sri Lanka Parliamentary Group in the early 1970s which he claims “was not easy for a new boy”. Furthermore, it was a particularly difficult time to promote such a Group in the background of political volatility in Sri Lanka coupled with the policies of the then Government under Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike, that nationalized tea estates and introduced other socialist measures. Despite these challenges, his persistence was rewarded when he was voted Chairman in June 1975 at the inaugural meeting of the All-Party British Sri Lanka Parliamentary Group (Chapter Three). This position gave him access to the political establishments in UK and Sri Lanka.
With the election of Hon. J.R. Jayewardene as Executive President of Sri Lanka in 1977, and the election of the Conservative Party in UK with a huge majority and Mrs. Thatcher as the Prime Minister in 1979, the environment was ripe to foster the interests of Sri Lanka. According to his narrative “Mrs. Thatcher was advised …to pull out of the Victoria Dam Project. I asked her a question at Prime Minister’s Question Time and as a result she invited me to Number 10 to explain why the UK should continue with this very expensive project which had been initiated by Labour’s Judith Hart MP. I was not in marketing and advertising for nothing. I made my case, was listened to by the PM and thanked with the words: Well done – you have convinced me” (Chapter Four). At the ceremonial opening of the Project Mrs. Thatcher stated that the Victoria Dam Project was “the largest single oversees aid project ever undertaken by Oversees Development Administration” (Appendix 1). It was Michael Morris MP who made it happen.
Michael’s attempt to get the BBC External Service to have an external service in Sinhala similar to the Tamil broadcast because his Tamil friends had indicated to him that the BBC service in Tamil was biased in favour of Eelam, failed. His reaction was: “So much for the impartiality of the BBC” (Chapter Five).
However, undaunted by this failure he and his friend Gamini Dissanayake, jointly engaged in a project that was dear to the hearts of both. That was to work out a strategy to get Sri Lanka into the ICC. Their strategy was to “divide the task with Gamini as Chairman of Sri Lanka Cricket Board tackling India, Pakistan, Australia and New Zealand whilst I agreed to lobby the MCC – the guardians of the game of cricket – the Minister of Sports and all the High Commissioners in London whose country played Test cricket. Between us we must have done a good job, for it was announced in 1981 that Sri Lanka was elected to full Test status” (Chapter Five).
Chapter 11 deals with the December 2004 Tsunami and how he and his wife did not hesitate a moment to promptly offer their help to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Their joint contribution to cope with the unprecedented challenges presented by this traumatic experience was recognized by “the award of the Sri Lanka Ratna – the highest award that can be given to a foreigner” by Sri Lanka’s President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga,
The remaining Chapters with the exception of the final Chapter titled “Reflections”, deal with many topics such as: Peace Talks; Indian intervention; Democracy in Reality; Despondency All Round; The war; Post war view in Sri Lanka and the view Overseas; Creating the chance to Succeed; Freedom of Information Act; War Crimes and The LTTE and other groups. It is evident that the focus of the book was on the Sri Lanka’s armed conflict and its aftermath.
On a personal note, it was particularly gratifying for me to find Lord Naseby objecting to accepting “Violations of Human Rights Law”. Continuing he states “This ignores the self-evident fact that this was a war between the democratically elected and legitimate Government of Sri Lanka and a terrorist group, the LTTE. The law that must operate is the law of armed conflict otherwise known as International Humanitarian Law. The European Convention on Human Rights upon which the British Human Rights Act is based is wholly inappropriate for application in combat and battlefield conditions” (Chapter Fifteen).
The support for International Humanitarian Law as the Law to judge the conduct of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict is of particular interest to me because I have been advocating such a position consistently since 2008. The advocacy of International Humanitarian Law as the most appropriate law to judge the conduct of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and the LTTE, was advanced by me during my presentation to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Regrettably though, no Government of Sri Lanka thus far has accepted this recommendation and advocated it in any of its official statements.
Reading the book was a rewarding experience particularly because of the attention one has to pay to style and detail when reviewing a book. The repetition one notes when reading the book is inevitable because of the overlap of events and reference to personalities. The daunting question he leaves for future generations to address is to find the “match to light the lamp” for the West to better understand Sri Lanka.
On the other hand, since patience and time has a way of healing thorny issues, the image of Sri Lanka in the West too would normalize with time. Persistence in handling issues with prudence and patience will win out in the end.
The message that one gets about the Author is that he is deeply committed to causes that he passionately believes in, thus reflecting a level of integrity and single minded purpose in all issues he sets his mind to and undertakes. This attitude enabled him to stand by those who made an impact on his life.
The fact that Michael MorrIs MP, later Lord Naseby, held a positions of significant importance in the UK Government, gives the reader a unique exposure to the inner workings of his Government to a degree that few outside would have the privilege to know. Furthermore, the fact that he had access to the highest echelons of power in the Governments of both the UK and Sri Lanka gave him a rare platform to pursue his objectives and those of both Governments. One such incident was when his Government wanted him to contact President Jayewardene and canvass the support of Sri Lanka on the Falklands issue. The other was to convince the UK Government to undertake its largest single overseas aid project – the Victoria Dam.
Consequently, this book is not the usual book on communal politics and power sharing arrangements, or about the armed conflict and post conflict issues. Nor is it about the national question and the continuing work of the Tamil diaspora in the West, written from either a national perspective or as an outsider’s narrative. Instead, the book is unique in that it is a narrative by one who was posted to Sri Lanka and who developed deep and abiding personal relationships during his stay which enabled him to take advantage of his considerable influence both in UK and Sri Lanka for the betterment of mutually beneficial interests to both countries and its Peoples. As he says in the final Chapter titled “Reflections”, his “motivation to write the book was to record my experiences of a country which captivated my imagination…and I was driven by one simple principle: wanting to help the people of Sri Lanka”. These motivations make the book an unusually enriching experience, not only to read but also as a historical record of his efforts to influence British and Sri Lankan relations.