Unitary and Federal States
by Douglas Jayasekera
The Minister of Constitutional Affairs has been quite rightly
saying that we should now stop using labels like unitary,
federal, united, etc. and get on with the task of peace
It reminds me of my old civics teacher, in the school by the
sea, the late K. Nesiah, who used to quote, "For forms of
government, let fools contest, whatever is best
administered is best".
However, that advice has not prevented the Minister from
plugging the virtues of a federal state.
There are various other professionals, like University
professors, and learned people from research institutes
cum NGO’s who have also been pushing the same idea. In
fact, a symposium organised by one of them recently,
ended up fervently eulogising the virtues of federalism.
Even some ambassadors, have been using diplomatic
language, to convey the same message.
It appears that their argument is, that it is only under a
federal state that effective devolution is possible. There
are federal structures where effective devolution has taken
place like in Switzerland, and other federal states where
devolution has been circumscribed by the Centre. Reading
all these pronouncements, I had to jog my fading memory
regarding the political theory which I had learnt many
Aren’t there any unitary states, where devolution has taken
place? I believe there are instances. A good recent
example is Britain. The U.K. under Tony Blair has devolved
extensive powers to Scotland and Wales. And the U.K.
remains a unitary state.
The Philippines is also a unitary state. Their embassy in
Colombo confirmed this. The Philippines authorities and
the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) have been
conducting peace negotiations in Kuala Lumpur, with the
assistance of the Malaysian authorities. Extensive
devolution of power is envisaged to the Southern
Philippines, which has a large Muslim population.
There is another lesson for us, from Kuala Lumpur, as the
Philippines Government and the MILF turned to a friendly
neighbour to sort out their problems, which has plagued
their country for four decades (twice as long as our conflict)
and has cost 120,000 lives (again twice as many as in Sri
Lanka). The Philippines did not turn to the West, even
though the Philippines had been colonised by two western
powers i.e. Spain and the U.S.A. This is in sharp contrast to
us, where for every conceivable problem, we turn to the
It may be that our ruling elites, with some notable
exceptions, are too western oriented. Or is it due to the
failure of our giant neighbour to play the role that Malaysia
is playing, though they did try a couple of times?
Unitary and Federal States
by Devanesan Nesiah
I was happy to be reminded by my good friend and
classmate Douglas Jayasekera of what we were taught at
‘the school by the sea’: "For forms of government, let fools
contend, whatever is best administered is best". But there
are even better reasons than tutoring by Ambassadors,
Professors and NGOs for rejecting "a unitary state with
maximum devolution". Two extended bloody spells of civil
war in the 90s have shown that it does not work in our
situation, just as the earlier spell in the 80s showed that a
unitary state without devolution did not work.
Douglas seems to suggest that India, Malaysia and UK are
better models than Switzerland. We need to know that both
India and Malaysia are essentially federal / quasi federal.
The UK administration is even more devolved in several
respects. Scotland has its own Parliament (not just a State
Assembly), and is internationally recognised as a nation for
many purposes. It feels its own cricket, football, rugby and
other sport teams in competition with England, Wales and
Northern Ireland. Within each of these nations, the
counties enjoy a level of autonomy (e.g. in running schools,
hospitals, police forces, etc.) higher than is possible under
the 13th Amendment, which cleared the Supreme Court by
the narrowest of margins. Anything in advance of the 13th
Amendment is likely to be rejected by the Supreme Court
as inconsistent with a unitary Constitution.
Starting from outright rejection of federalism five and a half
decades ago, we have made a long and painful journey to
broad acceptance of federalism. It would be a terrible
mistake to backtrack now to the starting point. However,
despite the ‘unitary’label, the British model, especially as
represented by Scotland, is very attractive to those who
favour both an advance form of devolution and
participatory democracy. Scotland has a Scottish
Parliament with more powers and more resources than the
State Assemblies of India, Malaysia and many other federal
countries. Devolved subjects include –
Health and Social Work
|Education and Training
Local Government and Housing
|Justice and Police
Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
Tourism, Sports and Heritage
Economic Development and Internal Transport
Scotland has chosen to exercise its powers over these and
many other subjects through 18 Committees. Most of the
129 Members of the Scottish Parliament sit on either one or
two of these Committees. The Scottish Parliament chooses
the First Minister, who then chooses the rest of the Scottish
Cabinet. The Civil Servants, though part of the U.K. civil
service are answerable to the Scottish Cabinet Ministers
and the Scottish Parliament. Scottish Local Government
elections are conducted by the Scottish Government. The
annual budget of the Scottish Parliament is about 20 billion,
i.e. nearly Rs. 4,000 billion.
All these features are exemplary. Perhaps, less
satisfactory is that the sports teams do not represent U.K.
but the different nations, i.e. there are separate cricket,
football and rugby teams representing England, Scotland,
Wales and Northern Ireland, and none representing U.K.
Overall, the Scottish model is well in advance of many
federal states, and incomparably in advance of what was
provided for in the 13th Amendment.
But the prospects of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka
permitting any devolution on the Scottish model while the
Constitution remains unitary, or our Central Government
Ministers and Secretaries voluntarily giving up their powers
are infinitesimal. The maximum devolution possible in Sri
Lanka under any unitary Constitution is negligible.
If in deed "what is best administered is best", it is
abundantly clear from our tragic post-independent history
that a unitary model, with or without devolution, is not best
for us. It is a recipe for more civil war. [Island]