Since 2012 our team of volunteers have been interviewing former MPs about their lives and careers for the History of Parliament Oral History project, and often their memories reflect on current events both in Westminster and the wider world. Here, volunteer interviewer Peter Reilly discusses some of the key moments in the career of Michael Morris, Lord Naseby, who throughout his life had close links to Sri Lanka, a country once again in the news.
Sadly Sri Lanka is in the news for all the wrong reasons at the moment: political turmoil and economic instability culminating in the storming of the Presidential Palace. The island has also suffered in recent years from a terrible civil war and a devastating tsunami. I first experienced its charms on my honeymoon and then on a thirtieth anniversary trip, with a work visit in between. Michael Morris, Lord Naseby, whom I interviewed for the History of Parliament, has a much longer association.
In April 1963, Morris was working in Calcutta for Reckitt and Coleman selling household goods like Dettol/Reckitt Blue when he, his wife and young son were despatched at a week’s notice to Ceylon to cover the sudden departure of the marketing manager. He was to be stationed in Colombo for the next nine months. From there he toured the island promoting his company’s products to wholesalers and retailers, visiting markets as well as solving logistical problems.
It was in Ceylon that Morris’s active political interests were developed. He became friendly with the Ceylon Chief Executive of J. Walter Thompson (the international advertising company), Maha de Alwis, who had decided on a parliamentary career and Morris helped him plan his first election campaign. Indeed, De Alwis later became the Speaker of the Sri Lankan Parliament and Morris Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons. When arriving back in England, Morris then helped with the Conservative Party’s GLC election campaign in the Spring of 1964. In turn this led him in 1968 to run successfully for the Tories in the London Borough of Islington where he was chosen as Council Leader. He became an MP in February 1974 winning Northampton South.
On arriving at the Commons, Morris resumed his connection with Sri Lanka through his determination to set up a new, specific All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for that country. APPGs are informal, numerically balanced cross-party groups of Lords and Commoners which promote the interests of their country (or subject area) and seek to improve bilateral relations. He managed to persuade Betty Boothroyd, the House of Commons Speaker, to be vice-chair. Soon the group made its first official visit as the ethnic division between Singhalese and Tamils was becoming more evident and conflictual. Since 1974 both as an MP and as Lord Naseby, after he lost his seat in 1997, he has kept a role with the committee as chair or co-chair.
In his interview for the History of Parliament, Lord Naseby identified the three greatest achievements of his APPG involvement. Firstly, in 1979 he personally persuaded Margaret Thatcher to continue UK funding of the construction of the Victoria Dam on the Mahaweli River in the Kandy district of central Sri Lanka. There had been proposals to axe the aid as part of the incoming government’s cost saving measures, but Morris presented a compelling business (UK companies were heavily involved in the dam’s construction) and environmental (irrigation of the surrounding drought-ridden land was desperately needed) case. Mrs Thatcher officially opened the dam in 1985.
Secondly, he was instrumental in obtaining test cricket playing status for Sri Lanka in 1981 from the International Cricket Conference working with Gamini Dissanayake, a prominent politician also connected to the Mahaweli Development Project (subsequently assassinated by the Tamil Tigers). Together they plotted how to secure the support of the ICC and the England Cricket Board. The success of Sri Lanka’s elevation was demonstrated earlier this month by their defeat of Australia by a substantial margin in a test match played in Galle even while a political revolution was taking place in Colombo, eighty miles away.
His third memorable contribution to Sri Lanka was in December 2004 when the tsunami hit the southern side of the island. Naseby and his wife Ann were watching Boxing Day television news when they saw the tsunami’s devastation. They left as soon as possible for the island. Ann, a GP, offered support to the medical and education systems in Colombo. He worked on other logistical challenges, ‘untying knots,’ getting in supplies through the UK High Commissioner. Their trip started in the Maldives (he was chair for its APPG too). There his efforts included arranging a supply of eight Royal Navy electricians who were stationed in Trincomalee to restart the electrical generation capacity of many atolls which had been damaged by the flood, but with special dispensation from President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to allow alcohol consumption by the servicemen in what is normally a ‘dry’ country.
However, given the civil war and claims and counter-claims of wartime atrocities by the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers, UK Parliamentary involvement in that country’s affairs is not straightforward. Since war officially ended in 2009, Naseby sought to obtain evidence of whether the national army was involved in human rights’ abuses through access to the despatches of the UK’s military attaché. He has also been working to establish a truth and reconciliation process akin to Colombia’s rather than South Africa’s. Colombia focused its efforts on the clarification of the truth, recognition of the victims and promotion of peaceful coexistence between previous enemies. Testimonies obtained during the process cannot be used in any individual prosecutions.
In 2020 Lord Naseby published a book on Sri Lanka. Its sub-title ‘Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained’ now seems premature in its optimism. Let us hope that the country’s political institutions can regain popular approval and a new government restore economic stability. In that process it can count on loyal supporters like Naseby and of the parliamentary committee he established and led.
If you are interested in volunteering as an interviewer for the History of Parliament Oral History project, find out more here or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find more blogs based on our Oral History project here.