Chapter 7 of my book on this subject dealt with the Donoughmore Constitution and its workings. The State Council it had set up achieved a lot but by the forties the Sri Lankan political leadership wanted more. Since, unlike in India, there had been loyal service to the British war effort by Ceylonese political elite, as represented by the Board of Ministers, a commission led by Lord Soulbury was sent to Ceylon to commence discussions on self-government during the war. The ensuring achievement of Independence and the power of the Prime Minister under the Soulbury Constitution was the subject of Chapter 8.
It was D S Senanayake who during the Second World War presided over the negotiations towards independence. Though initially only a larger measure of self-government was being considered by the commission, the logic of history and the imminent independence of India prompted Britain to agree to the request for independence.
The new Constitution, under which Ceylon became independent in February 1948, abolished the State Council, which had encouraged a sense of responsibility regarding government in all members of the legislature. It introduced instead an oppositional system that was based almost entirely on the British cabinet system. After the parliament was elected, the person who commanded the confidence of a majority of the members of parliament was appointed prime minister, and he then appointed a cabinet to exercise executive power.
A consequence of this was that the consensus building system of the Donoughmore Constitution, and the Executive Committee system it had set up, went into oblivion. Politics began to be polarized, and fault lines began to appear in the body politic, faultlines based differences between rich and poor, urban and rural, and also ethnic groups.
In the first parliament that was elected there was no clear majority for any single party. However, D.S. Senanayake managed to put together a coalition, consisting of his own United National Party (with which S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike had already merged his Sinhala Maha Sabha), Goonesinha’s Labour Party, G.G. Ponnambalam’s Tamil Congress, and some other independent politicians. The British system (or the Westminster system, as it is termed, after the site of the British Parliament), institutionalises oppositional politics. Accordingly, Sri Lanka now had a leader of the opposition, N.M. Perera, who was the leader of the Lanka Sama Samaja Pakshaya, a Trotskyist grouping. The opposition included other Marxist parties, and also a breakaway group from the Tamil Congress, the Federal Party (FP) led by S.J. Chelvanayakam.
The Tamil Congress had split because of opposition to a measure introduced by D.S. Senanayake’s government after the elections in 1947. Alarmed, perhaps, by the large number of votes won by left parties from Indian Tamils (who were well unionised), and perhaps influenced by racist considerations, Senanayake introduced a bill to restrict citizenship. Indian Tamils were, in effect, rendered stateless, and though this was based on the idea that they were migrant labourers whom the British had brought over temporarily, it took no account of the fact that many had in fact settled in Sri Lanka. Not only were those who had come over to work recently denied citizenship, but even those who had been born in Sri Lanka had to satisfy various requirements if they wanted citizenship. These requirements included certification of the place of birth of father, grandfather and great-grandfather. This was practically impossible, given the paucity of records in those days.
G.G. Ponnambalam, despite opposing the provisions, remained in the government. Chelvanayakam and a substantial section of the Tamil Congress saw this measure as the thin end of a wedge designed to entrench a majoritarian approach to politics. They advocated federalism, a system of government in which power is divided between a central authority and constituent political units, as the only solution to the continuing deprivation of minority rights.
Tamils however, were by and large undisturbed and in the next election held in 1952 continued to vote for the Tamil Congress in the north and the UNP in the rest of the country, including the east and the north. As the country followed the British system, which endows majorities with massive powers that are not usually abused given British conventions, most Sri Lankans did not see the dangers of the system they had been given.
The Absence of Checks and Balances
Sri Lankans, in effect, did not realise the formulaic and hence largely useless manner in which the British had transposed the safeguards included in the British system to Sri Lanka. Britain for instance, has two houses of parliament. The members of the second chamber, that is, the House of Lords, are not elected and do not represent any particular interests. However, it has always consisted of individuals with stature who are able and willing to challenge the government of the day. This is essential because one of the main functions of a second chamber of parliament is to check on legislation from a vantage point unhindered by ordinary electoral considerations, and to amend the legislation put before it if this seems desirable.
A second chamber that is a mirror image of the first, and largely dependent on it, cannot therefore serve this purpose, or indeed any other. However, the Senate instituted by the Soulbury Constitution was set up as though to ensure that it had no independent identity. Half of it was elected by the first chamber of parliament, which meant it reflected the composition of that chamber. The other half was appointed by the governor-general, on the advice of the prime minister, which meant the Senate was heavily weighted towards the government of the day.
There was some provision to establish a difference in the political inclinations of the two chambers, in that senators were chosen for six-year periods, with one-third of them changed every two years. Yet this effort to ensure continuity meant only that, if the government changed, for a couple of years it could expect dogmatic hostility from the Senate given the oppositional nature of the political culture that had developed. After that, generally, once more there would be indiscriminating compliance, since the new government would find ardent support from eight of the ten new senators. Together with their earlier supporters, and a few floaters who would rally to the support of a government in power, they could anticipate little opposition for the rest of their term in office. This was assisted by the manner in which the senators were chosen. Instead of selecting people of independent ability, as Lord Soulbury in his idealism may have anticipated, governments and even the opposition chose partisan supporters or politicians who had failed to win election to parliament.
This factor also undid the sole provision that the Soulbury Constitution had introduced to ensure the independence of the judiciary.Appointments to judicial positions were made by the government (or by a Judicial Service Commission appointed by the government). Since administration of the courts came under the purview of the minister of justice, it was desirable that the minister should not be an ordinary politician. It was therefore, constitutionally required that the minister of justice (along with at least one other minister) be from the Senate. Unfortunately, though there were some ministers of justice who understood the special requirements of that position, most were on par with other politicians, and many accepted that their primary role was a political one.
The other main safeguard of the Soulbury Constitution was based on the fact that, as in Britain, the prime minister is not the head of state and functions on behalf of the king. Similarly in Ceylon, under the Soulbury Constitution, there was a governor-general as head of state who was appointed by the king on the advice of the prime minister. He was thus however obliged to the prime minister in a sense that a king would not be. The governor-general then made several appointments, such as to the Judicial or Public Service Commission, on the advice of the prime minister.
The last British governor continued for a short while as the first governor-general of independent Sri Lanka. He was replaced, on D. S. Senanayake’s recommendation, by Lord Soulbury. Though Senanayake was unlikely to risk rejection by proposing totally unsuitable persons for appointment to various positions, Soulbury in turn was unlikely to question overmuch. Thus, all appointments were by and large in the hands of the political power of the day, and as time went on the idea that such appointments could be based purely on political considerations came to the fore.
A measure of what was seen as Lord Soulbury’s indebtedness to Senanayake was evident in the manner in which the PM’s successor was appointed. Shortly before Senanayake died prematurely following an accident in 1951, Bandaranaike had left the government. He was convinced that Senanayake and his associates were isolating him and ensuring that he would not succeed Senanayake despite his seniority. This left John Kotelawala as the most senior member of the cabinet. However when Senanayake died Soulbury, who was abroad, instructed the acting governor-general not to appoint a successor until his return. On his return he appointed Senanayake’s son Dudley Senanayake, amidst allegations that it was a trust enjoined on him by the elder Senanayake. However, the younger Senanayake resigned shortly after winning the 1952 election, and was replaced by John Kotelawala.
Thus, the Westminster System, as practised in Ceylon from the start, ensured that the powers of the government of the day were not only unchallenged, but also reinforced by other institutions that were originally meant to act as checks and balances. The courts, the Senate, the minister of justice, the various commissions that appointed persons to high posts, the governor-general, all came under the authority of the prime minister. Though the prime minister had to command the support of a majority of the members of parliament, he could ensure its continuation since important positions in parliament, namely membership of the cabinet as well as the speakership, were, in effect, his to bestow on whomsoever he wished.