ARTICLES: THREE CASES OF CONSTITUTIONALISM AND CUCKOO POLITICS: CEYLON, BRITISH GUIANA AND GRENADA

II – CEYLON

In April 1931, Ceylon was given a new Constitution, called the Donoughmore Constitution. This Constitution called for the creation of a State Council, whose members were elected on the basis of universal adult franchise. The Constitution abolished communal representation, and, somewhat uniquely for a colonial constitution, it attempted to fuse legislative and executive functions. The State Council divided itself into a number of executive committees immediately after election, with the Chairman for each or these executive committees being elected by the members of the committee. These Chairmen were then designated as Ministers. These executive committees were made responsible for Home Affairs, Agriculture, Local Government, Health, Industry, Education, Communication and Works. However, bureaucratic officials were still responsible for External Affairs, Defence, Law and Finance. The Chief Secretary, the Legal Secretary and the Financial Secretary, who were still directly responsible to the Governor, were made members of the Board of Ministers in the State Council in the attempt to fuse legislative and executive functions. The Governor, however, remained as the representative of His Majesty’s Government, and conĀ· tinned to enjoy considerable final executive power provided him by an escape clause.

Thus from 1931-49 Ceylon was being “prepared” for self-government under this Constitution. This Constitution was largely responsible for the kind of political leader that emerged after independence. The Father of the Nation, D S. Senanayakc and his son, the present Prime Minister, Dudley Senanayake, S W. R. D. Bandaranayake, Colonel J. C. T. Kotelawala, and W. Dahanayake and even leaders of the Opposition like Dr. N. M. Perera, all had their early political training within this constitutional framework. Significantly, Mrs. S. W. R. D. Bandaranayake, who is the most impatient politician with present constitutional politics in Ceylon, did not formally participate in politics during the period of the Donoughmore Constitution.

One of the. difficulties with the Donoughmore Constitution was that while it allowed the participants to exercise power, though limited, it did not encourage collective responsibility. This situation often resulted in an individual Minister advocating opposition to the policies of one of his colleagues. In fact, on many occasions Ministers voted against each other and opposed one another in debate on an unorganised basis. Each committee Chairman, i.e., the Minister, had no obligation to consult with his fellow Ministers before he perpetuated a policy. Even the chairman of the Board of Ministers, in a sense the Prime Minister, was never very keen or concerned about the success or failure of his government’s policy, for his position was not dependent on majority support in the State Council.

The major political conflict during this period was between the bureaucratic officials on one hand, and the elected Ministers on the other. Whil bureaucrats had a certain amount of control over many of the activities of the Ministers, in the areas of finance and the public service they had significant. power. Both the Financial Secretary and the Chief Secretary were directly responsible to the Governor. The Governor in turn did not have any obligation to consult with his Ministers about appointments, transfers or changes in the public service. While this caused a great deal of conflict, the area of major controversy was over fiscal matters. Ministers seeking patronage often had to obtain individual concessions from the Financial Secretary, and hence the key governmental agency became the Secretariat of Finance.

Throughout most of the period of the Donoughmore Constitution the three key bureaucratic officials were Englishmen. The fact that the foremost officers of State, the Chief Secretary, the Financial Secretary and the Legal Secretary, in addition to the Governor, were all expatriates meant that elected representatives were seen not as men who bad the authority to exercise power, but as representatives of communal or caste groups who continued to obtain concessions from the imperial government as in the past. Ironically, this was the net result of a constitution which had formally abolished communal representation!

The representatives of the colonial bureaucracy on their part adopted an attitude of hostility towards the elected representatives, while not surprisingly the elected representatives were very sceptical about the attitudes of the bureaucracy towards the Ceylonese and their real intentions in regard to self-government. During this period legislative and executive harmony was largely a myth, with Ministers constantly attacking officials for inefficiency and corruption and vice versa.

The type of constitution which was adopted created a political tradition which was thus somewhat unique. There was no emphasis in the system or rather in the polity on producing party politics, rather it was politics by personalities. In fact it was no accident that the first ruling party after independence (the United National Party) was a conglomeration of diverse elements who shared few common political values. The U.N.P. was facetiously and appropriately nicknamed the Uncle-Nephew Party. Dan Stephen Senanayake, the first Prime Minister, emerged as a kind of elderly father figure who benevolently dispensed goods and services, especially to the peasantry, who had been economically disenfranchised, in that they had no trade union or other organisation to represent them. Senanayake in a sense was very typical of Ceylonese politicians who were socialised in the Donoughmore period, for he was the kind of man that was very concerned with avoiding any serious confrontation between sides, always seeking compromise and emphasising consensus. He was very leary of tackling or alienating any of the vested interests in Ceylon. He came from the landed gentry class himself, and displayed the kind of conservatism that is associated with this class.

The basic assumption of the Donoughmore Constitution was that the nation should be led and ruled by a council of elders, who were to intervene whenever conflicts arose because they were reasonable men who had the public interest at heart and were hence above the fray. It is inevitable that this notion of a council of elders produced a class of politicians who were not, on the whole, very anxious to use the instrument of state to introduce change. Holding office for its own sake became the prime concern of this class of men. In fact, even those within these ranks who made radical utterances during the early phases, like S. W. R. D. Bandaranayake, adjusted and adapted themselves to being members of the “political establishment”. What was equally interesting was to see even the Marxist parties adapting themselves to this type of procedural politics. Dr. N. M. Perera, Marxist leader for many years of the Parliamentary Opposition, has been one of the most devout and learned advocates of parliamentary practice in Ceylon.

Since the Constitution emphasised politics by personality, there was a tendency for the elected members of the State Council to develop independent local machines to keep them in power. These electoral machines, in the virtual absence of meaningful political parties, depended on a caste – communal type of organisation. Throughout the period of the Donoughmore Constitution politicians organised their party organizations on the basis of whatever local caste or communal condition prevailed. The electoral process, then, served to consolidate and nurture this type of party organization, rather than to develop a party organisation which would emphasize programmes and policies cutting across communities. In good part this explains why Ceylonese politics during the post-independence era remained communal, for their early constitutional experiences resulted in the strengthening of communal ties rather than the emergence of new associational ties, which was supposedly the original aim of the Constitution.