I am greatly honoured to be asked by the Awarelogue Initiative to speak at their Lecture Forum in this year of 2021, celebrating the 90th anniversary of the advent of universal franchise in Sri Lanka. In my lecture, I shall touch on some of the complex problems of governance and policy faced by a small multi-ethnic island, flanked as it is and always has been, by economic and political superpowers.
Today, I want to briefly revisit the grant (and in using that word I have already encountered a problem, one that I shall look at later) of universal franchise to Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, nine decades ago. But I am not so much interested in Ceylon’s perspective of getting universal franchise, as I covered that ground in my book written over 40 years ago. As an activist historian, I am now more interested in the motives of the British overlords, in particular the Colonial Office during the 1927-1931 period, in giving Ceylon universal franchise. Why did the Colonial Office send out those particular Donoughmore Commissioners? Why did the Donoughmore Commission decide that universal franchise and the Executive Committee system of government was the most appropriate to foster successful self-government in Sri Lanka? Why did the Commission even want to foster democracy and self-government in an imperial dependency? These are the questions I shall try to answer.
I should also like to make one disclaimer: in this brief lecture, I use the terms Ceylon, British Ceylon and Sri Lanka almost interchangeably. There is some vague method to my usage, based loosely on the date 1948, although that is in itself arbritrary, as it was in January 1973, when I first arrived in the island to take up a Commonwealth Scholarship at Peradeniya that Sri Lanka, the name of the new Republic, came into existence. If you find it at all confusing, I apologise in advance but I would ask you to bear with it – in the end it is the island of Lanka, Taprobane, Serendib, that I am talking about and no other!
First, I want to make it clear in discussing universal franchise as the basis for democracy that I am in complete agreement with wartime British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who stated in 1947 at the end of the last global war that “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government – except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’
Democracy is (and I quote here from the Merriam-Webster American English dictionary) “government by the people especially a). rule of the majority and b). a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation, usually involving periodically held free elections.”
This otherwise acceptable definition is strangely wanting in one respect: it does not specify who the ‘people’ are: that is it does not state the criteria for deciding who may be eligible to vote. Nowhere does it specify the age, race, the language, birthplace, religion, gender, the sexual preference, educational standard, wealth and property, skin colour, or indeed any other discriminator determining who can vote in an election.
From the turn of the 21st century, the USA, which has long prided itself on its democratic norms and indeed paraded its democratic institutions as a model for other countries to follow, has come up against powerful geo-economic and political forces that do not recognize democracy as a particularly valid form of government and certainly not one that trumps their own forms of governance. Whether those challenging the primacy of democracy are from one-party states or one-person dictatorships or indeed violent anti-establishment Islamic religious movements like the Taliban, Islamic State or Boko Haram, these challenges are undermining US confidence in its democratic exceptionalism to the point where it is finding that its earlier, easy accommodation with elections and voting now under threat internally from anti-democratic proto-authoritarians like Donald Trump. The US political culture is now faced with the dilemma, which covertly has always dogged its democratic credentials, of deciding whether non-white members of its populace, and more specifically the black and/or mixed descendants of formerly enslaved peoples have a right to vote equal to those who consider themselves ‘truer Americans’ because of their paler skin colour and non-slave background.
Another reason I chose the Merriam Webster definition of democracy is because it baldly states that democracy is government based on rule by the majority. And this is where Sri Lanka’s ninety year experience of universal franchise becomes so historically valuable.
When the Donoughmore Commissioners came to British Ceylon in 1928, they were acutely aware that the political turbulence caused by the October 1917 revolution in Russia had changed the world forever. The Commissioners came to Ceylon from a Britain where the more left-wing representatives in parliament and government had already started to realise that the political and economic costs of maintaining Empire were escalating to a point where it was becoming more rational to let Empire go rather than try to hang on to it.
An Edinburgh trained medic, and holder of the Military Cross, Dr. Thomas Drummond Shiels was appointed as a Donoughmore Commissioner by the newly-appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies Sydney Webb, who’d been brought into front-line politics by being made a peer, (Lord Passfield) by the Labour Party, who were in government in Britain, in coalition with the Liberals, for the very first time.
Webb was a neo-marxist and a great admirer of the Soviet Union. He knew Drummond-Shiels, his fellow-travelling Marxist and equally fierce anti-imperialist, would definitely become the intellectual driving force behind the Commission, which had been tasked to find a new constitutional settlement for British Ceylon. Privately, Drummond-Shiels was instructed by Webb to use this opportunity to find some constitutional process, an institutional mechanism, which would serve as a precedent, and so allow the government in London to dispose of their imperial possessions and responsibilities in a manner both politically practicable and ethical but also as timely as possible.
Ceylon was therefore chosen to be a laboratory for an experiment in ‘not-quite but almost’ self-government: a self-government which would lead, not to outright independence, but Dominion Status, the same status accorded within the Empire to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, ie the white dominions. And here we can see the white supremacist basis which underpinned the British Empire and which would inevitably lead to its demise – a demise which neo-marxist politicians in Britain in the 1930’s could clearly envision, though without discerning how it might happen.
It seems that Ceylon was considered the perfect vehicle for this attempt at 7/10ths self-government – so-called because 3 British colonial civil servants sitting in the Colombo parliament, or State Council, served as Ministers of Finance, Foreign Affairs and Internal Security, while all other Ministerial posts were given to elected State Councillors.
But why did the leftists in the Colonial Office think Ceylon so well suited for democratic development? Well, for one British Ceylon was insulated from the influence of India and its other south and south-east Asian neighbours by its Crown Colony status.
Please allow me to digress a little here and explain something about Crown Colonies. These were special entities within the Empire; they were usually small islands, – Hong Kong, Bermuda, Jamaica, the Falklands for example – but Ceylon was considered the Premier Crown Colony. Why? Well, it was wealthy from the trade of its tea, rubber and coconut plantations; it had a two and a half thousand year plus history of Buddhist civilization; it did not have any large urban centres dominated by a plutocratic class where revolution might be seeded; the population density was low and literacy rate was higher than in any other non-white imperial territory and English education among the elite was widespread; generally speaking, women had property and marriage rights equal to men; it had putative trade unions; a recognizable political party, the Ceylon National Congress; and the white, mostly British, but what was deemed ‘European’, plantation-owning class was small (unlike say in Kenya or Uganda). To British leftist eyes, Ceylon was a recognizably ‘westernized’ country, ripe for fully-fledged democracy.
Yet it also had all the complexities associated with other Indo-Asian political cultures: caste division; racial, religious and language divisions; differing climatic zones; tribal peoples, etc. In short, Ceylon seemed a society that could be used as a model for future constitutional settlements, not just in the other Crown Colonies, but for all Imperial possessions, including the crown jewel of Empire, India. The Donoughmore Commission was therefore sent to Ceylon in 1928 as the harbinger of Imperial divestment: its job was to write the template for the leaving card of British Empire.
The institutional insulation of British Ceylon from its neighbours was an important element in this constitutional experiment. British India, which included today’s Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma, was administered from London by the India Office, a completely separate department to the Colonial Office, which looked after Ceylon.
Of course the position of Indian Tamils, nowadays referred to as’ Up-Country Tamils’ in Sri Lanka and ‘Highland Tamils’ in India, was anomalous because they were in effect dual citizens of both British Ceylon and British India. Although having said that, they were, along with the least liberated caste groups of the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, the poorest educated, lowest paid and worst housed segment of the island’s population.
But they were also one of the most commercially valuable groups as it was from their labour that the bulk of foreign exchange earned from the plantation economy was generated. However, because British India had no administrative input into Ceylon’s governance, this group could be disenfranchised willy-nilly under the Donoughmore settlement, which is what happened as soon as the Commissioners left. Imagine how impossible this disenfranchisement might have been if India had been a sovereign nation in 1931? Imagine as well how Indian politics might have become enmeshed with Sri Lankan politics if India had been able to have a say in the writing of the Donoughmore Constitution? Isn’t it likely that India would have claimed Ceylon as a natural part of India? Just think about it – if things had been otherwise, British Ceylon might have been casually handed to British India, as Hong Kong was to China in 1997, as a gift from one Empire to another….
I shall now return to my narrative.
Significantly, Drummond-Shiels was the only Donoughmore Commissioner to have had experience of serving as an elected Councillor on London County Council, the LCC. In 1929, there were 148 Councillors and Aldermen elected by universal franchise to the LCC. London in the decade after the 1st world war was a city of 8 million people, and owing to its position as the metropolis of Empire, as cosmopolitan as it is today. From 1919, all London’s residents, including women, had the right to vote and stand in LCC elections. In fact, many women were elected as London Councillors in the 1920’s. Moreover, a number of south Asians ran in the lower tier of local borough elections, some of whom were elected. When I interviewed Doric de Souza many years ago, he told me he’d been elected as a local borough councillor while living in London as a young man. London local elections were therefore ethnically diverse and incorporated an equal female franchise.
The LCC was a prestigious political institution. It had a huge budget raised from property rates and enormous responsibilities. Although a municipal agency, London’s government was larger than that of many countries. Councillors served on Executive Committees overseeing housing, education, transport and roads, social welfare, health and sanitation, police, fire brigade, courts and justice etc. Executive Committees, as anyone who has ever served on the EC of a sports club knows, are vehicles for cooperative management. The three political parties represented in the LCC were offshoots of the Liberals, the Conservatives and the Labour Party. On their chosen EC’s, Councillors from different parties and representing very different electorates, from the slums of the East End to the mansions of Mayfair, had to cooperate to make London governance work. London was therefore a microcosm, not just of Great Britain, but of the Empire as a whole.
Together with the Webbs, Sydney and Beatrice, and Leonard Woolf, the ex-Ceylon Civil Servant, husband to novelist Virginia, who by 1927 had become a pivotal back-room thinker on the Labour Party’s Foreign Policy Committee, Drummond-Shiels sketched out a plan to introduce London’s electoral and governmental system into British Ceylon. This leftwing brains trust thought universal franchise, together with an Executive Committee system of governance, would produce stable self-government in Ceylon, They hoped that this would then give the lie to imperialists in Britain – politicians like Churchill, Chamberlain and other Tory grandees, plus Lord Rothermere and his fellow right-wing press barons who were mouthpieces of the financiers and corporate shareholders who had gained so much from Empire – when they argued that peoples of non-white British colonies and imperial possessions were incapable of running their own affairs.
And this was not a forlorn hope. If you look at the constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland enacted after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, it is made up of an electoral system of large multi-member constituencies, incorporating neighbourhood Protestant and Catholic communities, which uses the Single Transferable Vote System of Proportional Representation and the D’Hondt procedure for awarding seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is a mechanism somewhat like the Duckworth-Lewis method used in cricket: it ensures fair proportionality given the fact that no Catholic will vote for a Protestant and no Protestant will vote for a Catholic. The system of government involves an Executive Committee at its head, and a mandatory coalition in which the First Minister is always drawn from the Protestant majority and the Deputy First Minister from the Catholic minority. If one resigns the other is constitutionally forced to resign as well. This form of power-sharing, also known as co-sociational democracy, was not devised by a Britisher at all but by a Belgium, Arend Lijphart, for societies emerging from conflict or those with potential for conflict. Switzerland, Belgium and the Lebanon also employ the co-sociational model.
If you study the Donoughmore Constitution, you will find that it is a forerunner of this model of democracy. However, because it used the First Past the Post voting system, which in 1931 was virtually the only recognized system of voting, it led to a situation where the Sinhalese majority in the State Council was able to prevent Tamil, Muslim and Burgher Councillors getting any real administrative power and so undermined the power-sharing idea behind its composition.
If, and this is the last of my many hypotheticals, if the Donoughmore Constitution had been combined with proportional representation plus a greater constituency weightage for minority areas and more use of multi-member constituencies, the Executive Committee system might still be in use in Sri Lanka. The Donoughmore Commissioners had tried to design a system for Ceylon that would prevent conflict arising from the permanent Sinhalese majority in parliament that universal franchise would engender. They tried to invent a system of democratic government that would fit Ceylon, Sri Lanka, like a glove. They failed and their failure has resulted in civil war and economic under-achievement.
For let me be clear. Universal franchise was not something demanded by anyone in the Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim communities. Neither George E. de Silva nor A E Goonesinghe, who were the most insistent that the franchise be extended, thought of asking for or indeed expected to get, even a full male franchise. They argued for a franchise for males over the age of 21, resident in Ceylon, who had at least had a primary education, ie men who could read and write in the vernacular and who had some kind of income. What they got was beyond their wildest dreams, and indeed was the stuff of nightmares for all other representatives of Low Country and Kandyan Sinhalese, Ceylon Tamil, Muslim and Burgher communities consulted by the Commission.
Only the representatives of the Indian Tamil community, for obvious reasons, were in favour of full male franchise, regardless of any educational or income element. No-one, and I repeat no-one, except perhaps George de Silva’s wife Agnes and a few of her Colombo female friends, argued for votes for women. Messrs. De Silva and Goonesinghe, to give them their due, supported their wives in asking for equal votes for women but again what was asked for was votes for educated women.
This brings me back to the word which I used in my opening remarks, and which seemed so problematic: that is the’ grant’ of universal franchise to Ceylon in 1931. This word ‘grant’ suggests that the people of Ceylon were demanding and lobbying for universal franchise in the late 1920’s. Nothing could be further from the facts. What most of the political and commercial elite of the island wanted and asked for when the Commission came, was a slight extension of the existing, very proscriptive, male franchise. What they got in universal franchise destabilised the island’s political culture immediately. It led to the Jaffna boycott, the Pan-Sinhala Board of Ministers and the final rejection by all communities of the Executive Committee system, in favour of the Westminster model of parliamentary government, which proved even more unsuitable and has now been replaced by a French model.
Universal franchise was foisted on Ceylon in 1931. In the minds of its authors, it was a necessary act, done for the greater good of the world – it was done to rid the world of the racial and political injustice of Empire while introducing democratic values in governance in former imperial entities and as an exemplar for modern governance throughout the globe.
And overall, one might argue that it has, generally speaking, worked. Looking at the imperial dependencies, India is still the largest functioning democracy in the world. Ghana, and to a lesser extent, Nigeria, Zambia and Kenya are functioning democracies in Africa. We’ll leave out Hong Kong, as it’s a special case, but Jamaica and other islands of the ex-British Caribbean have stuck with democratic norms. Burma is trying to get democracy back after decades of military rule. Pakistan and Bangladesh swing between democracy and army take-overs but they seem always to want to return to democratic ways and oftentimes do. South Africa has, after decades, overturned minority race-government in favour of majority rule.
There are dreadful failures of course: Nigeria and Uganda have been through terrible periods of bloodletting and Uganda, like Kenya, oversaw mass deportation of unwanted Asians. The Lebanon is sadly, and through no fault of its own, a basket case and the Israel-Palestine issue is still a running sore on the world’s body politic. But Ceylon’s contribution to world history in taking on universal franchise, unasked and probably prematurely, yet making it work so well for so long, has resulted in perhaps a fairer and more equal world than otherwise might have been the case.