Chapter 11: Retrospect

Mr Senanayake’s objective was mentioned on May 26, 1943, when “the breakdown gang” first discussed the constitutional problem: it was to achieve Dominion status by peaceful persuasion. The objective was attained in just over four–and–a–half years. The strategy was to accept what was offered if it seemed to lead towards the goal and then to ask for more. The Colonial Office was timid and hesitant but fundamentally well–disposed. It was not prepared to move as fast as the Ceylonese desired because it feared that difficulties would arise. It seems to have exaggerated the communal problem not, as some will say, because of a traditional policy of “divide and rule” but because communalism is not understood in England. If the Ceylonese wanted full self–government or Dominion Status, it was thought, could they not agree on exactly what it was they wanted? There seemed to be opposition from some if not all of the minorities: might this not be because as the Soulbury Commission itself suggested, they were not prepared to go as far in the direction of self–government as the Sinhalese? This attitude explains the overwhelming importance of the debate on the White Paper in November 1945. Not only was the motion carried by the great majority of 51 to 3, but also the debate was conducted in a manner which would have graced the Mother of Parliaments.

Nor was the Colonial office unaware of Mr Senanayake’s strategy. Indeed Sir Andrew Caldecott gave me an exact description of it in its very early stages; and he cannot have failed to explain it to the Secretary of State in his demi–official correspondence. Nevertheless, Mr Senanayake’s proposals were always carefully considered in London and some attempt was made to meet them. Things became much easier after July 1945, when the Secretary of State and his officials learned at first–hand with what manner of a man they were dealing. Inevitably the Governors’ despatches had given a false impression, for they dealt with day–to–day problems as they arose, and in these problems the Ministers often differed from the Governors’ views. Nobody in the administrative branches of the Colonial Office had recent experience of Ceylon; the Secretary of State and his officials until July 1945 were dealing with paper personalities, fictitious persons made up of much reading of speeches and telegrams. After July 1945 Mr Senanayake became a real entity.

The lack of personal contact operated both ways. Not only was the Colonial Office ill–informed on those elements in the situation which not even the skilled pen of Sir Andrew Caldecott could put into writing, but also the Colonial Office as visualised by the Ceylonese politicians was a fiction. Indian propaganda, born of a deep sense of frustration, had created an ogre, “British imperialism”, which bore little resemblance to the truth that British politicians are much like Ceylon politicians and British officials much like Ceylon officials in an elementary principle which like most elementary principles, is difficult to grasp. That British policy is not always as altruistic as it is made out to be is evident enough; that it is a deep–laid and well–executed plot to “exploit subject peoples” is even further from the truth. The simple answer is that neither politicians nor officials are clever enough either to develop such a plan or to execute it. The British Government may be justly accused of many sins, but not of being far–sighted. The Colonial Secretary is one of the lesser lights of the Ministerial team, anxious to shine a little in order that he may move on to a more attractive office, but equally anxious not to have awkward questions raised in Parliament and even more anxious not to lose his seat. Towards colonial peoples he exudes general benevolence like a parson at a Sunday–school treat. He says the right things at what his officials believe to be the right moment, which is usually the exceedingly dull annual debate on the Colonial Office Estimates. The officials themselves are conscientious and hard–working, immersed in files, concerned with the colonies because they got landed in that office long ago, as anxious as their Minister to avoid questions in Parliament, and anxious above all not to make mistakes. They are not clever conspirators but good civil servants.

No doubt this is in itself a justification for self–government as soon as the conditions necessary for reasonable stability have been established: but it also destroys the theory that there was in London a deep–seated conspiracy to establish or retain “imperialist exploitation”. Mr Senanayake himself was affected by this theory, though he was sufficiently open–minded to have doubts about it. Sir Oliver Goonetilleke and I did not accept the theory at all. We believe that if Mr Senanayake put his case cogently and persuasively, and if he was given adequate support by a sufficiently large section of opinion in Ceylon, he would obtain Dominion status sooner or later and possibly sooner than later. The experience proved the correctness of this interpretation. Even when difficulties arose, as over the terms of reference of the Soulbury Commission, I did not feel that I was taking part in a gigantic hoax. In drafting letters and memoranda in the early stages, in fact, I was writing for a particular person, the late Sir Edward Gent, then Assistant Under–Secretary of State in charge of Ceylon and then the High Commissioner in Malaya. He was “Mr Mother Country”; and if he could be persuaded it was probable that His Majesty’s Government would be persuaded.

It was however clear that Sir Edward Gent would rely heavily on the confidential reports received from His Majesty’s local representatives. Until the end of the war there were two of them, the Commander–in–Chief and the Governor. The Commander–in–Chief had a locus standi only so far as constitutional reforms helped towards the war effort. That full collaboration from the Ceylonese Ministers and the State Council could be obtained only if there was some movement in the direction of reform was obvious enough; and if Sir Geoffrey Layton had not seen it for himself, as in fact he did, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke would have drawn attention to the fact. From the moment when Sir Geoffrey set up his command, Sir Oliver set out to make the assistance of the Civil Defence Department essential to him. Sir Geoffrey was little inclined by temperament and training to use the round–about methods of the civil Government. Correct procedure required him to communicate with the Governor, who would instruct the Chief Secretary, who would in turn give the necessary instructions. It was much easier for the Commander–in–Chief to telephone “Goony”[1] off the record and let “Goony” get something done by direct personal contact. The Civil Defence Department thus did all kinds of jobs, off the record, which it had no business to touch. There were no Audit queries because there was no expenditure, and indeed there is no record at all of this more speedy civil government than that controlled by the Secretariat. The unofficial Ceylonese Government was more efficient than the official “British” Government because “Oliver”, unlike Sir Robert Drayton, could telephone “George” or “John” and ask him to get something done quickly as a personal favour. The lesson was not lost on Sir Geoffrey. Nor did he fail to realise that Mr Senanayake was more than Minister for Agriculture and Lands; off the record he was Prime Minister. Sir Geoffrey’s telegrams have not been published; but no doubt they were pungent if not aromatic, and they certainly helped to create a favourable atmosphere in London.[2]

It is much less easy to estimate the influence of Sir Andrew Caldecott as Governor. His relations with Mr Senanayake had been somewhat strained because they had been at issue over many points in Mr Senanayake’s policy both as Minister for Agriculture and Lands and as Leader of the State Council. Intellectually Sir Andrew was far ahead of the whole Board of Ministers and the whole Civil Service, but this added to the remoteness of his office. Moreover, he seemed to rely heavily on Sir Robert Drayton, whose attitude was somewhat ambiguous. As Legal Secretary Sir Robert had been a great success and he seemed to have the qualities required of the chief administrator of the Government; and yet he managed to draw upon himself the suspicions of the Ceylonese Ministers. The office was a most difficult one, for its holder was the principal “policeman” of the Donoughmore Constitution. Antagonism between the Chief Secretary and the Ministers was almost bound to spring up, and it seems probable that an injustice was done him.

The atmosphere changed somewhat with the arrival of Sir Henry Moore. It seemed hazardous to transfer a Governor from Kenya just as the Soulbury Commission was arriving, but Sir Henry was no stranger to the Island, for he had spent the earlier part of his career in the Ceylon Civil Service. It proved easy for him to adapt himself to the changed conditions and in any case the Governor was less important after July 1945 because he was no longer the sole intermediary between Mr Senanayake and the Colonial Office. The personal contact between them had removed many of the sources of misunderstanding and made demi–official correspondence possible. Also, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke had become Financial Secretary and thus had direct approach to the Governor, though the importance of this factor must not be exaggerated, for Sir Robert Drayton had never insisted that the Civil Defence Commissioner communicate with Sir Andrew Caldecott through the Chief Secretary.

The most important elements, however, were the Report of the Soulbury Commission and the personal support of Lord Soulbury. The Report, was in the main, a defence of the State Council and the Board of Ministers. Though drafted within the framework of the Declaration of 1943, it tended towards the removal of the doubts and hesitations, which had inspired the conditions of that document, It suggested that the Colonial Office could safely move rapidly towards complete self–government. Lord Soulbury reinforced that conclusion by his personal advocacy. Mr Creech Jones and Sir Henry Moore both came to the conclusion that the last lap could be covered very quickly, and Mr Senanayake knew in September 1945 that he had won a bloodless battle.

[1] Sir Oliver Goonetilleke.

[2] A selection of these are found in BDEEP.  See for example Layton’s letter on 16 October 1945 on Ceylon’s defence in BDEEP, vol. II, document 307.

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