Chapter 5: The Soulbury Commission

Whatever criticism there may be of the Soulbury Commission, nobody could criticise its composition. It was smaller, but much better balanced, than the Donoughmore Commission. Its chairman, Lord Soulbury[1], had been educated in Uppingham[2] with Sir Andrew Caldecott, had been a scholar of University College, Oxford, and “had kept up his classics”, so that he could read a paper to the Classical Association almost without preparation. He had been Minister of Education in Winston Churchill’s Government and therefore (unlike the members of the Donoughmore Commission) had had Cabinet experience[3]. He got on very well with people, and this was important in the circumstances, because he would be able to meet socially some sections of opinion which would keep away from him officially. His Commission was bound to engender some excitement and much controversy. It was important that he could, and did, take part in social activities which had no direct reference to politics.

Perhaps the finer points were lost in Ceylon. Few seem to have appreciated the quotation from Voltaire in paragraph 266 of the Soulbury Report. Commenting on the evidence given to them, the Commissioners remark that the impression conveyed by some of it was reminiscent of the experiences of an envoy sent to report upon an Eastern country some two hundred years ago. There followed the quotation which may be translated somewhat as follows:–

A rumour was spread that he had come to reform all these houses. Soon he received memoranda from each of them; and in substance all the memoranda said: ‘Save us, and destroy all the others’

The origin of the quotation, told me by Lord Soulbury in London, delighted me even more. In Kurunegala Resthouse (I think) a European planter gave him an English translation, knowing only that it came from Voltaire. The resources of University College, Cardiff[4], were called upon to supply the Commission with the original.  I fear, though, that this is a piece of English humour – even though the quotation is in French – which will not be fully appreciated in Ceylon.

Sir Frederick Rees[5] was of a different type, though a type equally rare in Ceylon and therefore equally acceptable. He was a scholar and therefore highly appreciated in a country which welcomes scholars, or at least the holders of degrees. He was, too, extremely modest. To find a person who forgot that he was being knighted and did not even look at the newspaper until he had been congratulated by a civil servant, was strange to a country where every muhandiram[6] had to have a tamasha. Nor did he lack a sense of humour. Nothing could have been more delightful than his Convocation Address, in which he talked for twenty minutes about Wales before the audience realised that he was talking about Ceylon. His special quality, however, was deflate histrionics so dear to the Ceylonese politicians and therefore to the witnesses before the Soulbury Commission.  One does not preside over university committees for long without realising that most of those who talk the most talk through their hats. There was hardly a witness before the Commission who did not grossly overstate his case. These oratorical balloons were punctured by innocent little questions from Sir Frederick Rees.

Whoever chose Mr (afterwards Sir) Frederick Burrows[7] was another genius. I suspect that his contribution to the Soulbury Report was probably small. A Labour politician would probably have talked at enormous length and made agreement difficult. Mr Burrows contented himself with an occasional joke: but he did one extremely useful job – he stopped the “imperialists” (as the Ceylonese would call them) among the Europeans from spoiling the atmosphere by raising issues which had been decided against them. The five thousand Europeans in Ceylon formed the smallest of the communities but they were fundamental to its economy because they controlled the production of most of the wealth. They were not, as most young Ceylonese seemed to think, “ruddy capitalists”. Most of them were in fact comparatively poorly–paid employees of limited companies. They were, however, the type with which Mr Burrows was very familiar. They were “the bosses” because they managed estates and commercial companies and therefore controlled labour.  In most cases their education, on Ceylonese standards, was defective, but the education which they have received (in the public schools or in the harder school of experience) has taught them to be honest, efficient and hardworking.  In fact in a tight corner nobody could hope for better support than a handful of planters.  Their politics, perhaps, tend to be jejune and they are apt to say stupid things in their clubs.  They had no real concern with the Soulbury Commission because the Declaration had specifically provided for internal self–government, and the most they could hope for was some provision to prevent immigration legislation discriminating against Europeans. Somebody had to keep them quiet, however, and Mr Burrows did so.

It may seem strange that people who disliked trade unions should like a trade unionist: but Englishmen have a remarkable facility for opposing a reform until they have to access it and then pointing out how sensible their reform is. Trade unionism in England was hotly opposed until it became inevitable and now Englishmen take pride in their trade unions.  When a genuine trade union leader came to Ceylon he merely showed how feeble and indeed pernicious were Ceylon’s attempts at trade unionism. Besides, Mr Burrows had been a sergeant in the Guards[8], and there was nothing wrong with the Guards. Finally, he was skilled in handling “bosses”. In England a trade unionist dines with the directors, listening to their theories on economics, caps their best jokes, and remarks on leaving: “sorry, but I don’t agree with you”. Sir Frederick Burrows did all that.

It will be remembered that the Ministers declined to take part in the deliberation of the Commission and withdrew their draft Constitution, though when the request was made they did not hesitate to publish it. When they had declined they had hoped to persuade His Majesty’s Government to alter the terms of reference; after the 1st August, when the correspondence with Mr Ponnambalam was examined for the first time, it was seen that the hope was vain. It would not have been possible to withdraw their decision with any dignity, but in any case it was not desirable that they should. The Ministers had had no objection to consultation with the minorities; what they believed was that the Commission would worsen communal relationships by compelling the communal leaders to attack each other. It was better that they should stand aside from the process, which was sure to develop, by which the pot and the kettle accused each other of being black, provided that the result was not to convince the Commission that the minority leaders had a case. The Ministers’ Draft was the answer to most accusations, for it was obviously much more favourable to the minorities than the Donoughmore Constitution. It could not be alleged successfully as an example of “discrimination”. It was known from Mr Ponnambalam’s marathon speech in 1939 that he would allege discrimination in respect of irrigation schemes and Buddhist temporalities.[9] Memoranda on these points were prepared, and that on irrigation schemes, at least, was completely convincing.

At this stage, after the announcement of the personnel of the commission, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke discovered that he had to discuss food questions with the [unclear] officials of the Ministry of Food. Not merely common courtesy but also the diplomacy of the Colonial Office suggested that he should meet the members of the Commission. The gist of his conversations has not been recorded; but on his return to Ceylon he was able to suggest a plan of campaign which Mr Senanayake accepted. There was no intention of hiding anything; there was nothing to hide. The Commission’s formal sessions would be dominated by politics, recrimination, personal ambition and puerilities, a game of which, unfortunately, the Ministers were not to take part. Mr Senanayake’s task was to make certain that the Commissioners saw the real Ceylon. This was a matter which only the Civil Defence Commissioner could undertake. He knew the Commissioners and their secretary already[10] and could make suggestions to them; he could, on the other hand, initiate invitations which they would feel bound to accept. Their first four days were filled with what may be called” Goonetilleke invitations”; there was an interval of a couple of days while they stayed with the new Governor, Sir Henry Moore, in Nuwara Eliya; then followed more invitations, mainly inspired by Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, and then Mr Senanayake’s conducted tour, a nicely balanced mixture of culture and agriculture – Peradeniya, Minipe, Kandy, Dambulla, Sigiriya, Polunnaruwa, Mineriya and Anuradhapura. Not only did the Commissioners thus see the best that the old and the new Ceylon could produce, but also there were frequent talks with Mr Senanayake on any question that Lord Soulbury or the commission as a whole chose to raise, from the problem of cattle fodder to the content of the Ministers’ draft. Only after this tour did the Commission begin to take evidence. Later there were visits to schools with the Minister for Education and a visit to Jaffna with the Member for Jaffna, who was also Minister for Home Affairs.[11] Truly the Ministers did not make speeches, but they produced more valuable evidence than was enshrined in all the briefs. The evidence was designed to show a long historical evolution from a great civilisation of the type which a classical scholar would appreciate, through a series of dark ages leaving a legacy of social and economic problems with which a former professor of economics and a former President of the Board of Education would sympathise; and always when the Commission was in Colombo there was the cosmopolitan and westernized social life of the capital, in which Lord Soulbury and Sir Frederick Burrows, at least, enjoyed themselves. There was, too, the University, where it was noted that the Deans were two Sinhalese (one a Buddhist and one a Christian), a Burgher and a Tamil, and that the graduates came from every community in the Island.


Nor were incidental courtesies forgotten. The cars were provided by the Civil Defence Department and the Secretary soon learned that if he needed anything, from seats at the cinema to a supply of quinine or a pair of mosquito boots, the procedure was to telephone Dr D. M. de Silva at A.R.P. Headquarters. When the cars went on the long tour to the buried cities, they even carried a supply of liquid refreshment, though it is true that the case of beer came back unopened. It should be added that there were no audit queries about these items, for the cost was borne privately. The tours involved a great deal of organisation, for the government officers and private citizens en route had to be warned to provide a Ceylonese welcome. A.R.P. Headquarters was always telephoning ahead of the Commission to make certain that the arrangements were all in order and that nothing in the reception would be lacking. The Civil Defence Department did not intend the Commission to come to the conclusion that the Ceylon Government was not efficient.

The reward for Dr de Silva and his staff is to be found in paragraph 6 of the Report:–

At various periods during our stay we were afforded opportunities to travel throughout the Island and acquaint ourselves with the life of its people. Either together or individually we visited all nine Provinces and saw for ourselves the remarkable diversity of conditions to which the wide variation of physical features and climate gives rise. We visited both coastal and Inland town and villages, inspected village industries and factories, and gained some first–hand knowledge of all stages of tea, rubber, copra and plumbago production on which, with the growing of food crops, the Island’s economy is founded. The many major and minor irrigation works now under construction or restoration, and the surrounding land colonisation schemes with their agricultural, experimental and training centres, proved of particular interest. We were given facilities to inspect schools of different types and teachers’ training colleges, and to visit hospitals, maternity and welfare centres and dispensaries, in both towns and villages. We had the good fortune to see many of the ancient monuments and historic temples to be found in all parts of the Island, including the “buried cities” of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Throughout these visits and inspections, all classes of the community received us with marked courtesy and kindness, and everywhere we were overwhelmed with hospitality. Our thanks are due to the Ministers and Members of the State Council concerned and to the many private individuals whose ready cooperation made it possible for us in so short a time to see and experience so much.[12]

It can hardly be said, therefore, that “the breakdown gang” did not do its job efficiently, though the job consisted mainly in making certain that there was not a breakdown in the smallest detail.    The officials who do these things is behind the scenes are seldom mentioned; I had no hand in the process at all; for once, therefore, there is a witness to give evidence.

The only other effort made by or on behalf of the Minsters was on Mr Bandaranaike’s initiative. He obtained the sanction of the Board of Ministers to the introduction of the Ceylon (Constitution) Bill, afterwards known as the Sri Lanka Bill. It was the Ministers’ draft denuded of the restrictions on self–government required by the Declaration of 1943. What its legal effect would have been had it been enacted would have provided an interesting problem for constitutional lawyers. Clearly there were implicit limitations on the powers of the State Council notwithstanding their enlargement by the Colonial Laws Validity Act, 1865[13]. The Legal Secretary gave an optimistic interpretation that might not have been upheld in the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council[14]. There was however no hope or fear that the royal assent would be given to it, and its purpose was propaganda. Those members who did not give evidence before the Commission made their speeches in the Council, and the Bill was passed by 40 votes to 7 on the 22nd March 1945 while the Commission was still in the Island.

Persons were requested by public advertisement to submit constitutional schemes and memoranda, and were then invited to give evidence in public session. The wording of the advertisements must have been difficult, for it was part of Mr Ponnambalam’s case that the Ministers represented the Sinhalese, or perhaps a section of the Sinhalese; and some sections of opinion went so far as to point out that five of them were Buddhists and five were of the Govigama caste[15]. Inevitably the advertisements made it appear that they were one of the “various interests”. Their polite attention solved this problem and established a different attitude. The Commission heard the representations of “various interests”, for and against the Ministers’ scheme. It is true that the All–Ceylon Tamil Congress[16] submitted a scheme of its own which was published in full in the advertisement columns of the newspapers on the 22nd January 1945. It will be convenient to include the Commission’s analysis of this scheme:

  1. The main purpose of the scheme was to prevent the domination in the Legislature of any one community over another, in conformity with this principle, viz. that no single community should be able to impose its will on the other communities; and it was proposed that the voting powers in the Legislature should be “based on a balanced scheme of representation that would avoid the danger of concentration of power in one community but would ensure its equitable distribution among all communities and the people as a whole”.

The All–Ceylon Tamil Congress advocated that, in order to attain this position, the Island should be divided into 100 territorial constituencies for an assembly of 100 members, and that of constituencies 50 should be demarcated for the election of members to fill 50 general seats, while the remaining 50 should be allocated to members of the minorities (25 to the Tamils – Ceylon and Indian– and the rest to the other minorities).

It was pointed out in discussion that if 50 seats were assured to the minorities but the remainder left open to the contest, the Sinhalese, who had always been and still were the majority group, might by the loss of one or more of these seats, be converted into a minority, Accordingly, the scheme was amended to reserve these 50 seats for the Sinhalese in the same way as the other 50 seats, were reserved for the minorities.

  1. This scheme has been widely publicised in the Island under the title of “Fifty–Fifty”, and the following advantages were claimed for it:–

(a) The domination of any particular community in a country with a conglomerate population would be prevented, and self–government would become a reality for all racial communities in the Island.

(b) The minorities would be freed from the feelings of “subservience or frustration”, which resulted from being heavily outnumbered in the Legislature.

(c) Purely territorial representation, which meant simply numerical representation, could only result in placing in power a permanent racial majority that no appeal to the electorate was capable of altering. The present system made an alternative Government impossible and consequently had the effect of making those in power over bearing and autocratic. “Balanced representation” provided the only corrective.

(d) Such a scheme would help to compensate for the absence in Ceylon of any party system on Western lines. Where representative government was based, as in the United Kingdom, on the party system, public opinion, and the good sense of the party in power set a limit to despotic action by a majority.  The realisation by the Government and its supporters that “the Opposition was an alternative Government ever on the alert and ready to assume power by constitutional means” had no parallel in Ceylon.

(e) The scheme contained the seeds of growth and was a natural evolution from the form of government in existence before the Donoughmore “interlude” and a natural extension of past tendencies.

  1. We are not inclined to agree that the system of representation recommended by the All–Ceylon Tamil Congress contains the germ of development, and we do not regard it as a natural evolution from the Constitutions of 1921 and 1924. On the contrary, we should describe a system which purported to re–impose communal representation in the rigid form contemplated, as static rather than dynamic, and we should not expect to find in the seeds of a healthy and progressive advance towards Parliamentary self–government.

We are of course well aware that, unless and until parties in Ceylon become divided on social and economic, in place of racial, lines, a minority will have no reason to rely on the swings to the right or left that occur in Western democracies and, consequently, will have little expectation of taking over the reins of government. Despite the proposal in S.P. XIV for a re–distribution of electoral districts, which we shall presently examine, we are under no illusion as to the likelihood of a speedy reversal of the majority’s present predominance in the Legislature. But it seems to us that under the “Fifty–Fifty” scheme each General Election will inevitably produce a Legislature of the same complexion as its predecessor, and we cannot recommend a stereotyped cast–iron division of the communities from which it would, in our judgment, be very difficult, if not impossible, ever to develop a normal party system. But apart from a general consideration of this nature, we find it difficult to see how any stable Government could be formed or any head of a Government be able either to frame a policy or carry it out in a Legislature so constituted.

  1. We think it is highly probable that if the All–Ceylon Tamil Congress scheme were adopted action would be taken by the Sinhalese which would be by no means acceptable to the advocates of balanced representation. In a Legislature composed of 50 Sinhalese and 50 members of the minority Groups, the obvious course for the largest homogeneous group to adopt in order to recover its commanding position would be to make a pact with one or other of the minorities and thereby obtain once more a working majority for itself. No doubt the result would be advantageous to whichever section of the minorities induced to co–operate and, so long as the pact endured, the support of the minority group in question would be made worth its while. But the other minorities would be left to suffer the feelings of “subservience or frustration” with which, according to the Ceylon Tamil spokesman, they are at present afflicted and it might well be that the existing majority group, exacerbated by the statutory deprivation of its electoral predominance in the country, would be much less inclined than it is at present to pay regard to minority interests.
  1. This possibility was present in the minds of the All–Ceylon Tamil Congress, for their memorandum stated as follows:

“With the minorities as against the majority precariously balanced, any supporting group will really become the decisive factor. The majority group will naturally be much more cohesive than any other and if it can anyhow attract a single group or a number of individuals from different groups of the minorities, it can always retain power. In such a case the majority group and its supporters become the new oppressors.”

It was apparent, therefore, that the All–Ceylon Tamil Congress attached great importance to representation in the Executive than in the Legislature. For that reason they claimed that “communal non–domination should be translated into the Executive; for a balanced Legislature with an Executive that leaves power in the hands of any one community would be a mere delusion and a snare. Accordingly they proposed that:–

  • The present method of government by Executive Committees should be abolished and its place taken by a Council of Ministers so composed as to “enable the minorities to take their due share in the government of the country’’.
  • The Governor should choose the Council of Ministers in consultation with leaders of the various communities in the Legislature, but that it should be provided by Statute that less than half of the members of the Council of Ministers should be chosen from any one community.
  • The Council of Ministers should elect one of its members to be Leader of the House.
  • The Governor should have the right to preside at all meetings of the Council and the Leader of the House should be Chairman of the Council and preside over it in the absence of the Governor.
  1. These proposals seem to us to be open for grave objection. The result of the statutory injunction to be laid upon the Governor regarding his choice of Ministers would, according to the evidence given by the exponents of the scheme, be that a Council or Cabinet of, say, ten Ministers would consist of four Sinhalese, two or three Tamils, one or two Muslims, and perhaps a European or Burgher. Thus, the Sinhalese group would get less representation in the Cabinet than the “Fifty–fifty” system would justify. We think that any attempt by artificial means to convert a majority into a minority is not only inequitable, but doomed to failure. We have received no evidence to convince us that such a method would produce the collective responsibility of the Ministers to the Legislature which the witnesses professed to favour and the absence of which has proved detrimental to the successful working of the present Constitution.
  1. Our attention was drawn to the Constitutions of the Provincial Governments in India, where the instrument of instructions to the Governor enjoins him “to use his best endeavours to select his Ministers in the following manner, that is to say, to appoint in consultation with the person who, in his judgment, is most likely to command a stable majority in the Legislature those persons (including so far as is practical members of important minority communities) who will best be in a position collectively to command the confidence of the Legislature” and to “bear constantly in mind the need for fostering a sense of joint responsibility among his Ministers.” But it was submitted to us that in all cases where, in response to such an endeavour, minority members had been included in the Council of Ministers, they had been selected, not so much because they represented a minority community as because they were agreeable to the majority in the Council, and not considered to be likely to give trouble to their colleagues. The All–Ceylon Tamil Congress maintained that the inclusion of minority members in any Council of Ministers or Cabinet which might figure in the new Constitution should be mandatory.
  1. We have no reason to suppose that the head of the Ceylon Government would be devoid of the qualities and attributes of statesmanship, and indeed, if the scheme proposed in S.P. XIV for the delimitation of constituencies has the result which we understand it is intended to have, common political prudence, apart from statesmanship, will commend to him the course we have suggested. For as will be seen later, the additional weightage which it is proposed to give to the minority communities may reasonably be expected to diminish the present disparity between the majority and minority groups; and the majority group itself cannot be counted on always to remain of the same mind and the same allegiance. There is by no means complete unanimity among the Low Country Sinhalese and the Kandyans as to their respective interests and aspirations, and the growth of the left–wing opinion already constitutes a potential solvent of racial or religious solidarity. These considerations must inevitably present themselves to any Leader desirous of obtaining for his Government a stable and reliable basis of support in the Legislature.
  1. Considerable stress was laid upon the proposal that the Council of Ministers should elect the Leader of the House, but it seems to us improbable that this procedure would promote the choice of the most suitable person, for we think that negative rather than positive qualities would commend themselves to a body composed of compulsorily associated elements of the various communities. In any event, as in the case of the Legislature, the largest homogeneous section in the Council of Ministers, would have every inducement to secure support for their own candidate by making a deal with one or more of the other sections. We do not favour a system likely to produce arrangements of this nature.
  1. Nor do we favour the suggestion that the Governor should, after the consultation with the leaders of the minorities, choose the members of the Council of Ministers and himself to preside over the Council. It is not consonant with progress towards full responsible government under the Crown in all matters of internal civil administration; nor is it in keeping with the spirit of the Declaration of May 1943, which, as it appears to us, involves so far as is possible keeping the Governor “out of politics”.

It will be seen that it was unnecessary for the Ministers to persuade the Commissioners to reject this scheme. Though cleverly drafted there was not the slightest chance of its being accepted by a Commission which contained a former Cabinet Minister.  Mr Senanayake felt, however, that few Ceylonese would actually read the scheme in full, and so Mr Dudley Senanayake contributed an analysis to the Ceylon Daily News which held the scheme up to ridicule and emphasised that it conferred a less measure of self–government than the Donoughmore Constitution itself. After Mr Ponnambalam’s evidence on the 15th and 16th February it was clear that “fifty–fifty” was dead and that the only question was the extent to which the Commission would recommend modifications of the Ministers’ scheme.

No other complete scheme was submitted. Altogether 165 memoranda were submitted and a large number of persons or group of persons gave oral evidence. It is not easy to clarify the groups because an association which claims to be political may in fact be racial, religious or even all of one caste. Roughly, however, the division was as follows:–



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It should be added that none of the left–wing groups gave evidence. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (or Bolshevik–Leninist Party)[17] was still “underground”, the Communist party and its subsidiaries imposed a complete boycott. In other words the groups which, as the election of 1947 showed, were the strongest on the west coast were virtually unrepresented, and it may even be doubted whether the Commission was more than vaguely aware of the existence of this large body of opinion.

[1] The head of the Commission was Herwald Ramsbotham, Baron (later Viscount) Soulbury. He later served as Governor–General of Ceylon, 1949–1954.  Soulbury had been a British Conservative Cabinet Minister who served as President of the Board of Education, 1940–41.

[2] As did Sir John Howard, Chief Justice of Ceylon, 1939–49 and the architect Sir Patrick Abercrombie, who IJ consulted on the design of the Peradeniya campus.

[3] The 6th Earl of Donoughmore did, however, have a brief and junior ministerial career in Arthur Balfour’s administration.

[4] See footnote below.

[5] Sir (James) Frederick Rees, Principal of University College, Cardiff, 1929–49.

[6] Colonial era rank bestowed to Ceylonese notables.

[7] Sir Frederick Burrows, British Trade Unionist; former President of the National Union of Railwaymen; later Governor of Bengal, 1946–47.

[8] The Grenadier Guards of the British Army.

[9] Ponnambalam was long concerned of Sinhalese “colonisation” of areas considered Tamil majority provinces.

[10] Sir Oliver Goonetilleke’s second wife from 1968 was Phylis Miller who he had met when she was on the staff of the Soulbury Commission.

[11] Sir Arunachalam Mahadeva.

[12] Soulbury Report, p. 4

[13] This Act confirmed that legislation passed in colonial legislatures had full effect unless ‘repugnant’ and in contradiction to any Act of the British Parliament that covered the colony.

[14] The London based court of final appeal that historically served the British Empire and later the Commonwealth.  It remained Ceylon’s final court of appeal till 1972.

[15] The highest caste group of the Sinhalese.

[16] Party founded in 1944 by G. G. Ponnambalam to represent key Ceylon Tamil groups.

[17] Leftist party founded in 1935 and often referred to as the L.S.S.P.


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