Chapter 7: The London Mission

What the Ministers wanted was not the Soulbury Commission but the “commission or conference” promised by the Declaration of 1943. After the correspondence of August, 1944, referred to in Chapter 6 it was necessary to put up with the Soulbury Commission, but it was still possible to have a conference: indeed it was the more necessary because nobody knew what proposals the Commission would make. Mr Senanayake therefore decided that when Sir Oliver Goonetilleke went to London to discuss food he should cast such hints as might be necessary to secure an invitation to Mr Senanayake. Colonel Oliver Stanley was not only willing but glad to find a way out of what promised to be an impasse, and Sir Oliver returned with an assurance that an invitation would be forthcoming.  My arrangements to be in England in the summer of 1945 had already been made, and this particular coincidence was not staged.  Before I left Colombo in March, a little before the Soulbury Commission finished its work in Ceylon, I cabled for my wife’s[1] telephone number in Cambridge – she had just taken lease of another house – and left it with Dr D. M. de Silva so that the Ceylon delegation could communicate with me on its arrival.

Mr Senanayake arrived in London by air on July 13, 1945, accompanied by Mr A.G. Ranasinghe, C.C.S., and Dr D. M. de Silva as co–secretaries. Mr Ranasinghe took over the political side of Mr Senanayake’s work and Dr de Silva the organisation, which was substantial became of the amount of entertaining which Mr Senanayake had to do. It is perhaps necessary to add, in view of misrepresentations in Ceylon, that Mr Senanayake paid the expenses of the mission, which were heavy, out of his own pocket. The mission was installed in Grosvenor House, Park Lane, and I stayed there whenever I was needed.

Mr Senanayake telephoned me in Cambridge soon after his arrival, and I left for London by the next train. We had a conference on procedure, and it was agreed that the first step was to secure an advance copy of the Soulbury Report. As soon as it was available I should go into residence at Grosvenor House so as to draft whatever documents were needed for submission to the Secretary of State. In this connection Mr Senanayake explained that he had no specific instructions from the Ministers. The invitation had been addressed to him personally and he had accepted on that basis, so as not to commit the Ministers. They had, however, warmly welcomed his mission and had passed a resolution wishing him success while at the same time making it plain that they would not necessarily be bound by any agreement that he might reach tentatively. This was a wise precaution because opinion had moved on since May 1943. This point was reinforced in a letter which Dr de Silva brought from Sir Oliver Goonetilleke. It emphasised that political opinion in Ceylon no longer regarded the Declaration of 1943 as adequate. The war was entering its final phase, India and Burma had been offered Dominion status, and the debates on the Sri Lanka Bill had made it politically necessary that Mr Senanayake should obtain more than the “self–government in matters of internal civil administration” provided for in the Declaration by which the Soulbury Commission was bound. Mr Senanayake himself said that, whatever the Commission had recommended, he proposed to ask for full Dominion status.

Mr Senanayake called on Colonel Stanley on the 16th July and secured a promise that an advance copy of the Report would be made available at the end of the month. This was a courtesy call and political questions were not discussed. In fact, Colonel Stanley now drops out of the story, for on the 25th July a general election was held and a Labour majority returned.[2] There was delay in filling the post of Secretary of State for the Colonies, and Mr Senanayake could not see Mr George Hall, the new holder of the office, until the 9th August. On leaving office Colonel Stanley expressed his regret that he would personally not be able to conduct the discussions, for he believed that they could have reached an agreement which was for the mutual benefit of Great Britain and Ceylon. We have no idea of the proposals which Colonel Stanley would have made, but the impressions derived from private conversations do not support the view, widely held in Ceylon, that the change of government was to Ceylon’s advantage. The Labour Government was somewhat reluctant to take early decisions on colonial questions which it had not adequately studied and was apparently apprehensive of the consequences upon India of an agreement with Ceylon. Mr Hall had no proposals and merely asked Mr Senanayake, at the interview on 9th August when a final proof copy of the Report was handed over, to send him a note on the points which he wished to have discussed.

I was informed of this conversation by telephone and went into residence at Grosvenor House on the 11th August.  Dr de Silva’s official diary contains the note: “Dr Jennings has arrived.  The problem of keeping him supplied with cigarettes adds to our troubles”.  The report appeared on first reading to be very favourable. It did not in any way affect Mr Senanayake’s decision to press for Dominion status, but neither did it affect his general policy of accepting anything that was offered provided that it was a genuine advance on the Donoughmore Constitution. We were therefore presented with the difficult task of framing a case for Dominion status which was at the same time an effective criticism of such parts of the Soulbury Report as appeared inconvenient within the framework of the Declaration of 1943. We discussed in detail what points should be raised. Then I was left to myself in Dr de Silva’s room, which I left only for meals until the draft was completed. I did not like my first draft and wrote a second. This was discussed with Ranasinghe and amended: the amended draft was then discussed with Mr Senanayake and both secretaries, and further amended. A typist was lent to us by the Colonial Office, and the letter was signed and delivered to the Secretary of State by hand on the 16th August. The text is given in Appendix II.

Emphasis should be laid on the purpose of this letter. It was essentially an attempt to persuade the Government of the United Kingdom to accept Dominion status. Arguments had to be used which would prove convincing in London. If one is trying to convince other people, one does not tell them that they are blackguards, or even wicked imperialists: one frames the argument in the manner likely to appeal to them. The advantages to the United Kingdom had to be stressed; the advantages to Ceylon had to be mentioned only incidentally. Concessions had to be made in order that the advantages might prove more attractive than the disadvantages. The arguments which might lead to refusal or delay had to be met before they were used; thought had to be given to what the Colonial Office would say in its own memorandum and to state their such case in such a manner as would lead to the conclusion desired by Ceylon. On the other hand, it might be necessary to publish the documents in Ceylon; and though it would be impossible to use the clichés about imperialism, economic exploitation, and so on, which were common place in the State Council, probability of misrepresentation had to be faced. On these matters Ceylon and the United Kingdom spoke different languages and neither understood the other.

What is more, when the document was drafted the chance of obtaining Dominion status was not good. In case the main proposal was not accepted it was necessary to provide for a second argument which would justify as large a departure as possible from the Declaration of 1943.

The Soulbury Commission had just reported, and it was thought that the answer would be that the Ministers’ draft, with the Soulbury Commissions, should be tried for a time. Hence the efforts in Part II of the letter[3] to squeeze a little more out of the Soulbury Report. There was also the problem that if Dominion status was granted there must be considerable delay because Imperial legislation (on the lines of the Ceylon Independence Act, 1947) would be required, and this might not be passed without the concurrence of the Dominions. Mr Senanayake therefore asked for full self–government (i.e. the Sri Lanka Bill) immediately pending discussions with the Dominions and the enactment of legislation. This would enable the constituencies to be delimited, the registers to be compiled and the elections to be held, by which time the Ceylon Independence Act would be passed; Dominion status would then be brought in during 1947. The main plea was for Dominion status, and Mr Senanayake considered that the trump card was Trincomalee. Though there would be a great deal of chatter (as there was in 1947) about providing “bases for imperialism”, every Ceylonese politician who had sat in the war council or had been in Colombo on Easter Sunday, 1942[4], knew how dependent was the Island on defence from overseas.  In A.R.P. Headquarters we had watched Mr F.R.G. Webb[5], working 18 hours a day, convert Colombo Racecourse into an aerodrome in the nick of time; but the aerodrome was useless without the 42 Hurricanes rushed by aircraft carrier from the Middle East. We had received and passed on the message from the Royal Canadian Air Force Catalina off Dondra Head that a “large enemy force” had been sighted on the way to Ceylon; we had stood by all night, knowing that the main part of the East Indian Fleet was in Bombay, that there were fewer than a division of troops in the Island, and that if the Japanese landed we were helpless. Mr Senanayake had rushed back to Colombo as soon as he heard the news and had assisted in building up the Imperial forces during the months following.

On the other hand, he considered that the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia and perhaps India needed assistance from Ceylon. The offer of 1945 to Burma had been Dominion status with agreements about defence. He asked that Ceylon be offered the same, believing that the request would be cabled to the Commander–in–Chief in Ceylon and that he would support it. The Ministers’ scheme of Governors’ Ordinance was complicated; the Soulbury Report had made it even more complicated and it did not seem likely to work. The letter said very positively that it would not work, an instead offered a collaboration between an independent Ceylon and an independent United Kingdom. Mr Senanayake hoped that the offer would be submitted to the Admiralty, the War Office and the Air Ministry, and he felt certain that the staffs would prefer collaboration through Dominion status to the highly speculative advantages of Governors’ Ordinance. We believed, too, that if Australia and New Zealand were consulted they would support Ceylon.

On the 4th September Mr Senanayake met the Secretary of State, the others present being the Parliamentary Under–Secretary of State (later the Secretary of State) Mr A. Creech–Jones, Mr A.G. Ranasinghe, the Permanent Secretary (Sir George Gater[6]), Mr Edward Gent[7], Mr Sidebotham[8] and Mr Trafford Smith[9]. The Secretary of State apologised for the delay in beginning the discussions. His Majesty’s Government had not reached conclusions on the Soulbury recommendations and he had been empowered only to hear what Mr Senanayake had to say and to elucidate his point of view for a further report to the Cabinet. In the light of these discussions the Cabinet would reach its conclusions. Mr Senanayake’s explanation followed the lines of Part I of his letter[10]. He emphasised that Ceylon had governed itself for over 2500 years and that even in the early stages of the British occupation competent authorities had reported that the Island was ripe for democratic constitutions on the British model. He pointed out that in more recent times they had successfully worked a Constitution which constitutional experts had pronounced to be unworkable. The Declaration of 1943 had been accepted as adequate only in the war conditions then prevailing; those conditions had now changed opinion in Ceylon had hardened in favour of full Dominion status; but if the necessary legislation would involve delay full self–government should be conferred immediately together with agreements on defence and external affairs. Though he admitted that Ceylon must be associated with United Kingdom he emphasised that defence and internal affairs must be regulated by agreement. The Secretary of State replied with the question of Dominion status was a matter of very high policy on which he could not take a decision, but he would submit Mr Senanayake’s views to the Cabinet for sympathetic consideration.

The Secretary of State then suggested that the points in Part II be discussed. He explained that it might be desirable to have these discussed with the officials and their legal advisers at a separate meeting, and this was agreed. Mr Senanayake then explained the various criticisms of the Report contained in the letter. While the Cabinet was discussing Dominion status, two meetings of officials were held, on the 7th and 10th September. Sir George Gater presided, and in addition to those present at the previous meeting Messrs Barclay Nihill, Legal Secretary, and Mr Roberts–Wray[11], Legal Adviser to the Secretary of State attended.

In the meantime I had not been idle, though I had returned to Cambridge after completing the letter of 16th August. Mr Senanayake considered that it would be helpful if he could give the Secretary of State a draft of the proposed Constitution and of the Agreement relating to Defence and External Affairs. I therefore made a thorough revision of the Ministers’ draft, my tenth draft, deleting all provisions inconsistent with complete self–government but inserting such of the Soulbury amendments as Mr Senanayake was prepared to accept. Necessarily it did not include the provisions which would have to be enacted by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, but it recited in the preamble “the intention of His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom to recommend to the Parliament of the United Kingdom as soon as may be practicable that the status of a Dominion be conferred on the Island of Ceylon”.

The Soulbury Senate was included, but the provisions were to come into operation only after a resolution to that effect had been passed by the House of Representatives. The draft Agreement contained inter alia the following provisions:–

  • The Constitution and the Agreement were to be submitted to the State Council, if agreed by it, would be brought into operation.
  • “The Government of the United Kingdom agrees that the status of Ceylon within the British Commonwealth of Nations is that of a Dominion as defined by the Imperial Conference of 1926[12] in official documents Ceylon shall be referred to as the of Ceylon”.
  • Ceylon was to become a member of the Imperial Conference.[13]
  • Relations with Ceylon were to be the concern of the Dominions Office.[14]
  • The channels of communication with Ceylon were to be the same as for the other Dominions.[15]
  • Mutual representation by High Commissioners.[16]
  • Consultation on shipping, currency, and nationality.
  • Consultation on foreign policy and treaties.
  • The United Kingdom to help Ceylon to become a member of the United Nations Organisation, etc.
  • Ceylon to have its own diplomatic and consular representatives where it so desired, but could use United Kingdom representatives elsewhere.
  • Ports and aerodromes in Ceylon to be open to British warships and aircraft on payment of customary dues.
  • The United Kingdom might maintain in Ceylon such forces as it considered necessary, and Ceylon would assist in the provision of facilities.
  • The United Kingdom would provide equipment and training for the armed forces of Ceylon.
  • Ceylon would pay to the United Kingdom an annual sum of (blank) million rupees – an amount for the defence of the Island.
  • In the event of war the armed forces of Ceylon would be placed at the disposal of the United Kingdom, but not for use outside Ceylon except with Ceylon’s consent.

It will be seen from paragraph (11) to (15) that the proposed agreement was for more favourable to the United Kingdom than the agreements of 1947. Just as in 1945 Ceylon could not accept what it had been willing to accept in 1943, so it could not accept in 1947 what it would have accepted in 1945. Opinion moves on as events occur. These documents were presented to the Secretary of State on the 13th September. On the 17th Mr Senanayake had another conference with him and was informed that the Cabinet was unable to come to a decision owing to the problems arising out of the surrender of Japan and the Conference of Foreign Ministers. Mr Senanayake therefore left England on the 20th September. I followed two days later.

Mr Senanayake was naturally disappointed. He had been very hopeful after his meeting on 4th September. He assumed, and the assumption seems to have been correct, that subsequently the Cabinet did in fact discuss Ceylon but had decided against immediate Dominion status. Postponement of a discussion became necessary because the Secretary of State was asked to submit an alternative proposal involving something less than Dominion status. One possible explanation was that Great Britain wanted to hold on as much as possible. This explanation we rejected; apart from the constitution it seemed clear enough that Mr George Hall had actually recommended Dominion status.  A second possible explanation was the propaganda made by Mr G. G. Ponnambalam, who had come to London at his own expense in spite of discouragement from the Colonial Office, had been more successful than we anticipated.  Anybody who had seen the Soulbury Report would know that “balanced representation” or “fifty–fifty” was dead.  It was of course not possible for Mr Senanayake to disclose that he had seen the Report, but he was anxious to secure the collaboration of the Ceylon Tamils and he knew that Mr Ponnambalam was in principle as anxious for self–government as Mr Senanayake himself.  Accordingly, he did his best to inform Mr Ponnambalam indirectly that the points he was raising with such members of Parliament as would listen were no longer relevant.  In any event, Mr Ponnambalam had no influence in the Colonial Office nor, so far as we could see, among the Cabinet Ministers.

Eventually Mr Senanayake came to the conclusion that the Cabinet did not want to take a final decision about Ceylon until it had solved the problem of India. Independence for India had been an item of the Labour party’s election programme, but it was proving extremely difficult to find an acceptable scheme. Was it possible to confer Dominion status on Ceylon while the Indian problem remained acute? Mr Senanayake hoped that his offer would be so attractive that His Majesty’s Government would accept it as a demonstration to India. The Cabinet, apparently, took a different view, that it was unwise to decide about Ceylon until there was a decision about India.

On his return Ceylon Mr Senanayake gave a general explanation to the Ministers, and after the publication of the Soulbury Report he circulated the texts of all the documents together with a long explanation drafted by Mr Ranasinghe. It was not possible to publish these documents because the Colonial office did not wish it to be disclosed that Mr Senanayake had seen the Soulbury Report in proof. All the portions of the letter of August which did not refer to the Report were, however, published in narrative form and were republished in Ceylon’s Path to Freedom[17].

[1] Helena (later Lady) Jennings (née Konsalik).

[2] The results were declared on 26 July 1945, which gave Labour under Clement Attlee a large majority in the House of Commons with 393 seats to the Conservative’s 197.

[3] See Appendix IV

[4] Ceylon faced significant threats of Japanese invasion during the war, especially after the fall of Singapore in February 1942 and on 2 April that year Colombo harbour was bombed by the Japanese who followed this with air and naval attacks across the island’s eastern coast.

[5] F.R.G. Webb was an Engineer in Government Service.

[6] Sir George Gater, Permanent Under Secretary at the Colonial Office, 1939–47

[7] Later Sir Edward Gent, Assistant Under Secretary at the Colonial Office, 1942–46; Governor of the Malayan Union, 1946–48; High Commissioner of the Federation of Malaya, 1948.

[8] John Sidebotham, Assistant Secretary and Head of the Ceylon and Pacific Department at the Colonial Office, 1943–48.

[9] Trafford Smith, Colonial Office and Secretary to the Soulbury Commission, 1944–45.

[10] See Appendix IV

[11] Later Sir Kenneth Roberts–Wray, Assistant Adviser and then Legal Adviser to the Colonial Office from 1943 and later the Commonwealth Relations Office.

[12] The Balfour Declaration, made at the 1926 Imperial conference, established the principle that the Dominions were ‘autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations’. This laid the basis for the Statute of Westminster Act 1931.

[13] Joining the other senior self–governing members of the Commonwealth.

[14] As a Dominion relations would be transferred from the Colonial Office and thus perceived and recognised differently as an autonomous state within the Commonwealth.

[15] As a Dominion communication between the Ceylon prime minister and his the UK counterpart, for example, would be made effectively directly rather than through the Governor of Ceylon and Colonial Office, neither of whom were mere postboxes as they reserved the right to comment, amend and even reject communication from the Ceylonese politicians without their approval or consultation while Ceylon remained a Crown Colony.

[16] Commonwealth states are represented diplomatically at each other’s capitals by High Commissioners (and not Ambassadors).

[17] Published by the Ceylon Daily News in 1945.

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