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Independence, the first cabinet and Prime Minister DS Senanayake

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PM held a tight leash and once threatened to resign if the ministers didn’t change their minds

(Excerpted from the Memoirs of a Cabinet Secretary by BP Peiris)

Cabinet Government was established with the promulgation of the new constitution. Sir Henry Monck-Mason Moore, Governor, who had been appointed Governor-General, called on D.S. Senanayake to form a Government. He formed a cabinet of 14 consisting of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, George E. De Silva, J. L. Kotelawala, J. R. Jayewardene, L. A. Rajapakse, R. S. S. Gunawardena, Dudley Senanayake, C. Suntharalingam, T. B. Jayah, E. A Nugawela, A. Ratnayake and C. Sittampalam.

The first meeting was held on October 8, 1947, in the Cabinet Room, said to be one of the most beautiful in the whole of the Commonwealth. The only door leading to the room was closely barred. Police officers kept guard at the entrances leading to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Senate to prevent unauthorized persons from entering the building.

At this meeting, the Ministers, the Secretary and the Assistant took an oath of secrecy, which was an adaptation of the Privy Councillor’s oath but which had no statutory force. This was considered necessary by D.S. as the decisions of the Board of Ministers in the days of the State Council reached in the morning, regularly appeared in the late editions of the evening newspapers the same day.

In the absence of the Secretary, I had no power to administer the oath and, on two occasions, Ministers had to suffer the indignity of having to be taken round by me before a Justice of the Peace. D.S. therefore had me appointed a Justice of the Peace for the Judicial District of Colombo ex officio while holding the post of Assistant Secretary.

The oath of secrecy, however, did not prevent the leakage of Cabinet news to the Press. The same thing probably happens in other countries. Ministers like to be on the good side of the Press and oblige pressmen with news now and then. Eric Linklater, in his novel ‘The Impregnable Women’ puts these words into the mouth of Lord Pippin, the Prime Minister:

“The Cabinet puts an unbreakable seal upon the mouths of its members, and no one, for any purpose whatsoever, may take private advantage of what he learns in the sanctitude of our joint deliberations. This rule is inviolable, and like all rules, it is violated quite frequently.”

Except on one occasion when he had to see his doctor, D.S. was never late for a meeting and he insisted on other Ministers being punctual. All the Ministers complied with this request except S.W.R.D. who was invariably more than one hour late and who, on arrival, would greet the Prime Minister with a “Good morning, D.S.,” when every other Minister addressed him as “Sir” and inquire what business the Cabinet had transacted in his absence. The ground had then to be gone over again for his benefit and D.S. resented the waste of time but seemed unable to remedy it.

In the Chair, D.S. was firm and would not allow a Minister to raise a matter which was not on the Agenda unless the circumstances were exceptional. When a Minister attempted to raise a matter orally, he would say he knew nothing about it and ask a Cabinet Paper be submitted.

After the first meeting, the Prime Minister entertained the Ministers and the Secretaries to lunch in the Senate. It is strange that his first meeting and his last should have ended with a Cabinet lunch in the Senate.

D.S. was not a scholar; he had not been to a university and had no academic degree. He was an agriculturist and a gentleman-farmer and loved the land. He told me that he had planted his coconut land, probably at Botale, with his own hands and was very proud of it. But he had also been brought up early in the school of politics and was a master of political strategy which was the result of experience. There was no hypocrisy about him. In fact, it might be said that his want of hypocrisy was his greatest liability.

He was able, with that experience of his, to seize the core of the matter under discussion and throw away the non-essential covering. Often, when a Minister was arguing a Cabinet paper and taking more time than he thought was necessary, he would say “But actually, as a matter of fact, isn’t this the point?” The matter would then be settled in a few minutes. In this way, he used, very often, to clear the entire agenda. Of D.S. it can be said, “I come not, friends, to steal your hearts away: I am no orator, as Brutus is, but as you know me all, a plain blunt man…”

There was an occasion where the Cabinet decided that the price of a certain article should be increased by two cents. The Minister concerned was reluctant to carry this decision into effect but was bound by the rule of collective responsibility. He went back to his office and increased the price by one and a half cents. D.S. was angry when I brought the matter to his notice. The Minister was angry with me for having brought the matter to the Prime Minister’s notice. The Minister was ordered to carry out the Cabinet decision. I was directed to inform all Ministers that, if they were unable to carry out a Cabinet decision, they should bring the matter again before the Cabinet instead of acting on their own.

It was clear that we were not experienced in the theory and technique of Government by collective responsibility. One Minister told the Cabinet, after a decision had been reached, that he had to put it to his constituents! D.S. was working hard at this time to establish certain traditions and conventions. Heads of Departments were asking for copies of Cabinet papers to which they were not entitled. The Legal Draftsman was being asked to draft Bills by individual Ministers before the policy involved in the Bill had been approved collectively.

D.S. consulted me and laid down a few rules for the guidance of Ministers. The Legal Draftsman was not to undertake the drafting of a Bill’ until he had been informed by the Cabinet Secretariat that the proposal had the approval of the Cabinet. No paper was to be placed on the Agenda unless it had been in the hands of Ministers for three clear days before the meeting. These might be considered to be matters of detail; but D.S. was convinced that it was only by setting the details and straightening things out that the Ministers could be made to function as a collective body. In this, I think he succeeded to a large extent. There were occasional lapses.

D.S. was keen on granting trade union rights to public servants and introducing Whitley Councils. He was of the view that public servants of all classes should be given the right to form associations without any official interference, supervision or control. An exception was made in the case of the Police Force, the Prisons staff and the Agricultural Corps. He also insisted that the office bearers of a trade union of public servants should be public servants who are members of that union, and that a union should not have the right to have a political object or to make political levy. He refused to give trade unions the right of affiliation. Most of our troubles today seem to arise from the fact that trade unions are headed and controlled by political leaders who are not public servants and are not in the ‘trade’.

Before the Government took over, there had been a strike among certain sections of public servants who had been interdicted and against whom charges had been framed. D.S. agreed to make a statement in Parliament that this matter, at no time, came within the purview of his Government, that any proceedings that were being taken were merely a continuation of disciplinary action originated prior to his assumption of office and that it would not be proper for his Government to interfere with the continuance of the proceedings by the duly constituted authorities.

D.S.’s first rub was with the Public Service Commission. The Government had imported from abroad an officer called Paget as it was assumed that he had no connection with Ceylon and could be trusted to act absolutely independently and impartially. Paget assumed office as Chairman of the Commission. It was then found that he was a brother-in-law of Lanktree, a member of the Civil Service.

Paget construed the Constitution very strictly. He would have no interference by the Ministers in regard to appointments. On the other hand, Ministers found that they were unable to work with some of the Heads of Departments foisted on them by Paget. D.S., with his horse sense sent for Paget and, with some plain speaking, arrived at a workable compromise.

After the promulgation of the new Constitution, D.S. was in constant communication with the United Kingdom regarding the grant of full Dominion Status to Ceylon. This meant the removal of the reserved powers vested in the Governor under the earlier Order in Council. He informed the Ministers that the Imperial Government was willing to accede to Ceylon’s request but that, before this could be done, it would be necessary to pass a Bill in the Imperial Parliament conferring fully responsible status on Ceylon within the British Commonwealth.

It was possible that this Bill would become law before the next session of the Ceylon Parliament. Before the Bill was introduced in the Imperial Parliament, it was necessary that Ceylon should sign certain agreements with the United Kingdom. These were accordingly signed. In the External Affairs Agreement, Ceylon agreed to adopt and follow the resolutions of past Imperial Conferences. Was it intended by this, Ministers asked, to impose on this Government, a higher obligation in respect of such resolutions than existed in the case of any one of the other Dominions?

The Prime Minister stated that was clearly not the intention. The Agreements were to continue in force only as long as the two Governments considered them to be of mutual benefit, and it was implied that the Government could denounce the Agreements, in whole or in part, if the need arose. The Prime Minister was authorized to sign the Agreements on behalf of the Government.

Five documents were necessary to confer Dominion status on Ceylon:

1. A Ceylon Independence Act passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom to confer on the Ceylon Parliament full legislative powers, and to deprive the United Kingdom of responsibility for the Government of Ceylon.

2. An Order in Council to remove the limitations on self-government in the Ceylon Constitution,

3. An External Affairs Agreement to provide for certain matters relating to external affairs.

4. A Defence Agreement of such a nature that the necessary measures could be taken for the defence of Ceylon.

5. A Public Officers’ Agreement transferring to the Ceylon Government the responsibilities hitherto vested in the Government of the United Kingdom in relation to public officers.

The three Agreements were signed in Colombo on November 11, 1947, by the Governor-General, on behalf of the Government of the United Kingdom, and by the Prime Minister of behalf of the Government of Ceylon. The Ceylon Independence Act, passed by the United Kingdom Parliament, received the Royal Assent on December 10,1947. On December 19,1947 His Majesty approved the Ceylon Independence (Commencement) Order in Council and the Ceylon Independence Order in Council.

D.S. was a very happy man; his labours had succeeded, but they had to wait for official information that the documents had received Royal Approval. D.S. was waiting at Queen’s House for the news which was late. When it finally came on the ticker, he was so elated, he broke all his rules and opened a few bottles of champagne at his house “Woodlands.” The Cabinet approved the following resolution to be moved in Parliament : This House rejoices that after many years of subjection to foreign rule, the struggle of the people of Ceylon for freedom has culminated in the attainment of independence.

The first Parliament of Independent Ceylon was opened on February 10, 1948, by His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester. The Speech from the Throne was drafted by T. D. Perera. The Duke began:

“By a Royal Commission issued by His Majesty the King, I have been commanded to visit this Island, and on behalf of His Majesty, to declare the causes of opening a new session of the Parliament of Ceylon, the first session under her new status of Independence. It is a matter of considerable gratification to me that I have been chosen to convey to you His Majesty’s Most Gracious Speech from the Throne to both Houses of Parliament of Ceylon which is as following.” (I need not here reproduce the entire speech from the Throne to both Houses of Parliament of Ceylon which is set out in other official documents.)

The first paragraph read: “I regret that it has not been possible for me to address you in person on this occasion which marks an event of the greatest importance in the history of this country. After a period of nearly a century and a half, during which the status of Ceylon was that of a Colony in My Empire, she now takes her place as a free and independent member of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”

The Duke, though dressed in white uniform, was obviously in distress owing to the tropical heat. His uniform did not have any pockets and his handkerchief, neatly folded, wis carried by the Duchess. On the dais were Their Royal Highnesses and D. S. and Mrs Senanayake. Several times during the Speech, the Duke had to turn round to his wife for the loan of his handkerchief to mop his brow.

By the end of 1948, three Ministers had been replaced. Sir Oliver Goonetilleke had been appointed as our High Commissioner in London and was succeeded by E. A. P. Wijeratne. George E. de Silva’s portfolio had been taken over by C. Sittampalam and A. E. Goonesinha had joined the Cabinet as Minister without Portfolio. G. G. Ponnambalam later took on the Ministry of Industries. H. W. Amarasuriya had become Minister of Commerce and Trade in place of C. Suntharalingam.

Suntharalingam had been consistently opposing, in Cabinet certain proposals relating to persons of Indian descent resident in Ceylon, a problem now known as the Indo-Ceylon problem. He was the sole dissentient, and, on the final decision, asked that his dissent be recorded in the minutes. In drafting the minutes I made no reference to the dissent. When the minutes came up for confirmation at the next meeting, he pointed out the omission and asked that the error be rectified.

I anticipated that he would raise this point, and was armed with the necessary books. I quoted authority to show that a dissent was not recorded in Cabinet minutes in view of the doctrine of collective responsibility.

That once a decision had been reached, a Minister’s duty was to support it, both in Parliament as well as on the public platforms, and that if he found himself unable to do so, his clear duty was to resign. Suntharalingam inquired what I was reading from and when he was told that it was “Jennings on Cabinet Government”, said that the authority was completely outdated. D.S. preferred to follow Jennings and the dissent was not recorded.

Shortly afterwards, this matter came up in the House of Representatives. I had taken no interest in the proceedings of the House. One evening, my telephone rang and when I inquired who was speaking, there was no answer.

All that the voice said was “I want you to look up your books and draft a strong letter dismissing my Minister. See me at Temple Trees tomorrow morning at eight.” I did not know what had happened or who the Minister was. I had to get this information from the Clerk to the House.

He said that when this question came for voting, Suntharalingam left the Chamber. The Prime Minister had thought that he had gone to the lavatory but was informed that during the time that the division was being taken, Suntharalingam was in the lobby. With the strongly worded draft and a stenographer, I saw the Prime Minister the next day at the appointed time. He was in his bath and apologized for his delay of ten minutes..

He was never known to have kept a public servant waiting. He read the letter very carefully and said that the wording was far too strong. He then signed an amended draft. “Sun”, as everybody called him, left the Cabinet shortly afterwards. He was amazing at any problem involving mathematics. On the China Rice-Rubber contract, for example, he would, like his colleague, Sittampalam, work out, without paper or pencil, the total cost of so many thousand tons at pounds sterling 71/2d per ton. He was a very intellectual man, and his departure from the Cabinet was a great loss.

The Cabinet was once discussing one of D.S.’s own Cabinet Papers and, during the discussion, it was found that nearly every Minister was opposed to his proposal. He was very annoyed. It was the first and the only time that a vote has been taken in Cabinet, and the voting in a Cabinet of fourteen was thirteen against, with the Prime Minister for. He pushed his heavy satinwood chair back, rose, and said that he would adjourn the meeting for the next day for further consideration; if the Ministers remained of the same view, he would hand in his resignation. On the next day, the thirteen Ministers were in complete agreement with the Prime Minister!


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