|Emergence of Liberalism|
Shortly after the Liberal Party was founded in Sri Lanka, in 1987, a prominent politician remarked that it was an anachronism, because Liberalism had died in Sri Lanka with Sir James Pieris. The gibe was understandable. Sir James Pieris had been a prominent politician at the turn of the century and, though he survived into the twenties, Liberalism as an ideology had no status whatsoever in the programme of the Ceylon National Congress that dominated politics in the period before independence in 1948. As happened to many other colonies which grew to political maturity in the period around the Second World War, Ceylon was dominated by the twin pillars of Nationalism and Socialism. Those were days in which independence movements drew inspiration from Laski’s London School of Economics. Socialism along with Nationalism seemed then the only recourse of the underdog, and thus provided a potent and ultimately disastrous mix for so many former colonies.
The death knell of Liberalism in colonial Sri Lanka was sounded by the defeat of the statesman E W Perera in the Kelaniya bye-election of 1942. Perera was an old Congressman, who had done yeoman service in getting a fair deal for the more aggressive of his countrymen arrested under Martial Law in 1915. However, his sturdy individuality did not go down well with the new potentates. They permitted another much younger Congressman called J R Jayewardene to contest him, and allowed what was termed a free vote. Jayewardene and his supporters made much of the fact that Perera was a Christian, which proved enough to defeat him. Jayewardene thus entered the State Council, where he was immediately marked for high office. Though there was already a Board of Ministers under the then prevailing Donoughmore Constitution, three portfolios were reserved for colonial officers. When these were got rid of under the Soulbury Constitution that brought Ceylon independence, Jayewardene was made Finance Minister in the new United National Party government.
Thirty years later he finally achieved his ambition of becoming Prime Minister, and promptly introduced a new Constitution that turned him into an Executive President with sweeping powers. A few years later he masterminded a Referendum that, attended as it was by outrageous electoral malpractices, extended for a second period of 6 years the term of the Parliament elected in 1977. Though he presided over what was ostensibly the more right wing of Sri Lankan political parties, the United National Party, he thus showed himself very much a child of his times in assuming that centralized authoritarianism was necessary for social development. It was no accident that it was he who introduced the term ‘Socialist’ into the official title of the Sri Lankan state.
Ironically, but perhaps justly, it was in opposition to the 1982 referendum that Liberalism once again asserted itself in Sri Lanka. Though many members of the UNP deplored the undemocratic tactics of its leader, only one person who sat on any of its committees was prepared to speak out openly against the move. This was the young intellectual Chanaka Amaratunga, who tried very hard to persuade sympathetic senior members such as the party chairman A C Gooneratne and former MP Rukman Senanayake to take a public stand. They were both however too nervous, aware as they were of Jayewardene’s ruthlessness if he were crossed. Amaratunga therefore used the Council for Liberal Democracy that he had established earlier to run a campaign against the referendum, that used as its slogan the assertion of the previous UNP leader Dudley Senanayake that there were some rights that could not be taken away by any majority however massive. Since Jayewardene had jailed the most effective campaigner in the opposition at the time, the charismatic Vijaya Kumaratunga, on the argument that Marxist murderers would take over if he lost the referendum, it was important that the CLD stressed the Liberal Democratic reasons for opposing the extension of the life of parliament.