Woolf and Bandaranaike:
The Ironies of Federalism in Sri Lanka

by William Clarance
(Former UNCHR representative in Sri Lanka)

Apart from their Oxbridge background, formidable intellect, literary bent and— albeit at different times and in vastly different roles—their participation in the political process of colonial Ceylon, Leonard Sidney Woolf and Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike had little in common with one another. They never met, and at various critical times each would appear to have been either ignorant or oblivious of some of the more sensitive positions which the other was taking.

Woolf: a firm friend of Ceylon

In 1904, after distinguishing himself at Cambridge—more through participation in the esoteric society of the Apostles than by academic achievement—Leonard Woolf obtained sufficient marks in the open Civil Service competition of the day to be placed as a cadet in the Ceylon Civil Service. Thereafter, he served with some distinction as a junior colonial administrator in various districts in Ceylon until 1911, when he returned home to London on year-long leave, at the end of which he married Virginia Stephen—the sister of one of his Cambridge contemporaries, the future novelist and one of the leading lights of the modernist Bloomsbury Group. He then resigned from the Colonial Service and never went back to Ceylon, save briefly in 1960 when, as an old man, he was the honoured guest of the independent government. He died in 1969.

It may seem that such a person could have little possible relevance to a search for the sources of and solutions for the ethnically driven civil war in the Sri Lanka of today. But Leonard Woolf, a shrewd, articulate and widely respected Fabian, often with refreshingly original ideas and in a position to voice them in influential circles, proved himself to be a firm friend of Ceylon in the years before independence, and what he thought, said and did in relation to the country prior to independence commanded attention, if only because it was usually perspicacious and often different from what the Colonial Office in London and the colonial administration in Colombo were thinking and doing at the times in question. Ceylonese leaders had first sought Leonard Woolf’s assistance in London following the extensive rioting that broke out between Sinhalese and Muslims in Kandy in 1915 and then spread to Colombo and elsewhere with much violence and damage to people and property. The colonial government of Ceylon had regarded the disturbances as seditious and acted repressively, declaring martial law; of the many people subsequently tried by courts martial, eighty-three were condemned to death and sixty sentenced to life imprisonment. The Sinhalese maintained that there had been no sedition— pointing out that neither European individuals nor European property had been touched—and claimed that the episode was just a bad example of the volatile communal disturbances, such as occurred from time to time in the region. When their delegates came to London in 1916 to try to see the Colonial Office and get an enquiry and review, they asked Leonard Woolf for advice in canvassing support.

Woolf soon became convinced that the colonial authorities were themselves at fault in having failed to take decisive police action in the early stages of the unrest, as a result of which the rioting had got out of hand, and that their action thereafter in imposing martial law had been unjustly repressive. In particular, he believed that the trials by courts martial presided over by military officers had resulted in many people being arraigned who were entirely innocent of the offences with which they were charged—a point which would hardly need to be argued in the more human- rights sensitive world of today. He thus set to with his formidable application and worked closely with the Sinhalese delegates in publicising their case in the press and lobbying in political quarters.

Eventually, in 1918, the Sinhalese and some of their more prominent British supporters were received by the junior colonial minister of the day, W. A. S. Hewins, together with the competent officials at the Colonial Office. Unfortunately, the official response was negative. But Leonard Woolf was thereafter on course to follow from afar political developments on the island sympathetically and, when feasible, supportively.

In that regard he was helped by his position as secretary of what had started as the Advisory Committee on Inter national and Imperial Questions—a committee which the Labour party had set up during the First World War at a time when its supporters and MPs, small in number by comparison with the Conservatives and Liberals, needed to acquire expertise and experience outside their relatively narrow range of industrial and employment issues. The function of such committees was thus to advise an educate the Labour party executive, MPs and members on the issues of their con petence. When the International and Imperial Committee was split into two, Leonard Woolf continued as secretary of both for nearly twenty-five years—a critical period for developments in the empire, during which he was regularly and closely in touch with Labour politicians both in and outside the House of Commons. He was also for many years a member of the executive committee of the Fabian Society and chairman of its International and Colonial Bureaux. Moreover, he gained political influence from his journalistic activities with leftwing periodicals such as the New Statesman, the Nation and The Political Quarterly. The last of these he helped found and jointly edited for many years, and was to describe as ‘partly a technical paper in which the professional politician, the administrator or the civil servant can find information and ideas of the greatest importance for his work... unobtainable elsewhere’: that is, a journal of small circulation but wide influence among the political establishment.

From such a strategically influential position on the left of British politics, Leonard Woolf was well placed to make known his views on policy and developments in Ceylon. After championing the Ceylonese case for an inquiry into the colonial authorities’ repressive handling of the 1915 disturbances, he drew attention to the need for equivalence of progress between India and Ceylon on their respective roads to responsible government. During the war, India had been promised progress in that regard, but no such specific intention had been expressed in the case of Ceylon. In a memorandum from the Advisory Committee on International Questions to the parliamentary Labour party, Leonard Woolf pointed out that the Ceylonese were on average the equals of the Indians in education and political capacity, the only real difference being that ‘in Ceylon there has been no violent political unrest or terrorism.’ He went on to assert that ‘if a large measure of responsible Government be granted to India and not to Ceylon, the position will be grotesque and impossible,’ and concluded by suggesting that the Labour party should seek a pledge from the government that ‘at least an equal measure of reform be introduced into the Ceylon as into the Indian Constitution’.

Again in 1926, Leonard Woolf took up the cause of responsible government in Ceylon when in another Advisory Committee memorandum, addressed to the Trades Union Congress and the Labour party, he cited Ceylon specifically as a country where the measure of self-government demanded by the inhabitants should be granted immediately.

Bandaranaike’s early federalism

As a scion of the most wealthy and influential Sinhalese family in the colonial elite of the early 1920s, it was only to be expected that S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike would complete his education at Oxford, where he played a prominent part in the Union, establishing his reputation as a most eloquent and effective speaker and being elected secretary. On his return to Ceylon in 1925 he immediately threw himself into the politics of the day, in which there was already much debate on the future constitutional structure of the country.

In October 1925 he formed the Progressive National party and launched into a vigorous advocacy of federalism, writing a series of six articles on federation which gave a general introduction to the subject but dealt more with its scope for the country’s external status—one notable suggestion being the possibility of federation with India—than with its application to the internal constitutional structure of Ceylon. As to the latter, however, he gave a lecture in Jaffna entitled ‘Federation as the Only Solution to our Political Problems’, of which unfortunately the only available record is a summary published in the Ceylon Morning Leader of 17 July 1926.1 From this it appears that he specifically advocated the Swiss federation as a model for Ceylon. In the very few details which were given in that article, he was reported to have said that ‘in Ceylon, each Province should have complete autonomy’ and that ‘there should be one or two assemblies to deal with the special revenue of the island.’ As Professor K. M. de Silva has remarked, the documentary sources are indeed tantalisingly meagre. But they are none the less sufficient to establish Bandaranaike’s strong personal belief in the importance of federation for the future of the country.

The first historical irony appeared immediately in the dismissive reception which his ideas received in Jaffna: federation did not feature in the then Tamil view of things. A strong rebuttal of the proposal by the (Tamil) political commentator James T. Rutnam was also published in the Ceylon Morning Leader.2 In the face of such reaction, Bandaranaike appears to have dropped federation as a political plank. The second irony came thirty years later, when, as the Prime Minister of an independent Ceylon, Bandaranaike was confronted by and strongly opposed the demands for a federal constitution made by the Tamil Federal Party under the leadership of S. J. V. Chelvanayakam.

The Woolf memorandum: sunk without trace

Paradoxically, the political influence of the anti-imperialist Leonard Woolf in relation to Ceylon was strongest in the palmier days of the Raj and diminished progressively the nearer independence approached. Thus by 1938, when he got to grips with the issue of protection for minorities as an essential part of the constitutional progress of the island, his capacity to influence the course of events was already on the wane. In a memorandum to the Labour party on demands for further reform in Ceylon, written on behalf of the Advisory Committee on Imperial Affairs, he noted that the Donoughmore constitution had been in operation for several years and that the Sinhalese were demanding a revision which would bring an increased measure of responsible government. The committee considered this opportune, and recommended that the party adopt it as policy. But it also noted that the minorities, particularly the Tamils, were opposing changes in the constitution and the grant of further measures of self-government on the ground that the Sinhalese had used and would continue to use their majority against the interests of the Tamils. It therefore recommended that provision be made for the protection of minorities and suggested that consideration be given to the possibility of introducing a large measure of devolution or even of introducing a federal system on the Swiss model... The Swiss federal canton system has proved extraordinarily successful under circumstances very similar to those in Ceylon, i.e., the coexistence in a single democratic state of communities of very different size, sharply distinguished from one another by race, language or religion. Thus, the German speaking Swiss with a population of 2,750,000 occupy the numerical position of the Sinhalese, the French-speaking Swiss with 824,000, that of the Tamils and the Italian- speaking Swiss with 284,000 that of the Moormen [Muslims]. The democratic canton and federal system in Switzerland has safeguarded the legitimate interests of the minorities.3

Surprisingly, neither Leonard Woolf nor the other Labour party experts on Ceylon, of whom there were at least two with direct experience of the country, appear to have been aware that the proposal for a federal structure on the Swiss model had been floated by Bandaranaike more than a decade previously, when it had been summarily dismissed by the Tamils. But the possibility that, if accepted and successfully implemented at either of those times, such proposals might have avoided the immense loss of human life and suffering caused by the conflict on both sides raises a range of uncomfortable questions about the circumstances in which Ceylon acceded to independence. Why was Leonard Woolf’s proposal effectively ignored? If it had been accepted by the Labour party and eventually the British government, what would have been the reaction in Ceylon at the time? Could it even have pre-empted the conflict?

The short answer to the first question is that Dr. Drummond Shiels MP, a strong egalitarian socialist who had been both a member of the Donoughmore Commission and a junior minister at the Colonial Office when the Donoughmore Constitution plus universal suffrage was introduced in 1931, quashed it. He vigorously defended the Donoughmore Constitution, emphasising that although it was not a final plan, it was a large and important step towards self-government, had already achieved much more for the underdog than any of its predecessors and should be given more time to prove itself. Unsurprisingly, in view of his previous incarnation as a Donoughmore commissioner, Drummond Shiels was very strongly against communalism and did not favour its reintroduction by the back door through manipulation of constituency boundaries and the weighting of electorates, considering it ‘a barrier to the development of true democracy, working for the economic salvation of the workers of all races, colours and religions’. On Leonard Woolf’s proposal for the introduction of a federal constitution on the Swiss model, he was even more emphatic: he was ‘not prepared at present seriously to discuss’ it. He reaffirmed his ‘great faith in the people and future of Ceylon’ and ‘saw no reason why there should not be a united, democratic Ceylon nation’.

Other reasons why the federal proposal got nowhere in London included the nature of the role of Woolf and his Advisory Committee in relation to the Labour party, which was not so much to advocate and lobby as to educate and brief. Moreover, Labour was in opposition at the time the proposal was made; and, most importantly, the Second World War was imminent. Later, during the war, after Labour had joined the Churchill-led coalition government, the Woolf and Bandaranaike:

Advisory Committee was to return to the issue of constitutional reform in Ceylon, recommending in March 1942 that a future constitution be based on full Cabinet government with the governor’s powers more on the lines of a governor-general in a Dominion, except for reservation of the defence and external affairs portfolios. The importance of protecting minority rights was accepted. Thus it was envisaged that instructions to the governor would require him ‘to use his influence with the Prime Minister in order to ensure that, if possible, representatives of the minorities should be included in the Government’. But as to what might be the most appropriate and effective machinery for protection, the proposals were vague or sketchy. Either it should ‘be given to the Governor’ or ‘if an efficient system for the protection of minorities by an International Authority is established after the war, the Ceylonese minorities might be brought under it, if the Ceylonese agreed.’4 Evidently, Woolf’s original suggestion for the introduction of a federal system on the Swiss model had sunk without trace. In any event, by then the paramount priority for the British government was to win the war—which left little scope for controversial innovation in the constitution of Ceylon, especially as its ministers in the State Council were playing an important part in the war effort.

Indeed, events were such that at no time since Leonard Woolf and his Advisory Committee had floated the federal idea in 1938 as a possible solution to the problem of protecting minorities in Ceylon could it ever have been a politically feasible measure. The Tamils had rejected it before and were still imbued with the tradition of developing the island as a single political unit when G. G. Ponnambalam, their as yet unchallenged leader, was vigorously advocating his fifty-fifty’ scheme for balanced representation in the legislature. At that time, he preferred to maintain a continuity with the past rather than to venture into a radical new beginning either by espousing a federal system or by demanding partition. A personal conjecture is that even if the Tamils might have eventually come round to the idea, the inevitable profound political upheaval that would have accompanied its implementation precluded it as a viable option during the colonial period.

The tendency has been to dismiss the significance of such proposals for the introduction of a federal system on the Swiss model in colonial Ceylon. Professor K. M. de Silva commented that Bandaranaike’s proposal ‘could scarcely be described as a well-considered plan’ and regarded James Rutnam’s famous rebuttal as a ‘systematic demolition of the case of a federal system for the island based on the Swiss model’, which had as much relevance at the time he was writing—in 1996 as when it had been made seventy years before. And James Manor, the not altogether sympathetic biographer of Bandaranaike, referred to his ‘rather fanciful plan for a federal system for Ceylon. For him... (it was) little more than an intellectual trifle which he soon abandoned when he realized it contravened the desire of most Sinhalese – especially chauvinists – for a unitary state. Tamils... have consistently exaggerated its importance.’5 But in the light of the independent Sri Lankan experience, in which so much blood has been shed in fighting for different concepts of the structure of the state, no constitutional framework within which it might be possible for different ethnic cultures to work towards common national objectives can be so lightly disregarded.

In particular, Rutnam’s refutation of Bandaranike’s proposal—largely incontrovertible though it was in the colonial Ceylon of his day — would seem to require critical review in the light of more recent events, not only in Sri Lanka, but also elsewhere. Principally, he argued that the country was too small to support the additional governmental expenditure such a system would require, that there would be eternal wrangling in the federal parliament in Colombo over the voting of supplies and that, unlike in Australia, where the objective in introducing a federal system had been to bring unity to the country, in the case of Ceylon it would surely bring disunion amongst its peoples. As he put it, ‘race individualism would be intensified which would ultimately tend to internecine troubles and racial secession.’ But his criticism was made on the basis of provincial administration throughout the country as it then was, and so did not consider the proposed contemporary variant of an asymmetrical federal structure to take account of aspirations in the north and east. And more importantly, he had an idealistically non-communal approach to the future of the island, the widespread absence of which among successive administrations after independence was to fuel the conflict so powerfully in the years ahead. Finally, Rutnam ended his eloquent rebuttal with a quotation from Raymond Poincare, the renowned President of France, who wrote of the strong unitary constitution of his country: ‘Whether you are at Toulouse or at Nancy, if you follow the national highway, it will always be a road belonging to the same state; if you consult the law, it will everywhere be identical.’ But in the western Europe of today, such traditionally centralised states as the United Kingdom and even France are much more ready to consider the feasibility of autonomy to resolve regional problems. Indeed, if he had been alive today, Rutnam would have been able to read the historic riposte to Poincare et al. of Jose Rossi, president of the Corsican assembly, following the announcement in July 2000 of French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin’s plans for Corsica: ‘France will no longer be administered in exactly the same way from Dunkirk to Bonifacio.6

Federalism and the future

Although in many respects such sharply contrasting characters, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and Leonard Woolf were both politically far-sighted men who thought deeply about Ceylon and, independently and at different times, arrived at the same conclusion that federation provided the soundest basis for its continuing stability. Both dropped the proposal for the same reason — that it was not feasible in the particular conditions of colonial Ceylon. But it would hardly have surprised such shrewd observers of the political scene that, in the new millennium, this idea now seems to offer the basis for what hope there may be for a political settlement of the conflict. Bandaranaike did indeed stand his federal ideas on their head when, as the Prime Minister of the independent successor state, he strongly opposed the proposals for its federation advocated by the Tamil Federal party under the leadership of S. J. V. Chelvanayakam. But he was not the first politician in whose complex character the visionary statesman ceded primacy to the political tactician with an exceptionally keen appetite for power. None the less, historians of the future are unlikely to forget his ironically far-sighted words, as reported in the Ceylon Morning Leader in 1926: ‘A thousand and one objections could be raised against the system, but when the objections were dissipated, he was convinced that some form of Federal Government would be the only solution.’7


1. Devolution in Sri Lanka: S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and the Debate on Power Sharing, a documentary survey with an introduction by K. M. de Silva, Kandy, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, 1996.

2. Ibid., document III, pp. 46-8.

3. Labour Party International Department, Advisory Committee on Imperial Questions, no. 202, November 1938, Memorandum on the Demands for Reform of the Ceylon Constitution by L. S. Woolf.

4. Ibid., No. 241A, March 1942, as amended.

5 James Manor, The Expedient Utopian: Bandaranaike and Ceylon, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 62.

6. Jon Henley, ‘Big Corsica Vote Likely for Autonomy Plan’, Guardian, 29 July 2000.

7. Devolution in Sri Lanka, document II, p. 48.

(• The Political Quarterly Publishing Co. Ltd. 2001 Published by Blackwell Publishers, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.)