Re-Visiting the Donoughmore Ex-Co system

Rev. Dr. Oswald Firth and Richard A. Dias in a thought provoking article published in the Sunday Island of 22 March, 29 March and 05 April 2009 have taken us back to the Executive Committee system that prevailed in the Donoughmore period. They have urged a re-adoption of it in a modified form as a remedy to the many political problems that beset the country. They have buttressed their argument with citations from a formidable array of authoritative sources. Before commenting on this proposal a preliminary clarification of the Donoughmore structure is apposite.

The Donoughmore Structure

The government consisted of the Governor and a Board of Ministers. The Legislature (State Council) was made up of 61 members: 50 elected, 8 appointed by the Governor and 3 ex-officio Officers of State (0S) consisting of the Chief Secretary, Financial Secretary and Legal Secretary. The Speaker and the three OSs were excluded from the Ex-Cos; the balance 57 members were assigned to the seven Ex-Cos responsible for different portfolios. Each Ex-Co elected its Chairman who served as a minister in the Board of Ministers. This Board was formed of the seven elected ministers and the three OSs referred to above, with the Chief Secretary serving as Chairman. The ministers elected one of their own number as Vice-Chairman, who was styled the Leader of the State Council. The three OSs did not have voting rights in the State Council or the Board.

A positive feature of this structure, highlighted by the authors, was that it provided even a simple back-bencher an opportunity to participate directly in the policy deliberations of his Ex-Co on a day to day basis.

The Citations

Of the authoritative sources cited by the authors, four lend themselves for further scrutiny because of the ready availability of published documents. These sources are I. D. S. Weerawardana’s Government and Politics in Ceylon, Jane Russell’s Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, Colvin R. de Silva’s contribution to Ideas for Constitutional Reform (ed. Chanaka Amaratunga) and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s proposals of 1959. The Soulbury Commission Report could also be added to this list.

Weerawardana’s book is undoubtedly the definitive study of the Donoughmore system. In the concluding chapter he states that the system "failed to give an efficient government" and that "the attempt of the Donoughmore Commissioners to surmount the difficulties, arising from the absence of a party system by recommending a novel constitution, proved a failure". Each ministry had its own schemes and policies that were not integrated. He also commented on sharing the "pork-barrel" and "parish-pump" politics as the means by which government was carried on. On a speculative note he went on to add that "with parties, the Donoughmore Constitution would have been far different from what it was".

Russell’s study was not on the constitutional structure or the Ex-Co system per se, but on how communal antagonisms manifested themselves both within and without the State Council. If anything, it proves that the Ex-Co system could not contain or ameliorate the communal tensions that erupted within the political leadership of the country despite the uniform English education and social class. The manipulated Pan-Sinhala Ministry in the Second State Council and the 50:50 demand are telling examples. In the final pages of course Russell makes the plea that "the Executive Committee system should not be consigned entirely to the constitutional historians for it may still offer a viable alternative for the Cabinet system in Ceylon in an age to come". Her optimism was derived from the successful working of the London County Council Ex-So system with political party based elections to the Council.

The charismatic Colvin R de Silva’s contribution was made at one of a series of seminars organized by the Late Chanaka Amaratunga, who thoughtfully put all the important papers together in a volume titled Ideas for Constitutional Reform. These seminars were held during the troubled period of 1987/88 when anomie had enveloped the polity and society. Colvin’s position was that the Ex-Cos brought the whole process of government into a close relationship with the people. The committees had both legislative and executive power and every single representative was an active member of one Committee. His considered view was that this system answered the needs of a pluralist society much better than the manner in which the parliamentary system had been employed in this country. A pertinent issue is why he did not attempt to incorporate this thinking into the autochthonous Constitution in 1972, when he wielded sufficient influence? Of course, at this talk he explained that "the Constitution was not produced by me but by a Constituent Assembly". Another possible explanation is that he began to appreciate the finer points of the Ex-Co system rather late in life after he had retired from active politics.

S.W.R.D.’s position is a little more complicated. When E.W. Perera moved a resolution in mid 1932 in the State Council urging the abolition of the Ex-Co system in favour of a Cabinet System, SWRD led a back-bencher opposition to defeat it thereby endorsing the Donoughmore system. One of his arguments was that in a Cabinet system the Sinhalese would form a permanent majority and that this would lead to a polarization on communal lines. One year later he supported a Bill proposed by the Board of Ministers to do away with the Ex-Co system. As a minister in the Second State Council he participated fully in urging for constitutional reform for the grant of self-government through a Cabinet form of government. In Nov. 1945, he put the full weight of his Sinhala Maha Sabha behind D.S. Senanayake’s Resolution for the provisional acceptance of a Cabinet form of government with a view to achieving Dominion Status (complete self-government) very early. In a characteristically grand speech ("this country is at the cross-roads of its destiny") he called for the abandonment of a "Constitution which was very difficult to work in practice owing to the Executive Committee System". At this debate three Councillors voted to retain the Ex-Co system whereas 51 voted for the adoption of a Cabinet system, the latter included Tamil and other minority members. It is somewhat ironic that we who are so far removed from the theatre of action are been urged to re-enact a system that the very players so overwhelmingly rejected!!

Many years later when SWRD came forward to lead an alternative government, the MEP Manifesto of March 1956 was silent on the Ex-Co system though it referred to the need to review the status of the Senate and appointed MPs, and the need to move towards a Republic. In mid 1959, amidst the political turbulence of the period, he reverted to this subject and proposed the abandonment of Cabinet government in favour of an Ex-Co system to assuage the rising tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamils. The respected biographer, James Manor, in The Expedient Utopian referred to this as "an act of astonishing utopian naiveté" and went on to add that "when it became clear that next to no one in public life agreed with him, he dropped the idea" (p.303).

Thus, the subject of Ex-Co issues conflicting signals and may not be the proper approach to constitutional reform. The Donoughmore system had many fine points in its favour. It may be prudent to delineate its real strengths without getting embroiled in a controversial Ex-Co system.

Real Strengths of the Donoughmore System

Undoubtedly, the Donoughmore system had some fine features. Even the Soulbury Commission Report which recommended its abolition devoted one whole chapter to describe the social improvement achieved under it, especially in the fields of labour legislation, primary education and curative medicine. What then were the real strengths? There were three.

Firstly, there was the mechanism of checks and balances built into the structure through a diarchy: the Governor and the three OSs on the one side and the local ministers with their Ex-Cos on the other.

The three officials controlled finance, the public services, justice, and law and order -the commanding heights of public administration. The local ministers had to work within the parameters defined by the above functional areas. Financial profligacy was not permitted and all schemes emanating from the Ex-Cos were screened for viability and efficacy. This arrangement made Weerawardana to quip that Montesquieu’s ghost may have guided the design of the structure; Charles Montesquieu was the progenitor of the theory of separation of powers which we have enshrined in Article 4 of the present Constitution but sadly put into practice only partially. Today we have in Article 4 a diarchy in that the executive and legislature derive their legitimacy independently, but we have failed to realize the full potential and meaning of this independently derived popular legitimacy.

It is a credit to both sides of the Donoughmore diarchy that they managed to work this arrangement in a spirit of give and take overcoming the initial hiccups. D. S. Senanayake in his valedictory speech at the last sitting of the State Council paid a tribute to the officials and acknowledged their professional contribution to the smooth working of the Council.

Secondly, the Donoughmore constitution was a delicate blend of two opposing political concepts – egalitarianism and elitism. The egalitarian principle was there in the universal franchise with voting extended even to the poor and illiterate. Elitism lay in the stipulation that Councillors should be able to speak, read and write English (section 9 of the Constitution Order –in-Council of 1931). This was (to modify Walter Bagehot’s analogy) a masterly link of populism with the efficient part of government.

Would it be outrageous to suggest that our parliamentary candidates should take a test in basic Civics and Government in any one of the three languages mentioned in our Constitution prior to nomination? Electioneering is an endurance test alright, but so is the ability to sit down at a desk continuously for a couple of hours and translate ones thoughts on to paper with a legible handwriting. This will improve the quality of Parliament. On the other side, a full implementation of separation of powers will provide an opening for those possessed of professional competence to serve in ministerial office.

Thirdly, the Donoughmore system was saved by the absence of political parties. Ivor Jennings commented that the Ex-co system would not have worked had there been rigid political parties. We have today a Parliament completely colonized by political parties and in true colonial fashion everything done within it is for the greater glory of the political party to which a MP belongs or for his personal glory. In the process the national interest is lost sight of. Edmund Burke in his well known "Speech to the Electors of Bristol" spoke of only one loyalty, i.e. to the national interest guided by a perception of the general good. We should do away with the practice of political party nomination of parliamentary candidates. Let them contest on their own standing and reputation as in the Donoughmore days and contribute to moulding a "free and independent" legislature.

A truly independent Parliament that is not subservient to the Executive can serve the same function that the Ex-Cos performed in the Donoughmore structure – of superintending Executive action and policy without necessarily being a part of the Executive.


Political homilies of the type above are a legion in number. Dr. U Pethiyagoda, renowned scientist, a former President of the Association for the Advancement of Science and a former Ambassador to Rome very pertinently observed in a recent contribution to the newspapers that "what is sadly lacking in even a semblance of a solution". This is because the roots of the problem run deep in our society. The problem is best summed up in the oft-quoted statement of the American Judge, Learned Hand (suitably modified):

I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, on laws and upon courts. Believe me, these are false hopes. [Good governance] lies in the hearts of men and women. When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can do much to help it. While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.

For now, individuals can only comment and urge for a change; in the hope that someday it would set up resonance vibrations in the hearts of a sufficiently large number of good men and women.

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