Dudley Senanayake’s vision for freedom | Daily News
Memorial lecture

Dudley Senanayake’s vision for freedom

“The words ‘progressive’ and ‘reactionary’ are being bandied about on the floor of this House. What is the criterion by which a measure is judged progressive or reactionary? Surely any measure that increases the content of individual freedom of persons, be it economic, social, cultural or otherwise, is a progressive measure, and any measure that tends to diminish or inhibit that freedom is reactionary. As there cannot be freedom without economic wellbeing, there cannot be real freedom without political and individual freedom as well.”

– Dudley Senanayake

Dudley Senanayake, three times Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, is considered one of the nation’s most eminent liberal thinkers of the 20th century.

He was a man who came from wealth, accumulated from graphite mining and coconut plantations, and is said to have been a talented sportsman and a gifted student in school. He had his tertiary education in Cambridge, England, and earned his Barrister’s before returning to Ceylon in 1935. He was briefly an advocate in the Supreme Court, and then his father, D.S. Senanayake pressured him into joining politics.

While his father was Prime Minister, Dudley Senanayake served in the Cabinet as Agriculture and Lands Minister. For several years, he developed Sri Lanka’s irrigation infrastructure and agricultural capacity. In his first year, Dudley Senanayake began the Gal Oya Project, which would eventually make some 120,000 acres of land arable.

After his father died unexpectedly in 1952, Dudley Senanayake was chosen as the new Prime Minister. The younger Senanayake was said to be reluctant to take on this prestigious position. His acquiescence, however, did not last for long: the next year, the price of rice rose, and subsidies were cut, creating wide dissatisfaction with the UNP. In 1953, Senanayake resigned, due to health reasons, or, as some speculate, out of grief for the deaths that were caused by the hartal that year. This was one of two shorter terms that Senanayake served as Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister.

Senanayake re-entered the political fray during the tumultuous years during and after the assassination of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1959. A general election was called in March 1960, after which Senanayake held his second term as Prime Minister, serving for only four months.

Senanayake became the Opposition Leader in Sri Lanka’s Parliament, embroiled in a duel with Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, whose political inclinations bent towards the elimination of individual freedoms. Senanayake advocated ardently for more liberal ideologies, and against Bandaranaike’s curbs to press freedom, for example. Dudley Senanayake’s nephew, Rukman Senanayake, once told the Daily News that “media institutions were completely a private entity back then. Politicians never influenced journalists. But they maintained a good relationship.” Rukman Senanayake recalled that journalists used to meet Dudley Senanayake when he was Prime Minister, over breakfasts at the family home, Woodlands. Though politicians and journalists met, his nephew said, they were still given the freedom to report with impartiality.

Dudley Senanayake maintained the position of Opposition Leader until 1965, when he was able to form a government following that year’s elections. He served his longest term as Prime Minister between March 1965 and May 1970. During his final tenure as Prime Minister, one act which leads history to view Dudley Senanayake as tolerant was elevating the Tamil language to official status in the Tamil-speaking areas. This came after S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike replaced English with Sinhala as the official language of Sri Lanka. Dudley Senanayake did so against the wishes and grumblings of his own party, and, calling for an end to ethnic animosities, he said, “I will not barter the rights of any community for the glory of political office.”

He established universities and colleges, implemented educational reforms, and even established the Poya holiday in Sri Lanka. Today, Sri Lankans view Dudley Senanayake (a life-long bachelor) as a man who devoted the majority of his life to the development and betterment of his country. Each year, in commemoration of the service he rendered to the nation, Dudley Senanayake is remembered by a memorial lecture.

Global legacy

The speaker at this year’s memorial lecture highlighted the global reach that Dudley Senanayake had, and positioned him within the hallowed halls of some of the world’s greatest political leaders. Gordon Mackay, a former member of the South African Parliament, the current Acting Secretary of Liberal International, and, oddly enough, a self-proclaimed ‘neutral liberal’ was an interesting choice to deliver the lecture.

Mackay was born in 1981, “at the height of the final chapter of apartheid,” he said, and growing up, he was deeply sceptical of liberalism in politics. During the end of apartheid, confronted with mass state violence, Mackay described the Liberals in the South African Parliament as “tepid and ineffective,” conferring little faith in their abilities to citizens like himself.

“Liberals at the time also retained a position of qualified franchise – something which would change by the mid 1980s – which lingered in the minds of anti-apartheid activists and would leave many natural liberals outside of liberal politics,” said Mackay.

Mackay described the inadequacy of liberalism as it existed during apartheid, and the necessity of innovative activists to expand its definitions to bring about South Africa’s peace negotiations, which took place in the early 1990s and in 1994, South Africa held its first multiracial elections to select a president. Much of this, said Mackay, was brought about through the engagement and expansion of liberalism by a pivotal activist, as well as a contemporary of Dudley Senanayake –Nelson Mandela.

“Mandela,” said Mackay, “like Dudley Senanayake, had a deep commitment to justice and fair play; an unwavering belief in democracy, the rule of law and freedom of speech, and, a deep desire to achieve ethnic amity.”

During this time, Mackay spent a year in Switzerland, where he was introduced to Dudley Senanayake through a series of lectures offered by graduate students on global liberal thinkers.

“What grabbed my attention about Dudley Senanayake,” he said, “was a statement made by him during the Throne speech on April 22, 1960.” Mackay said that the speech impacted him enormously, and even “came to define my own personal brand and belief in liberalism.”

The section of Dudley Senanayake’s speech Mackay quoted was the following:

“The words ‘progressive’ and ‘reactionary’ are being bandied about on the floor of this House. What is the criterion by which a measure is judged progressive or reactionary? Surely any measure that increases the content of individual freedom of persons, be it economic, social, cultural or otherwise, is a progressive measure, and any measure that tends to diminish or inhibit that freedom is reactionary. As there cannot be freedom without economic wellbeing, there cannot be real freedom without political and individual freedom as well.”

“It is this last line that would later be articulated by my party in the Democratic Alliance,” said Mackay, “that would make it possible for me to finally commit fully to liberalism and the pursuit of liberal values.”

“You see,” he continued, “Dudley Senanayake was articulating what many liberals still today fail to grasp: that freedom is not true freedom unless the individual has the wherewithal to use that freedom to attain self-actualisation and live the life he wants to live, free from the severe constraints of poverty.”

Mackay spent the majority of the rest of his speech describing the pursuit of liberalism through economic empowerment. He talked about European economic outlooks, the trends of capitalism towards severe economic disparity, and also the failure of liberal leadership to provide new and relevant ideas to bring forth political liberalism into this era.

“Sadly,” he said, “in an age when we have need of intellectual giants and leaders of deep integrity, we are burdened with small-minded, self-interested and petty leadership, epitomised by Donald Trump in the US, but reflected in leaders around the globe, including Duterte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey, and Orban in Hungary, with the ever-increasing illiberal governments in China and Russia, which could easily make liberals despondent.”

Mackay seemed to revive the former part of Dudley Senanayake’s quote that emphasised the importance of social and cultural freedoms to the individual’s freedom as well.

“We have a plethora of honest and honourable leaders to whom we can look to as guiding lights. Dudley Senanayake is just such a leader.”

This year’s 18th Annual Dudley Senanayake Memorial Lecture was not a call for a return to an age with leaders people now recognise as honourable. Rather, it was a call for current leaders to borrow their ingenuity, and their “unchallenged integrity,” as Mackay put it. And furthermore, rather than concede and compromise liberal values to appeal to people who think differently, Mackay called upon leaders to “recommit, unambiguously, to liberal values.”

“While the best liberals have always been pragmatic,” he said, “we must not let our pragmatism undermine our fierce commitment to the sanctity of the individual, and the creation of an equal society, in which all people can reach their full potential.”

Mackay quoted Senanayake again, proving to the audience Senanayake’s relevance today to reaffirm liberal values: “The greatest feats of man have been the achievements of a free and unfettered mind. And, under a totalitarian form of government, with all that it implies, with all its ramifications, the mind of a man can never be free.”


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