Criticisms Of James Peiris And Thoughts On His Political Philosophy And Perspectives
Sir James Peiris by L.J.M. Cooray

I will focus on some of the criticisms levelled against James Peiris during his political career, prior to examining his achievements in public life. I will in this context focus on his political philosophy and perspectives because they provide (I think) an answer to the criticisms.

He was a conservative in the best sense of that much used and abused (by critics and users) term. He was also politically a liberal in the Gladstonian tradition with deep commitment to raising the living standards of the poor and underprivileged.

I will first examine his conservatism (because for many this constitutes a severe failing).

A popular definition of a conservative is of one who stands for the status quo. Very few people are for the status quo and satisfied with all aspects of it. An evolutionary conservative (such as James Peiris) could be defined as one who is in favour of gradual change but is distrustful of those who attempt to destroy existing institutions without having a clear understanding of what they are putting in their place. It is easy to demonstrate the inadequacies in existing institutions and values and to suggest change without realising that the suggested changes may produce more problems. Change may remedy some disadvantages of the existing system, but give rise to other unforeseen disadvantages.

A conservative would say that he believes in weighing what exists before discarding it and in testing what is proposed in the light of circumstances, prudence and experience.

These familiar conservative lessons will not sound quite so banal when the development of European political and intellectual life since 1789 is borne in mind and when it is remembered what has been done in the name of equality, social justice, etc, in revolutionary France, in Hitler's National Socialist Germany and in many communist societies all over the world.

The gradual changes being effected (cumulatively very considerable) under democratic socialism are often counter-productive and are providing ever increasing power to government. History has many important things to say about the fate which awaits those who despise a limited style of politics, the politics of imperfection, and set their sights too high. An evolutionary conservative would have a sensitive feeling and concern regarding social injustices. But he believes there are no easy (and sometimes no difficult) solutions to human problems. He believes that the great enemies of society are the misguided reformers who believe with unashamed arrogance that they have solutions to complicated problems and wish to use the power of the state to impose their views on society.

The criticisms made of James Peiris include that he: was too weak, was too conservative, avoided confrontation, was too inclined to compromise and that he was used by the Colonial Government (notably Governor Manning) to delay reforms which might have otherwise been obtained. He was fiercely attacked and criticised for the views he put forward before the Doughnamore Commission in 1928. The modern egalitarian would accuse him of having no vision of equality and social justice.

The rationale for conservatism which is provided above provides an answer to these criticisms. He was a conservative and I have explained his conservatism.

The quotations from his contemporaries which I provide in different parts of this lecture bear testimony to the recognition of his integrity by all who knew him (including his enemies). This dimension is relevant in the context of all criticisms.

His critics say he was too accommodating to Governor Manning and that largely due to his efforts The Ceylon National Congress in 1921, agreed to a compromise proposal for reforms offered by Manning. The critics feel that if not for the compromise more substantial reforms may have been obtained. The operative word is "may".

By comparison, in August 1922 James Peiris led a walk out of the Legislative Council in protest against the Supply Bill which the Governor had introduced into the Legislative Council. This coupled with the earlier compromise with the Governor probably helped to pave the way for the coming of the Doughnamore Commission and substantial reforms. Both before and after the walkout, he had maintained cordial social relationships with the Governor. Appendix B explains this facet of his character - fight on principles and maintain good personal relationships.

James Peiris believed in compromise wherever possible, where principle was not involved. An Englishman Keble provides an answer to some of the criticisms: "In secular matters James Peiris' character was equally open and sincere. He is frequently described as gentle and mild. Yet few men entered a fighting debate more readily than he, or stood more firmly by a principle or a policy. His mildness was deceptive enough to an unwary opponent. The secret of his political success lay first in his honesty, and secondly in his clearness of thought and expression. His speeches are fine examples of conciseness and clarity, with seldom a wasted word and scarcely ever a passage appealing to purely popular feeling. One cannot but feel that it is a credit to any nation to have accepted as a leader, a man who took so little pains to appeal to the moods of patriotism or to the transient phases of sentiment. The truth is that Sir James had schooled himself not to be swayed by sentimental movements, whether nationalistic, or political, or personal." Keble and Surya Sena, op cit, p 111.

In the 1920's he was firmly committed to the territorial principle and opposed communal representation. But he was willing to compromise to the extent that he agreed to existing levels of communal representation (with a small increase necessitated by equitable considerations), while pressing for an expanded Legislative Council with increased territorial representation. This illustrates the manner in which he was able to compromise, while maintaining a principle.

James Peiris was an evolutionary conservative as well as a liberal in the `Gladstonian' tradition. He also was influenced by the Indian writer, Gokhale.

What of the criticism that he would not identify with modern ideas and concepts of equality and social justice?

His last public speech was delivered on the 7th of March 1930, two months before he died on the occasion of the visit to Sri Lanka of the Sultan of Turkey. He said:

"The Prince had impressed on the crowd who listened to him, the very qualities they needed most, that is, tolerance, justice and liberty...The Muslims were the one community in which all members were equal, and that was one thing on which other Ceylonese wish to follow the Muslims; but he was afraid that the time is yet far distant when other communities would attain to the same equality." Quoted without reference to source in Keble and Surya Sena, op cit, p 106.

At first sight this might seem a confusing statement. The equality which James Peiris referred to was probably the capacity of Muslims to welcome any visitor (whatever the social class) into their homes as a social equal.

James Peiris would probably have defended hierarchical structures for the purpose of work (including servants). He however had a strong notion of the importance and dignity of the human person.

James Peiris was a man of absolute courage who on grounds of principle would confront anyone in the world. Underlying this was a belief that no one was superior to him. The converse of this is that no one was inferior to him. I was brought up to believe that no one was superior to me - and the converse that no one was inferior to me followed automatically. This leads to respect for the individual human dignity of every person. People are different, not equal. Each individual is important in God's eyes. "He fashions them individually." The only approach of equality which can be extracted from the Bible is equal human dignity. The Bible has no specific texts which support material equality.

Unhappily, many, including socialists and egalitarians have perceptions of people who are superior to them as well as people who are inferior. Among educated persons it is not uncommon to encounter those who seem to believe that because of intellect, they constitute a superior class. Many demonstrate a sense of intellectual arrogance and superiority, in their belief that their ideas alone are worthy of serious consideration and implementation (competing ideas are reactionary, conservative, ignorant, selfish or misguided) and that they have a duty to impose those ideas on the people, whether the people see the importance of those ideas or not.

James Peiris had a profound belief in the idea of personal equality and the dignity and the importance of the individual. He would acknowledge the need for hierarchical structures based on merit and reason for the viable operation of any organisation. He identified completely in theory and practice with Voltaire's famous statement: "I disagree with your views but will defend to the death your right to express them".

What about his views on material equality and social justice? James Peiris was a firm and a passionate supporter of William Gladstone, former British Prime Minister, who crossed swords with the Conservative Prime Minister Disraeli, (subsequently Lord Beaconsfield) in the late nineteenth century. As stated, he was also a follower of the Indian writer and social activist, Gokhale. His activities (some of which are detailed below) illustrate the work he did and the pioneering concern he had for the underprivileged sections of the community, the poor and exploited workers. Gladstonian liberalism and philosophy of Gokhale were directed towards the alleviation of the problems of the genuinely poor and underprivileged. They were directed against poverty. They were unconcerned with material equality.

If James Peiris were to come back today, he would no doubt defend his position. He would point out that the war on poverty in Ceylon and many parts of the world would have been won, if it had been directed against poverty and poverty alone. He would argue (I surmise) that the movement away from the focus on poverty and the genuine underprivileged (which was the concern of the early socialists of all descriptions) towards ideas and notions of equality, social justice and rights for minorities has led to vast bureaucratic programmes, increased government power and discretions, corruption within government (a big and uncontrollable government) and most importantly benefits to those who are not poor or underprivileged. He would argue that the war on poverty would have been won, if it had not been misdirected towards equality and social justice. He would argue that the only equality that socialism has brought is equal access to corruption. In James Peiris' day corruption was open only for the rich and privileged. Today it is open to everyone - the one area in which socialism has been implemented in practice.

In other words, to use the modern idiom, James Peiris would have supported equality of opportunity and not equality of outcome. He would have distinguished between the liberal idea of equality of opportunity, which he so ardently espoused, and the different concept of equal opportunity or equality of outcome which is very much in vogue in modern times.

James Peiris' concern for the poor and the underprivileged is illustrated by many of his public actions. He opposed taxes which increased burdens on the poor. In the fields of welfare and social services he was a pioneer who initiated and laid the foundations of the welfare state in Ceylon. His concern for the poor and the underprivileged are illustrated in the sections which follow on Sensitivity to tax burdens, especially on the poor and Welfare and social services.

The basis of James Peiris' approach to poverty and the underprivileged was to get to the root of the problem, by helping the poor to help themselves. He sought to enlist the poor in their own fight, to help them to become useful, self respecting and educated citizens. His ideas may seem narrow to modern egalitarians. But they should at least concede this much, that at the time he lived and worked, his ideas were very much in advance of their times.

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