Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Harshan Kumarasingham on ‘The quest for “Eastminster”: the British parliamentary system and the foundation of independent south Asia’

Kumarasingham bookDr Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons reports back from our latest ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar…

The ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar recently moved beyond the British Isles and indeed beyond Europe with a paper from Dr. Harshan Kumarasingham, who is currently Smuts Research Fellow in Commonwealth Studies at the University of Cambridge and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of A political legacy of the British Empire. Power and the parliamentary system in post-colonial India and Sri Lanka (2013).

His paper on ‘The quest for “Eastminster”: the British parliamentary system and the foundation of independent south Asia’ considered why, how and with what outcomes the ‘Westminster model’ of government was adopted in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka (Ceylon) after they achieved independence – in very differing ways – from Britain in the late 1940s. The main emphasis of his paper was to draw comparisons between these three countries, examining how the Westminster political system was implemented in these different political settings.

Looking first at India, Kumarasingham explained that the constituent assembly established in 1947 to draw up a new constitution for discussed several possible constitutional models, including the United States, Switzerland and the French republic, before settling on the Westminster model. Given the violence which surrounded independence and partition, strong executive government was required, and it was believed that the Westminster system provided the best democratic model to enable this. Noting that the Indian constitution is one of the longest in the world, Kumarasingham observed that more than half of its provisions were taken directly from the 1935 Government of India Act. This reflected the significant continuity of political practice before and after independence, which was also symbolised by the position of Lord Mountbatten as India’s last viceroy and first governor-general.

Kumarasingham then discussed the different trajectory taken by Pakistan, where the leading figure in the independence movement, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, chose to become the first governor-general, a position which he saw as more powerful than that of prime minister. He was also president of Pakistan’s constituent assembly until his death in September 1948. Sri Lanka’s path to independence was more peaceful than the other two countries, and it prided itself on its loyalty to Britain, seeking to model itself on ‘settler colonies’ such as Canada and Australia. Demonstrating the importance of their shared British constitutional heritage to these newly independent countries, when the constitutional expert Ivor Jennings was consulted about Sri Lanka’s constitution, the examples he invoked in discussing the concept of Cabinet responsibility included Palmerston, Gladstone and Salisbury. Sri Lanka’s constitution borrowed heavily from those of other countries, and did not include references to issues such as ethnicity or language.

This extremely interesting paper prompted a wide range of questions from the audience, who asked about bicameralism, the role of political parties and provision for the representation of minorities, among other themes. There was also discussion of the influence of one particular element of the Westminster system – the guides to parliamentary procedure originally written by the Clerk of the House of Commons, Thomas Erskine May (1815-86).

The next seminar of the term will be held on Tuesday 10 June, when Geoff Hicks (University of East Anglia) will speak on ‘Memorialising Britain’s politicians: the politics of Parliament Square, 1867-1917’.


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