This was the Council for Liberal Democracy, an explicit Liberalism being thought necessary because of the evolving political authoritarianism in Sri Lanka since 1970. A decisive event was the deprivation of the civic rights of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Then the Referendum of December 1982 postponed elections for six years, which confirmed the necessity in Sri Lankan public affairs of Liberal values, a necessity made more urgent by the communal riots of July 1983.
All these events and the growing authoritarianism of President J R Jayewardene led CLD activists to conclude that an ideological party of principle, committed to the promotion of Liberalism, needed to be formed – though I should mention that I was the only one at the time to disagree, since I thought we were more suited to being a think-tank than a party. Anyway, on 19th January 1987 the Liberal Party was formed and was recognized the following year. In 1986 The Liberal Review was founded as the first political journal committed to Liberalism. The Liberal Party's Sinhala newspaper Liberal Nidahasa took liberal politics, even if to a limited degree, to those outside the English speaking urbanized class. Seminars both in Sinhala and in English, publications in both languages and the public statements and positions of the Liberal Party, introduced a distinctly novel politics to this country.
Liberals was not then inactive but if the progress of Liberalism is to be judged by the degree to which it is part of the political establishment, it cannot make many claims. The Liberal party has had minimal representation in Parliament and its membership is limited. But it would be misleading to judge its contribution by the level of its involvement in the political mainstream.
The real contribution of Liberalism lies in the realm of ideas. In this and other respects, the impact of Liberals on the intellectual and political debate over the past several years has been considerable. From the introduction of the words ‘Liberal’ and 'Liberalism' into the political vocabulary of this country, to the attitude to politics and Sri Lankan society developed by the Liberals, the Liberal contribution has been to radically re-examine many of the pedestrian assumptions on which the sacred cows of Sri Lankan politics have been based.
Liberals alone called in question the two most significant bases for contemporary Sri Lankan politics, which are largely responsible for the crisis, of values, of institutions and of social relations, which nearly brought us to grief. The Liberal Review believes that Sri Lankan society suffered immensely from the political outlook that might be described as springing from the 1956 consensus and from the 1977 consensus.
The 1956 consensus was imbued with narrow nationalism, social envy, deeply statist economics and an ostentatious if dishonest dislike of all things western. The 1977 consensus was imbued with a profoundly immoral cynicism for the traditional forms and institutions which so often assisted in creating fairplay, justice, freedom and tolerance. An integral part of this attitude is the acceptance of the essentials of 1956 and the grafting onto such an outlook of a lionization of developmental autocracy.
The contribution of the Liberals has been to radically and relentlessly question the assumptions that form these two attitudes. Whilst both had their positive features, in solving problems of equity in the first case, and then economic stagnation in the second, they failed to understand that political principles rather than extravagant reactions should be the basis of change.
Liberalism on the contrary affirmed a package that we still think relevant. On the constitution we have upheld the free individual and the limited state where Sri Lankan political orthodoxy still genuflects before the strong state. On the economy we advocated large scale privatization, including of the plantations, banks, insurance and all state run ventures nationalized after 1970, whereas in the eighties orthodox politicians and the bureaucracy cling to socialist assumptions now thrown overboard even in Eastern Europe. On the ethnic conflict and devolution, we have said what for non-ethnic parties is still assumed to be the unsayable, that true national unity will be achieved only through devolution with a high degree of autonomy to smaller units. On the media we called for private channels on radio and television. On education we had courage from the start to uphold excellence rather than populism and have recognized the worth of private education.
Unfortunately, though we have got over the ideological confrontations of the past – or rather the oppositional politics of an outdated socialism against callous crony capitalism – we still have to cope with confrontational politics, with no recognition of the many ideals and aspirations we all have in common. So we find that the education reforms that the country needs so badly are delayed, because we are not clear about what the state should promote; corruption continues with inadequate parliamentary oversight because we have not ensured a productive consensus on the relations between the executive and the legislature with regard to its financial responsibilities; we continue confused about electoral reform because we have not articulated intelligently and comprehensibly the necessary balance between representation of distinct areas and the need for a parliament representative of the country as a whole.
The role of those killed by the LTTE who contributed much to policy making in Sri Lanka, Ranasinghe Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake, Neelan Tiruchelvam, reminds us of how badly we were set back by the conflict that engulfed this country. Perhaps this record of how we were able to bring people together to promote understanding suggests how we should proceed if we are to stop the forces of confrontation precipitating yet another crisis.