How Mackenzie king Won His Greatest Gamble
A MACLEAN'S FLASHBACK
The fantastic events of 1926 showed Mackenzie King as a true political genius. With cunning, courage, wild chance and pure Canadianism he steered the sinking Liberal ship through a major scandal, a fight with the Governor-General and defeats in the House
This bonus-length feature is condensed from Bruce Hutchison's new book, The Incredible Canadian, to be published later this month by Longmans, Green. In the next issue a final excerpt — Hutchison's personal appraisal and assessment of Mackenzie King — will be published.
IN 1926 a freak of fortune, a chance in a thousand, saved the incredible career of Mackenzie King when it appeared finished after a short morning glory.
That was the year of the sordid epic of corruption-in-government known as the Customs Scandal. It was the year of the grim, half-synthetic feud lie tween a prime minister and a governor-general, known as the Constitutional Crisis. It was also and perhaps most fatefully the year when an absent-minded backliench MP forgot a promise to a fellow MP long enough to vote in a division from which both had agreed to abstain.
Throughout these three events King stood on the brink of oblivion, not only as the leader of his nation but as the leader of his party. In the end his fantastic adroitness enabled him to bury the first event under the second, and his fantastic luck, which culminated in the third event, reinstated him as part legatee and part builder of the era that now bears his name.
Out of the doldrums of a quiet election campaign in 1925 there had come, for King, a shattering storm. He had been confident of a safe, if not sweeping, victory over the Conservatives and his old schoolmate and now bitterest enemy, Arthur Meighen. When the returns were in. the Liberal group of 117 in the previous legislature had been cut down to 101. The Conservatives had risen from 50 to 116. The broken Progressive Party, on whose support King felt he could count, elected only twenty-five memliers.
The election result was staggering to King. He not only seemed to have lost his majority hut had been defeated by his own electors in North York.
Better than anyone else he knew that the damage to him personally was much more serious than a passing defeat could l>e to the party. He had lieen leader up to now on sufferance, had yet to master the party, and in his first electoral test he had failed. By all the calculations of politics there would lie a new leader and, for King, no second chance.
Even lïefore the election a small group of men who dominated the party in the west had quietly prepared for King's defeat and departure They were ready with a sul>stitute in Charles Dunning. Premier of Saskatchewan; the immigrant boy from England, the dirt farmer, whose real instincts would lead him surely into the city and the lioard rooms of high finance. Whether Dunning knew it or not the plan to make him King's successor was well under way at the 1925 election.
King was crushed and thought of resigning forthwith. The story of his life seemed at an end in its fifty-second year. After a day or two, however,
the old bounce returned. King resolved to play out the game to the end.
His first step was to consult with the Governor-General, Baron Bjrng, then his close friend, soon to Ire his bitter enemy.
Exactly what passed between them may never be known. King always said that he had asked only for the chance to meet parliament, prove that he could govern with the support of the remaining Progressives and, failing that, to resign in favor of Meighen. Byng, a soldier and c» man of honor, accustomed to gentlemen’s agreements and wholly ignorant of government and of Canada, took out of the conversation far more than King intended, or afterward said he intended. The ensuing dispute, which rocked Canadian politics and dogged King to his grave, centred around the meaning of King’s word.
To King it meant that if he could get a majority in parliament he was entitled to seek dissolution and another election w-hen he pleased. If he could not govern, and only if he could not govern, he was obligated to make way for Meighen.
To Byng the famous conversation meant that the Prime Minister had given a binding contract by which he must make way for Meighen at any time, without dissolution or election, if King once lost, the confidence of parliament.
For the moment neither man foresaw the quarrel as King, with the Governor-General’s consent, prepared to meet a doubtful parliament, to maintain a minority government and to find a seat for himself.
The seat was finally found in Prince Albert. The cabinet, with some of its familiar faces missing, was reorganized and strengthened by the arrival of the able and ambitious Dunning, now close to the throne which his friends expected him soon to occupy.
King was already busv with a more dangerous matter than the immediate jeopardy to his position. For more than a year he had known that there was something very wrong with his Customs Department under the genial, sick Jacques Bureau. He had started to investigate through private detectives and was considering a royal commission. He did not yet realize that he faced the worst scandal in the Liberal Party’s history. He did not know either that Meighen was already in possession of the facts, had handed them over to H. H. Stevens, MP, of Vancouver, and that Stevens, the ablest private detective in politics, was preparing to dump the whole fetid mass on the floor of parliament.
When parliament met on Jan. 7, 1926, King watched it from the gallery. On trial for his political life before a national assize, he sat, as it were, in the prisoner’s box.
Below him lolled the dark bulk of
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How Mackenzie King Won His Greatest Gamble
CONTINUED EROM PAGE 17
Ernest Lapointe, chief counsel for the defense and temporary leader of the House lolled with deceptive calm, his body sick, eye tired, but mind on hair trigger, ready for the attack which must come soon. Across from him the ramrod figure of Meighen. the prosecutor. seething with impatience for the kill, but outwardly as casual and Arctic as ever. And beside him Harry Stevens, the graduate grocer of Vancouver, a square, compact little man. who held behind his hard beach-pebble eyes the secret evidence to convict the Government.
King's fortunes for the moment depended upon a handful of Progressives, on J. S. Woodsworth and an uncertain hand of four independents. King had been their friend, or at least their sympathizer. Would they stand by him now? Every vote counted. Until he could re-enter parliament King's strategy was delay, which Lapointe ably executed. Delay suited the Opposition. It needed a little time to prepare a new indictment as yet unsuspected by the public, assemble evidence and collect exhibits.
By March King was back in his customary chair as member for Prince Albert, ready to prove that, with a minority of followers, he could govern. Although out of the prisoner’s box, he was still on trial. Would the House vote confidence in him by the formal adoption of the Speech from the Throne? That seemed to be the final test. Actually it was a mere distraction. The real contents of the session lay hidden in Harry Stevens’ brief ease and. without the GovernorGeneral’s knowledge, in Rideau Hall.
On Feb. 2 Stevens opened Pandora’s
To a stunned House and squirming Ministry he delivered an indictment of corruption the like of which had not | been heard since the Pacific Scandal. It related the laches of the Customs Department in complete, sordid and reeking detail. It gave names, dates and facts. It accused Bureau, the Customs Minister, of gross dereliction, the Government of connivance with criminals, the Liberal Party of debauchery.
The treasury benches listened in pallid silence to the grating voice of Stevens. Meighen sat with blank, imperial look, awaiting his chance. The Progressives, as King anxiously watched them in the southeast corner, the innocent farmers who had yet to see the dank underside of politics, were restless, shocked and incredulous. Woodsworth. the saint who had fallen among politic tans, stared at the square form of Stevens with undisguised horror, feeling, as he said, that he had been plunged into a mud bath.
The charge had heen read and must lie answered. The Government immediately moved fora selec t committee to study Stecens’ evidence. For nearly five months that committee four Liberals, four Conservatives and a supposedly neutral Progressive labored day after day. reading documents, questioning witnesses, sifting truth and falsehood, exploring the darkest nooks and crannies of Bureau's broken department.
The corrupt ion of the customs service was soon established. The Liberals on the enquiring committee made no attempt to hide it nor King to deny it Officials were guilty of condoning and assisting a ring of smugglers from coast to coast. The Government, on Bureau's
advice, had modified or quashed the sentence of criminals convicted in the courts. Liberal hangers-on. the scum which evers' party collects in office, were fattening on contraband, mostly liquor, which flowed in swelling cataract north and south across the American border. King had known that the Customs Department was weak, inefficient and friendly to the underworld. He now saw that it was rotten.
To cleanse it, his first act, taken the previous September, had been characteristic. courageous and indefensible. He dismissed Bureau for his failure and elevated him to the Senate for his long service to Liberalism. Here, in the scoffing of parliamentary lobby and street comers, was the promised reform of the Senate. For once King had put human charity above politics and his own safety—indefensible, outrageous and still, in a tortured fashion, generous, almost noble. Not too noble, though. Bureau was still popular in Quebec.
In Bureau’s place young George Boivin had been given the Customs Department. It was a high honor and a sentence to death. To repair the wreck left by Bureau. Boivin literally killed himself with work before the end of the summer
Parliament droned on with its legislative chores. Its real business was concentrated in the Customs Committee. whose findings might well save or smash the Government. Meighen had no doubts on that score and in the meantime regarded any act of the Government as fictitious, farcical and subject to his repeal. King was looking beyond the committee for a loophole through which he might escape into the larger court of public opinion where new issues might be raised, the present indictment forgotten.
At last, on March 3. the first hurdle was safely passed—on the I Speech from the Throne the Govem! ment was given a vote of confidence.
! Ill to 102. the Progressives and labor ! men hardly loving King more but ! Meighen less.
When Finance Minister James A. Robb's sunshine budget of drastic tax and tariff reductions was approved by a maj ority of thirteen in parliament and by most of the nation, when King could claim parliament's support in sixteen separate divisions, he felt that his understanding with Byng had been fully redeemed. The Government had demonstrated its ability to govern. Vet these votes were still preliminary skirmishes. The crucial struggle awaited the report of the weary Customs Committee.
At last the Customs Committee drafted its unanimous verdict. On June IS the public saw for the first time that the indictment was true, pretty much as drawn. The Customs Department was convicted of "slowly degenerating." Bureau of failure to discharge his responsibilities, many officials of incompetence or worse, many companies and individuals of •vhosesale smuggling.
Was the Government as a whole guilty? The committee did not attempt to say. The Conservative members had fought for such a total verdict, and failed against the Liberals and the neutral. D. M. Kennedy. Progressive, of Peace River. The Opposition must now persuade the House to expand the verdict and unseat the Government
Stevens rose on June 22 to sum up the case. He quickly dispatched Bureau, went on to demolish Boivin. the new Customs Minister, and condemned the whole Government for interfering with the course of justice to protect its friends the smueelers. He moved to expand the comn i tee's report into an outright vote of censure
on the Government which had yielded to "improper pressure from the underworld.” It was an able and crushing speech.
The Stevens amendment, as King knew, must be defeated at all costs. Were it passed the Government, condemned by parliament and with the albatross of the customs scandal around its neck, faced extinction at the polls, presuming that it could even reach them intact. For two days King and Meighen watched in silence while the junior counsel wrangled.
All the facts of accusation and defense were known, could only be repeated, chewed over and regurgitated. The liquor-laden barge Tremblay, the schooner Ellice B., the motor boats Cozy and Jeanne d’Arc. the bootleg ships that sailed legally from Halifax for Peru and returned miraculously from their voyage next morning; Daivey Waisberg and Moses Assiz, energetic enterprisers in the liquor business; J. E. A. Bisaillon, a customs official who had made himself a smalltime Bigot, a spider fattening at the centre of the customs webthese names and many others became overnight the headlines of the Press and the household words of the nation.
In parliament, sitting through the night and inïo the dawn, this was no longer a debate. It was an endurance contest and a brawl.
On the Conservative side, moral indignation, hints of deeper crime yet to be revealed, rumors of nine filing cabinets secretly abducted by guilty ministers, suggestions of personal misconduct which no gentleman would mention.
On the Liberal side, points of order, argued by the hour until no one could remember their origin; questions of privilege spread over ten pages of the record while the Customs Department was forgotten; appeals to natural justice, to Burke, to the constitution, to the Bible, to cricket, to Lycurgus and to God: interruptions, insults, glum sarcasms, cries for order, wrangling in the lobbies until Mr. Speaker could not hear the wrangle inside: a House unwashed, unshaven, red-eyed from lass of sleep, a Government reeling toward the abyss, a nation deafened by too much sound.
In all this clamor the Stevens
amendment still hung like an axe over the Government’s neck. At this moment of crisis the Government found in Woodsworth a friendly neutral who might dull the blade.
The saint-in-politics had been sickened by the smell of evil, his soul revolted, as he protested, by a society which put a man in jail for stealing a loaf of bread and promoted a minister to the Senate for debauching a department of state. But Woodsworth did not propose to leap from King's pot into Meighen’s kettle. The Government should be rebuked but. having offered old-age pensions, with the promise of more reform to come, it should not be thrown out. The tortured reformer therefore proposed an amendment to the Stevens amendment by w-hich a royal commission would continue the customs enquiry.
Meighen, watching the axe tremble, grasped it more firmly in his hand and denounced Woodsworth as out of order.
The main issue was forgotten again as Lapointe and the other lawyers argued the legitimacy of the Woodsworth motion. Mr. Speaker Lemieux listened, but after nine hours in his chair was almost past hearing. He pleaded for mercy, postponed his decision on the point of order and tottered to rest at 1:14 a.m. of Thursday, June 24. He gave his decision the next day—the Woodsworth motion was in order.
Here was King’s chance and he seized it with one of the ablest speeches of his life. He had long played Pecksniff. For the last two days he had played Uriah Heep. Now he played Galahad and before he finished was thundering in the accents of Jove.
ft was useless to deny the corruption of the Customs Department. He had already admitted it. He argued, however, with infinite quotation from the record, that he iiad known of the corruption and had begun to cure it months before Stevens had heard a whisper of scandal.
Briefly switching to the role of Sherlock Holmes, King recounted a tale of detection more improbable than any thriller, yet true—the net thrown around Bisaillon, the secret cabinet meeting on a Saturday afternoon, dispatch of detectives to Montreal, closing of the net, seizure of damning documents. arrest of smugglers.
While the Government and King had thus saved the country by its own ruthless investigations, Stevens had merely received an unpardonable leak from a government investigator, had rushed out into the streets to raise a cheap political sensation, to butcher the Ministry and make a Roman holiday. The guilty party was not the Government which pursued the corruptionists. but the Opposition, which sought to profit by the misfortunes of t he country.
Iwt there be at least justice, said King. A royal commission would be appointed to continue the customs enquiry (and, King intimated, might well find some dank spots in the records of previousConservative go\ ernments Before this commission Bureau would appear, prove his innocence or resign from the Senate. No man would be destroyed without trial. I-et the House beware of "slaughtering" innocent public servants, ruining homes and bringing shame upon defenseless wives and children
White with passion, lists clenched, hair damp and disheveled. King played Galahad, suddenly finding the strength of ten because his heart was pure what evert he state of his Ministry. Like all successful prime ministers he could also play Machiavelli and. in that role, he executed his final stroke.
He had come into court as defendant.
He now presented himself as the prosecutor of those who played politics with the nation's honor, whose purpose was to prevent an honest Government from completing the customs enquiry-, who sought to grasp power solely that they might fasten high tariffs upon the Canadian people.
At this wild irrelevancy of the tariff issue in the middle of the customs scandal the Opposition laughed. It laughed too soon. For among the F*rogressives there was magic in the tariff, relevant or not. King accused the Opposition of greed for office. The Opposition laughed and shouted "Shame!” but its laughter and shouts could not hide its nervousness. The disheveled little man with clenched fists was doing well, too well, considering the case he had to argue. Without evidence he was constructing a counter-indictment perhaps sufficient to rally the Progressives. Without straw for his bricks he was building « house which, frail and temporary as it appeared, might shelter him through this storm until he could build better.
The Opposition jeered but could not still the final appeal of that impassioned voice. The country. King shouted above the hubbub, was not interested in the Conservatives' tawdry cabal, only in the reforms which the Government, alone and fearless, would yet «ring from the entrenched enemies of progress. Thus Galahad pursuing a grail -unfortunately dripping with contraband liquon Thus also the subtleties of Machiavelli in the pinch.
Meighen replied with the drip of an icicle. His speech proceeded systematically to stand the Prime Minister on his head. This was not difficult when Bureau had left him with no feet to stand on. Where King staggered blindly in all directions, Meighen's argument was built on lines of classic architecture, stone on stone, without ornament or digression, a lean tower and unassailable. Gestureless, his voice quiet, his face serene, he moved pitilessly from one perfect extemporaneous paragraph to another which still stand in the record like considered prose.
The jury retired at 12.50 on the morning of Friday, June 25. No one could foresee its verdict. When it returned on Friday afternoon King’s whips could tell him only that it would be a close thing. The Progressives, it was soon evident were not as solid as King had expected. As King watched he was meditating already a dash for freedom if Woodsworth’s whitewash motion failed.
The division bell rang just before midnieht. When the “yeas” stood up for the Woodsworth motion the clerks counted only one hundred and fifteen of them and a moment later one hundred and seventeen voted "nay.”
Technically the Government had not been defeated. Practically it was finished.
Meighen had reached an understanding with some Progressives who would support him in office simply to rescue parliament from paralysis and complete the sessional business. Though King always denied this later on there was now no hope of voting down the Stevens motion. The dike had been breached by the destruction of the Woodsworth amendment and the flood must pour in.
It soon appeared that the Government had lost all control of the House. Two Progressives. Fansher. of Last Mountain, and Coote, of Macleod, moved to expand the Stevens motion by deploring the practice of politicians in recommending mercy for criminals The Liberals called it out of order. So it was, said the Speaker, but on division he was overruled by 118 votes to 116. even Woodsworth opposing the Gov-
ernment—a second defeat within ten minutes. The Government could not survive another.
King's personal fortunes had reached rock-bottom. His power in his own party was evaporating by the hour. In the corridors and in the upstairs rooms where Liberal members, their wives and hangers-on ate. drank and argued to while away the dreadful night, everyone talked of his leader’s ruin, some with regret, some with delight.
As debate guttered in the House and the members drank upstairs, as the first light glinted on the Ottawa. King knew that he must break out of parliament, where the Progressive switch had made his position untenable. He was beginning to meditate, as yet vaguely, another plan. With luck and merciful Conservative error, it might succeed.
It was daylight of Saturday morning when King decided to end this farce with a motion to adjourn. Meighen would not be cheated of the kill. With the dissident Progressives the Opposition voted the adjournment motion
down, 115 to 114. A government which could not even adjourn the House clearly was dead. And still the axe of Stevens hung over its head.
At 5 a.m. King undertook his last manoeuvre as leader of the Government. accepted the Fansher amendment and interpreted it as an insignificant addition to that of Woodsworth. The House, prostrate with fatigue, now consented to adjourn—115 to 114. King went home at 5.17, to all appearances ruined. In Laurier’s bed that morning he decided on his dash for freedom.
When the House met on Monday afternoon no one could read on King's haggard face the hectic events of the week end. But even the back benches could see that something big had occurred. Tears welled up in King's eyes as he rose to speak, tears of mortification and defeat. His face was the face of a lost man. His first words to the House, as the moisture of despair oozed from his eyes, were lowpitched. disarming and brief but they altered in a single paragraph the political history of the nation.
“Mr. Speaker.” he said in the humble voice of Heep. “The public interest demands a dissolution of the House of Commons. As Frime Minister I so advised His Excellency the GovernorGeneral shortly after noon today. His Excellency having declined to accept my adrice to grant a dissolution, to which I believe under the British practice I was entitled. I immediately tendered my resignation, which His Excellency has been graciously pleased to accept. In the circumstances, as one of the members of the House of Commons. I would move that the House do now adjourn.”
So this was the end. The Liberal regime had died, not with an explosion but with a whimper So thought Meighen, his ice melting momentarily
in a dizzy moment of sunshine. Even this frigid man found himself stumbling and grasping clumsily for words: “Mr. Speaker, if I caught the Prime Minister’s words aright, they were that the House adjourn; that the Government has resigned. I wish to add only that
King cut him short: “I might say that this motion is not debatable.”
Meighen, now prime minister in everything but name, could only retort that there should be a conference between him and King to arrange the conclusion of the sessional business. Even this slight courtesy King did not purpose to grant.
In the same toneless and Heeplike voice King remarked that “at the present time there is no government. I am not prime minister; I cannot speak as prime minister. I can speak as only one member of this House and it is as a humble member of this House that I submit that, inasmuch as His Excellency is without an adviser, I do not think it would be proper for the House to proceed to discuss anything. If the House is to continue its proceedings, someone must assume, as His Excellency’s adviser, the responsibility for His Excellency’s refusal to grant a dissolution in the existing circumstances; and until His Excellency has an adviser who will assume this responsibility I submit that the House should not proceed to discuss any matters whatever.”
Thus appeared the glimmering of a strategy which might work if Meighen failed to grasp it in time. It was a w ild chance, but King had no other. “Responsibility for His Excellency’s refusal.” Would Meighen accept it? Consciously or unconsciously King hod now baited the trap and Meighen still ignored it.
Again he suggested that he confer with King. Again King retorted, with irritating correctness, that "There is no prime minister . . When there is a prime minister he may come to this House and announce his wishes.”
And then while Meighen rose, regnant, on the wings of a long-sought triumph, while King played Heep hut already was preparing to play Hampden if he got the chance, the dazed House adjourned.
Now everything depended on Meighen, and King knew it. What would Meighen do? King was confident he would make the mistake of accepting office and “responsibility for His Excellency’s refusal." So far. so good But if parliament supported Meighen he would still be safe. The trap would not close.
Among the Liberal members that day a Canadian legend took root and has flourished ever afterward King, it was said in the smoking rooms, had subtly courted Byng’s refusal of i dissolution. A legend only. On the contrary. King had sought a dissolution at three separate interviews with the Governor-General, beginning on the Saturday and cont inuing unt il noon Monday.
He wanted to go to the country as the leader of the Government, not as discredited leader of the Opposition He strove until the last moment, against Byng’s soldierly, stubborn and mistaken refusal, to dissolve the House and escape the censure of the Stevens motion.
True, he would go with that motion avoided but hanging over his head. He would lead a Government already found guilty, in part, by its own confession before the parliamentary jury. At least he would go as the head ol the Government and could argue that it had never been fully censured or found completely guilty The chances, bleak in any case, were better as Prime Minister leading a forlorn hope than as
Opposition leader expelled by parliament.
No, King had wanted a dissolution desperately. If he had received it he would have been defeated in the election and replaced by Dunning. That was the closest shave in all the incredible accidents of his life.
What happened on that black week end has been told by Byng and his friends.
When King asked dissolution Byng was shocked and incredulous. He reminded King of their gentleman’s agreement. King had promised, said Byng. that if he could not govern he would make way for Meighen. Now King proposed to repudiate it.
King replied that the agreement had been fulfilled and terminated He had proved that he could govern for the last five months. Having proved it, he was entitled to dissolution.
In the end, enforcing the gentleman’s agreement as he understood it, and ■violating the constitution as King understood it, Byng accepted the Prime Minister’s resignation and called on Meighen. For Byng and Meighen that call assured disaster.
Most of the Conservative Party saw only the great chance —an easy election, a long term of power. Meighen believed, in the first place, and still believes that his constitutional position in taking office was sound. He could not agree that it was wrong in principle, much less that the Canadian people would think it wrong or take any serious interest in it. The public, he thought, would vote against a party which had corrupted the Customs Department. That would be the sole election issue and the result could not j be doubted.
There were far graver considerations ' which Meighen, to his honor, has j never yet revealed. Byng had dis1 missed King. If Meighen refused to ! take King’s place the governor-general, the crown, the whole principle of monarchy would fall between two stools and be discredited. To expose Byng to ! this humiliation and to force him to call King back to office, to make a laughing stock of the throne was unthinkable to Meighen, the patriot. It | was just as unthinkable as defeat in an election on some issue of “const it u¡ tional froth’’—to use a phrase Meighen himself had coined in other circumstances.
As a politician Meighen was too ! impatient to postpone his golden chance. As a patriot he could not refuse to rescue the Governor-General. Thus lacking a seat for himself— I since, under the antique law prevailing at that time, he must resign from parliament on taking a cabinet office with a salary and then seek re-election —lacking a majority but never doubting either his rectitude or his success, Meighen answered Byng’s call.
On Monday night he was sworn in as Prime Minister. He had accepted the responsibility of Byng’s decision in calling him. Unwittingly he had accepted with it the disruption of a great career.
It was yet too early for King to count on that. Though Meighen would find it almost impossible to form a viable ministry he might survive a few days in parliament, call a quick election and still escape the trap. But at least Byng and Meighen together had made the first necessary blunder. King’s spirits rose.
When parliament met on Tuesday afternoon the new Meighen Government seemed to have a good chance of survival. It required all King’s genius and a last unbelievable stroke of mere chance to engineer the essential defeat without which King’s career, not Meighen’s, must end.
His seat in the House vacant because he had accepted a salary from the crown Meighen watched with confidence the performance of his deputy, Sir Henry Drayton, and four deluded colleagues who thought they formed a g ivemment but would soon be sadder and wiser men.
King watched also but the moment had not come to strike. Before striking he launched his last attempt to expurgate the customs affair. In Meighen’s absence the Conservative vote had been reduced by one. Some Progressives, already wobbling, and appalled at the prospect of a Conservative Government, might switch to the Liberal side if they were given a respectable opportunity. King gave it to them in a motion moved without warning by the brilliant Fernand Binfret.
Rinfret proposed that all the censure of the Stevens motion be stricken out, that a royal commission pursue the incomplete customs enquiry to the end, examining not merely the work of Bureau but of his Conservative predecessors.
Here was a gambit dangerous to both sides. The Conservatives knew it and sought refuge in the rules of order. That was Drayton’s first mistake. When the Speaker ruled the Rinfret motion in order the new Government’s first division was called and it was defeated 115 to 114.
King had demonstrated within an hour of its appearance that the Meighen Government did not control parliament. Equally important. King had seized the initiative at one stroke, was now demanding a customs enquiry wider than the Government could accept, had leaped from the prisoner’s box and was acting the prosecutor.
He donned again the armor of Galahad with another superb speech demanding that every dark corner of the Customs Department be exposed, that all the laches of his own Government and its predecessors be ruthlessly hunted down. He threw in just sufficient hints of Conservative corrupI ion to alarm the Government, sufficient condemnation of high Conservative tariffs to scare the Progressives and sufficient hints of his larger strategy to alert any cabinet minister who was not living in blind euphoria. Alas for Drayton and his five colleagues, they were too euphoric to heed warning.
They seemed to have good reason for their assurance. King's first gambit failed miserably. Enough Progressives voted with the Government to defeat the Rinfret amendment 119 to 107. The axe of the Stevens motion, long fended off. edged uncomfortably nearer to the Liberal Party’s neck.
Five minutes later it fell. Now that their old friend and ally, the Liberal Government, was dead the Progressives had no practical reason for defending it posthumously, and again enough of them voted with the Conservatives to pass the Stevens amendment 119 to 109. King must now face the electors
tearing a post-mortem verdict of guilty.
Next dav, King tried his second gambit. Without warning he moved a want-of-confidence motion declaring that the high-tariff policies of the Government would “prove detrimental to the country's continued prosperity and prejudicial to national unity.” 1’his was an obvious snare to catch the low-tariff Progressives too obvious. After hours of wrangling, the Progressive group, having voted condemnation of the King Government, refused to reverse itself.
Late in the evening of Wednesday, •lune 30, King stood up with blank face to ask a simple question. Few suspected, least of all Drayton and his colleagues, now corpulent with success, that he was about to deliver a lethal blow. He only wished to ask. he said, in a rather tired voice, whether the gentlemen in the treasury benches had “complied with constitutional practice in the matter of assuming office.” Had Drayton, for example, taken any oath of office?
No, said Drayton, he had not taken new oath of office. He had long teen a Privy Councilor and that, he thought, was enough to entitle him to sit as an acting minister in receipt of no salary, in Meighen’s cabinet. Drayton, satisfied with his candid explanation, looked on composedly as King asked the other ministers whether they had taken an oath of cabinet office. Like marionettes on a string, each of them rose to make the same reply all were Privy Councilors, none had taken a cabinet oath. Perley, Manion. Stevens. Guthrie, all found themselves dangling on the fine invisible cord with which King would hang them. For the moment they felt no pain. The House, suddenly alert, the members pouring in from t he smoke rooms, beheld but could not yet comprehend the first withering blast of the constitutional issue.
The Meighen Government now safely hooked. King played it at leisure. With the confession of the ministers in his hand he proceeded to indict them for kidnapping the Government of Canada. They had taken no oath of office, they could not without resigning their seats in parliament as Meighen had done and thus destroying the Government’s majority. Either they had no right to govern their departments or they had no right to sit in the House. As mere Privy Councilors, without power, they had walked into the cabinet chamber sat around the table and passed out portfolios to one another Meighen. therefore, did not head an acting Ministry. He headed an illegal Ministry which was no Ministry at all. It was a shadow, a phantom, an usurpation defying the constitution, making nonsense of a thousand years of British history.
If this counterfeit government of shadows could \ote itself money through a supine parliament what was left of the constitution and the parliamentary system, “what guarantee have we of future liberty and freedom in this
This seemed grotesquely overdrawn. The House had not yet seen how deep King’s issue went. The country isafe abed that night) would need time to awaken. Perhaps only King foresaw the anger of its awakening. Already the shadows on the treasury bene lies, dimly aware that something had gone wrong, squirmed painfully. They had felt only one half of the double trap. The other half was being set for the Governor-General
The flustered Drayton protested that everything so far as he knew was in order. Cahan, a tough legal mind which soon perceived where this was leading, rushed in to the cabinet’s defense with a ferocious attack on King,
who. with no sense of honor, had refused to confer with Meighen and facilitate the erection of a government in the usual way.
The Liberal benches laughed with a quick inward relief. They saw now, for the first time, why King had resigned without a word to Meighen, leaving him to sink in constitutional froth. “Keep cool, boys." Lapointe chortled, “it's only the beginning.”
Yes. only the beginning. The little man standing stolid above the storm was physically exhausted. For more than a week King had worked day and night, quarreled with the GovernorGeneral. watched his Government dismissed. his party thrown into Opposition, his own career perhaps wrecked, and all that time, except for Lapointe and a few others, he endured his agony alone. This, he knew, was the watershed of his life. By tomorrow’s dawn he must win or lose everything.
The combined fear, courage, despair and glory of that hour sustained his tired body. Pecksniff. Galahad and Heep he had played with ease. Now he was swept along at the side of Hampden, with all the Roundhead armies at his heels. As the savior of Canadian liberty he was once again, as in his boyhood, the reincarnation of his grandfather. William Lyon Mackenzie. Parliament listened to the Rebel that night.
King's speech was probably the greatest of his life. Certainly it was his bravest show. Each question, each jeer and the continual gales of laughter which hid the Conservatives' uneasiness only served to open up new avenues for his argument, to supply him with more devastating retorts until the whole effect was overpowering, like the denouement of •? stage play. Step by step he went over the events of the last five days. He had found it impossible to govern but since no one else could govern, since a majority of the electors had pronounced against Meighen’s tariff policy, since Meighen obviously could not survive in this parliament the only proper course was dissolution and a new election. Had there been any chance for Meighen King would have been the first to recommend him to Byng but Meighen had no such chance and the present spectacle proved it. just as King had foreseen.
"What spectacle?” cried the Conservatives and King flung back: “A country being governed by a cabinet in tvhich there is not a single minister of the crown in parliament and in which there is no prime minister with a seat in the House
Meighen. tongue-tied behind the curtain, still believed that King's new issue was bogus, irrelevant and politically ineffective. The dissident Progressives who had broken with him on the customs scandal were restless in their seats. Sure that most of them were still with him and that on his new issue he could win an election without them. King damned the little group which had voted against him on the Stevens motion, abandoned the appeal to their old friendship and drove them to his support by constitutional
Such was his immediate objective on the midnight of this last day in June. It seemed too ambitious. That within three hours he could elude the customs scandal, turn parliament and country inside out and destroy a Government scarce one day old was unimaginable. King gambled everything on that chance.
He gambled on the one thing he knew better than any statesman of his time—the deep, inarticulate and unshakable instinct of the Canadian people whom Meighen never under-
stood, the instinct of a people who had struggled for more than a hundred years to establish responsible government and would never give it up, would punish without mercy any government which infringed it. And at this midnight the bewildered Conservatives rushed in to complete King's case, to place him in the centre stream of the nation’s history and to paint his issue in the garish, human colors lhat the public could not fail to understand.
For now there came from the Government benches the very cry that King needed to consolidate and dramatize his case and lay it complete and unanswerable on the breakfast table of Canada tomorrow.
“You are thinking of ’37!” shouted some frenzied Conservative, his name lost in the hubbub.
“Yes!” cried King, as the history of his grandfather surged up in him. “Yes. I am thinking of ’37 and I tell my honorable friend that 1 was never prouder in my life than to have the privilege of standing in this parliament tonight on behalf of British parliamentary institutions denouncing the irresponsible government of his party. Do the honorable gentlemen opposite advocate that we go back to a condition of affairs in Canada worse than anything that existed in 1837?”
All the days of his life seemed to have been lived solely for this hour. The school boy of Berlin, the pallid university student, the amateur of social refoim, the dilettante of Ottawa drawing rooms, the apprentice poliiician had emerged into the Rebel’s grandson aflame with the Rebel's cause.
Groping for words he could only shout again: “1837 was bad enough hut it was not a circumstance on the present condition of affairs If, at the instance of one individual, a prime minister can he put into office and with a ministry which is not yet formed be permitted to vote all the supplies necessary to carry on the government of Canada for a year, we have reached a condition in this country that threatens the constitutional liberty, freedom and right in all parts of the
It was a turgid sentence, a feeble attempt to distil into words the real essence of this crisis and it drew the issue in lines of gross hyperbole, but, wanton, clumsy and pompous as they were, his words would arouse the gliosis of '37, they would awake the racial memory and unfailingly penetrate the Canadian mind.
Yet for King there was peril in them. In lhat heady flow he had let fall a dangerous phrase—“one individual.” at whose instance an illegal government had come into office. The panting
Conservatives seized on it. Who, demanded Leon Ladner, was that “one individual?” It could be only Byng. King faltered in the midst of a general outcry, realizing that he had dragged the crown into debate, an unpardonable offense by the rules not merely of parliament but of the British constitutional system.
Hastily, as the shouting died down, he explained that “the individual to whom I refer has, I believe, acted according to his conscience, honestly, sincerely, truly. I have nothing disrespectful to say of him in any particular. I have the greatest admiration for him ... a gentleman for whom I have the greatest affection possible . . .”
This was dangerous ground. It could not be avoided, for now King was ready to close the other half of his trap and Byng perforce was inside it. The illegality of the Government was one charge, already proved to King’s satisfaction. The other was still graver, involving the whole function, power and limitation of the crown in Canada. Graver and, politically, much more devastating. The public might forgive Meighen for knocking together a temporary and questionable Government in a single afternoon, because he had no alternative. It would never forg:/e the crown for invading the rights of parliament or its adviser for recommending this invasion.
King had Meighen fatally impaled, i It was much more tricky work to thrust home the blade while sparing the Governor-General. As King now risked everything on that thrust it was soon clear that Byng could not escape. Laboriously, over and over again, King repeated his respect and affection for Byng (who by now had no respect or affection for King), he blamed Byng’s actions on Meighen. who must take sole responsibility for them, but clearly the attack, however it might be disguised, was on Byng himself. King might blame Meighen as Byng’s adviser. He knew that the country would blame Byng and, unable to punish him, would punish Meighen.
King had come thus far without a slip. Then, though no one observed his accident, he fell at least halfway through the thin ice.
His midnight fall, unnoted by parliament and forgotten by the public in the succeeding spectacle, was recorded by the unerring stenographers of Hansard. Within a week the Liberal Party, King at its head, would launch its crusade for responsible goi'ernment on the chargé that the crown had refused the advice of its prime minister and thus placed itself above parliament and people. That was the sole issue which struck at the foundations of democracy.
Hansard reveals no such charge. On that frantic midnight King raised no such issue. Fumbling his way througli a constitutional forest without path or precedent, depleted by days of unbroken crisis and hours of ceaseless speech, shouting to make himself heard above the tumult of the House, either he did not yet perceive the final sharp point of his weapon or did not dare to use it in parliament as he later used it in the country.
Under the cross-examination of the Government benches King said specifically lhat he did not question the Governor-General's right to refuse his advice. On the contrary in denial of the Liberal campaign in the following weeks - King agreed that the GovernorGeneral had the right to refuse his advice, provided he could find a new prime minister able to govern.
Byng's actions up to that moment had not been questioned There was the core of the issue which the election would garble It remains unalterable on the record — King had not disputed
the right of the crown to refuse „ prime minister's request for dissolution if an alternative government could be
The Conservatives now had the chance to pull the sting out of King's election issue. They failed, either from stupidity or because they thought the issue not worth their trouble. As a result the Liberals could fight the election on the proposition that the crown could never refuse its prime minister's advice without imperiling the constitutional system, even though King had admitted the contrary.
In the clamor of midnight as it passed into the first hours of Dominion Day all these fine points were blunted. The present confusion, contrived or accidental, suited King well. It gave him the chance to prepare his last decisive blow and. exhausted as he was by argument, passion and hunger, he delivered it with an impact certain to reach the Canadian mind from coast to coast on the nation's birthday.
"Who." asked King "was defending the crown?" "Who was dragging it into the mire of party politics?" He paused a moment for an answer and received only a few nervous guffaws from the Government benches. Then he answered his own question—he was defending the crown, he was rescuing the constitution from peril, while Meighen. by bad advice to Byng. by pretending that he could govern when clearly he could not. had dishonored the crown and installed an illegal Government.
And now. the ultimate crusher: In Britain for a hundred years no king had ever refused the advice of a prime minister. If the King's representative in Canada could refuse such advice then this theory of government "reduces this Dominion of Canada from the status of a self-governing Dominion to the status of a Crown Colony.”
Those words contradicted the earlier statement that Byng had done no wrong. They opened up an entirely new issue. Xo matter that the House failed to see the deft shift of ground. They were words to touch the deepest Canadian instinct. Thev raised the old emblem of national independence which the dullest Canadian could understand. They asked Canadians whether they were citizens of a free country or the colonists of England. If that question was valid there could be only one answer from parliament and people.
Left thus, the question was full of danger. If it conjured up the ghosts of Canadian nationalism it also rtrised the ancient love of England. The nationalists would vote for King because he was one of them. The imperialists might vote for Meighen because King, in spite of all his protests, might seem to be attacking the British connection.
This danger Kins had foreseen before he uttered a word and was ready 10 forestall it. And so the final stroke: Who. he asked, was defending the British Empire, who dividing it? Again the same answer. King alone was the empire's defender. "It is only by a recognition of the fact that the British Empire rests upon the cornerstone of responsible self-government in each of the Dominions and the Mother Country that this great Empire can endure.”
Meighen. by usurpation, by infringing responsible government, bv dragging the crown into politics, by placing Byng in a position of "great suspense which he must be in at the present time with respect to whether or not his act has been constitutional or justified” — Meighen was the underminer of the empire. King its savior. Meighen was also the true enemy of Byng. King was his friend.
Here, in a. few awkward sentences,
was the crowning masterpiece of King’s strategy. He had made himself at once the Rebel of Canadian nationalism and vet, by miraculous combination, the Empire’s champion in Canada. He had outflanked Meighen from both sides. At that instant he had chemically combined, as it were, the opposite instincts of the Canadian people into a single force that must prove irresistible. Everything in King’s life up to midnight of June 30 had been weary plodding. This was political genius in a sudden flash. It made King. It ruined Meighen.
The Conservatives, thoroughly alarmed bv now. finding themselves no longer on the attack but huddled in defense, vainly tried to answer King. Stevens undertook solid argument on grounds of reason and common sense — arguable grounds, no doubt, but who could hold them against the emotions unloosed by King? Caban, that magnificent dinosaur of the law. followed with legal analysis.
At ten minutes past one on Dominion Day Drayton moved an adjournment. King went home almost sick with success. The Conservatives repaired to the library to search the history books and find before dawn some answer to his attack.
By Thursday afternoon. -July l. it was clear to parliament and country that the whole situation of the preceding months had been reversed and was now strained to the bursting point. The smear of the customs scandal was all but obliterated. The governorgeneral had been catapulted into politics for the first time since Elgin. The legality of existing government had been indicted, the endurance of responsible government itself questioned The independence of Canada within the Commonwealth had shouldered all other public business aside.
The people, stupefied by these events, were not ready yet to judge them. King had no doubt of their judgment when they got their mind around the facts. Vet much depended not on the larger issues but on the immediate practical politics of parliament. King had executed his attack Its impact might be lost if Meighen could postpone the election In practical politics it was essential for King to strike now while the iron was hot
There was more to it than the immediate calculations of parliamentary votes. If Meighen proved that he could govern, the whole constitutional issue would evaporate. King was the prisoner of his admission that the Governor-General had done no wrong, that Meighen had given good advice, provided Meighen could command a majority of parliament. Hence all last
night’s triumph and all the future turned on King's ability to unseat the Government, get an election before the iron cooled and prove beyond doubt that Meighen’s advice had been bad, Byng’s decision wrong and the constitution imperiled.
This July 1, Canada's anniversary, was to be the day. Both King and Meighen knew it. They both knew also that it would be i very close thing. The whips of both sides had been busy. They reported that the dissident Progressives again were in doubt. Some of them already had been converted to King, had forgotten the customs scandal and would vote on the constitutional issue. But the Conservative whips still believed, and rightly, they might achieve a tie vote. An Opposition motion of censure w’ould then fail. They had not counted on King's unfailing luck. It was wild and impossible beyond counting.
As soon as the House opened at two o'clock King sought a showdown The first manoeuvre was executed by Lapointe who, on a question of privilege, argued that the Government had been illegally established, all its acts were invalid, and all votes cast by its members in the House must be expunged.
The Conservatives, after a night of study, had come prepared this lime with piles of evidence, legal precedents, textbooks and the entire history of the British Crown to prove that the Governor-General had done no wrong in refusing King's advice. Caban stated the obvious fact that King had resigned to escape a vote of censure.
Between them the politicians, turned into constitutional authorities overnight, covered most of the history of Britain, the Empire and Canada. Pitt’s quarrels with a recalcitrant parliament, the governments of George HI and (Jueen Victoria, the Pacific Scandal, Macdonald’s Double Shuffle, Asquith’s statement that the king could refuse dissolution to any prime minister, the behavior of forgotten governors in remote British colonies—all this and much more was crammed into that debate to shift the doubtful fulcrum of the Progressives to one side or the
After listening for three hours in silence King clarified in a few minutes the issues which he had taken most of the previous night to expound. He said that he had known from the beginning what w'ould happen, though of course he could not know. He had warned Byng that Meighen could not govern. He had foreseen the wretched subterfuge of the shadow Government. He had anticipated that Meighen. ravenous for power would attempt just this outrage on the constitution. Now that the Government obviously could not govern, all his warnings had been confirmed and Meighen’s advice to Byng discredited. Byng should have granted i dissolution to King No British monarch in more than three hundred years had ever refused such advice from a prime minister.
This was a sticky line of argument, since King already had said that Byng could not be criticized if Meighen could prove his ability to govern In the furv of the moment no one saw that contradiction Anyway. Meighen's advice had been prtn ed wrong because he had lost control of the House. His plain duty, said King, was to tell Byng so and it was Byng’s dutv to call King to office again: for assuredly the
Governor-General could not refuse a dissolution to King and. in the same week, grant it to Meighen, who was responsible for the original blunder.
That logic was devastating and. better, it was safe Meighen would
never advise King's recall and Byng would not humiliate himself by accepting such advice if offered. King was in no danger of heading another government which would enter the election on the defensive, with all its old sins revived. He could urge his own recall, he could remind the Governor-General of his duty in a blunt fashion which parliament had never heard before, he could attack Meighen for dragging the crown into politics and tying its representative to one political party, but King's real chance was to face the electors in Opposition, to appear as the champion of the constitution, the one man who could rescue the country ; from an erring English governor and his power-hungry minister. In such a crisis who would care about a minor customs scandal? In the presence of the new Hampden who would remember Moses Asiz and the barge Tremblay?
Even the House had forgotten them by eleven o'clock on the night of -July 1, and it was now time for King to test his constitutional theories by an actual vote. Robb, because he had the friendship of everybody, was chosen to move the vital motion declaring that the Shadow Cabinet if legal had no right to sit in the House, if illegal had no right to transact business. Two more hours passed in the last fevered efforts of both sides to convince the Progressives. Behind the scenes the whips aroused the sleeping members, registered their solemn pairs and wrestled with the recalcitrants. In the lobbies the din of private argument rose so high that the Speaker, still the superb neutral, protested that he could not hear the proceedings of the House. And once again when the hour of decision approached the nation was asleep.
At 2 a.m. of -July 2 the vote was called. The division bells clanged in the empty corridors. The members prepared to be counted and no one knew how the count would turn out. One by one the clerk noted the Liberal yeas. They totaled 96. The treasury benches stirred anxiously. They had foreseen only 95 Opposition votes. The Conservative nays stood up and mustered only 95.
The Meighen Government had been defeated as no Canadian government had been defeated in parliament before. But how? Where had that fatal extra vote come from? Red-faced and ashamed at a breach of parliamentary honor. T. W. Bird. Progressive of Nelson, rose to confess "with extreme regret that I was paired with the honorable member for Peace River who had retired from the House on account of indisposition and I cast my vote inadvertently."
The sacred parliamentary pair had lieen broken, an offense unpardonable, but Bird's vote stood on the record. Without that vote the Government would have survived on a tie. The vote could never be deleted. Meighen's evil star had betrayed him again. King's infallible good luck had rescued him in the great gamble of his life — rescued him for two more decades of
Meighen. watching from behind the curtain, knew that the game was finished. A new game must be started with an election. He slept well and. on rising, advised Byng to dissolve parliament.
For King—thanks to an unfortunate governor-general, an erring adviser and a broken parliamentary pair—the issue was now perfectly shaped, the election as good as won. The double trap had closed, containing within it Byng and his ill-starred minister. But. like Waterloo, it had been a damned close thing. ★