The National Political Situation

Edward William Thomson November 1 1912

The National Political Situation

Edward William Thomson November 1 1912

The National Political Situation

Edward William Thomson

As Hon. W. T. White announced in a recent speech, Reciprocity is not a dead issue. Sir Wilfrid Laurier still considers it the leading feature of his policy, and there is no question but that it is the most important issue before the farmers of the Middle West. At the same time there is no doubt that some of the agitation in the West does not ^originate with the farmers, but is promoted by agitators financed with money from the United States interests that would benefit by lower duties. As stated in a previous issue, the views of Mr. Thomson are not necessarily those of the publishers of MacLean’s. His reference to Reciprocity in this number will be found most interesting as representing the views of those who favor the policy. The situation in the West is the most serious problem Hon. Mr. Borden has on his hands, and he may be depended upon to solve it without adopting the course advocated by Mr. Thomson and his friends. Only a few days ago Governor Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic candidate for the Presidency, admitted that the reciprocity arrangement was a very bad one for Canada.—Editor.

AGES ago the maxim “Let well enough alone” sprang from human experience, even as it re-issued from that of the Canadian Liberal party at the last general elections. It is approved by wisdom and very dear to the timid, the cautious, and the lazy. Because it is received instinctively by multitudes in every large electorate, they are Conservatives. dreaders of experimentation in public affairs. Edmund Burke, greatest of active political philosophers, no less liberal than conservative, warned his world that “Innovation is not progress” or “not reform.” Proposals for change may be retrogressive, may be for improvement, may be for action based on nothing better than puerile

fear of being taunted as inactive, or than the gambler’s instinct for trusting chance and luck. Men who must always he “doing things” are ever in danger of transacting foolishness.

These respectable and even venerable , truisms have recurred to the present writer’s mind, over and over again, during the past two weeks, while pondering his discourse for the present number of MacLean’s Magazine. Probably they arise vaguely in every sincere Canadian who sets about considering the situation of his country with relation to various proposals for change—change from conditions which not only seem “well enough” to most of our people, but which are plainly conditions of gener-

al prosperity, particularly in the older provinces and in British Columbia.


To judge correctly whether the situation of a people is “well enough” in a purely material sense, one must consider, first, not the profits of financiers, speculators, traders and mercantile folk generally, but the earnings of manual workers, including, of course, agriculturists. If they are free of distress, secure of employment or markets, receiving high wages; if they are daily sheltered and abundantly fed, if they collectively save much money, if their children are being fairly educated; if the “masses” are better off than before, and as well or better off than their like in any other civilized country, then we know that the Business Classes must be prospering. Enquiry into their conditions is superfluous in such a situation, which appears to be that of Canada at large.

Never were wages so high, never was employment so constant, never were the bulk of Canadians so well off—and this is said without forgetting for an instant the grievance of which our prairie folk complain. Insofar as credit for existing conditions can be reasonably given to any except the actual performers, directors and planners of real Work—insofar as there is any truth in the rather comic assumption of politicians that they cause public prosperity when they merely do not hinder—in that degree both sets of our politicians may be fairly praised.

Canada’s condition is but a prolongation of that which began about the year 1900; a condition that has been improving year by year; one which appears better in 1912 than in 1911 ; one attained without any notable change or reversal of the public policy of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Mr. Fielding, and their colleagues. Mr. Borden and his fellowministers are ridiculously blamed— since every opposition tends to dementia —for “not having done anything in a ■whole year.” This would appear to me their high merit, if it were not rather

their good luck. They obtained power partly by effect of accurately gauging

the disposition of a prosperous public to “let well enough alone.” If they continue to respect that disposition as completely as circumstances have compelled them to do for one blessed year, they may not, in their time, be soon cast into that outer darkness where every Opposition in turn wails, and gnashes impotent teeth.


It is plain that the Ottawa Ministry is not endangered by any novelty, any conspicuous ability, any popularity in the Opposition, great as are the talents of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Beloved though he be by many of his opponents and all his supporters, one hears many impartial spectators asserting, in effect, that the fascination of even his charming figure is somewhat marred by his peregrin ative association with a set of wearifu’ companions, mostly so unfavorably familiar on the political stage that the mere mention of their names provokes amused yawning. Though he did recently collogue with some formidable younger Liberals—including those unrivalled organizers, Mr. C.' W. Cross, of Alberta, and Mr. J. A. Calder, of Saskatchewan—he must remain the one conspicuous attraction of his own Progress through Canada unless he bring Mr. Fielding (whom I find all manner of men desiring to hear again) into his touring troupe.

Business desires to hear Fielding. Laurier, however, occupies pretty safe ground, inasmuch as he proposes nothing now novel to a people apparently so averse from change that they are thought to have ousted himself for inviting them to what many regard as a betterment of trade with friendly neighbors! By this prudence he may be recommending himself to a cautious people. Canadians have been often defined as “the Scotch of this continent.” At the same time Mr. Borden, despite his caution, seems daily more and more in the way of becoming committed to several proposals for great, and, in some

cases, retrogressive change. That is what rather threatens than endangers his Ministry.

Everything under him has gone well for his year of acquiescence with what is. This month he will meet Parliament, apparently with a program for extensive innovation. It will be curious and instructive if he provoke dissension within his own ranks, and ultimate defeat of his hitherto popular ministry, exactly as Laurier did—by ignoring a stolid public conviction that things are well enough now.


Why should a Premier, one at least nominally conservative, not take example from the success as well as warning from the fate of his sixteen years’ prosperous predecessor? Sir Wilfrid and his colleagues, in 1896, were quite as much pledged as Mr. Borden is now to disturb a pre-existing situation. They appeared deeply committed if not to perfect free trade, at least to elimination of every “protective” duty from a “tariff-for-revenue only.” They continued “protection;” they twice thoroughly reused the tariff in that sense; even their popular preference to British products was more and more re-moulded so as to rather benefit than harm Ontario’s principal manufacturing interest.

They had been hostile to “bounties,” yet they resorted to this stimulative device extravagantly, on behalf of the iron and steel interests, not to mention some minor ones, such as the petroleum-refining industry.

In opposition they had been absolutely, lengthily, bitterly committed to a thorough investigation of the promotion, the secret history, the hidden accounts of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company—with whom they hastened to make close friends.

They reversed their attitude to the West, insomuch as that they passed from severe criticism of immigration methods, which had tended to populate the prairies with continental Europeans, to active schemes for importing multitudes of non-English-speaking folk.

They did not dispose of the Intercolonial Railway as they had much proposed to do while in opposition, but extended it as a system under political management.

They did not “reform the civil service root and branch” according to their program in opposition, but merely changed a superannuation system to one granting allowances on retirement or at death.

From having long been apparently inimical to privately owned railways by great public aids, they came to the immense project of guaranteeing the Grand Trunk Pacific.

From extreme anti-militarism, and from long devotion to the doctrine that all Canada’s political steps should be toward more automony—which could mean nothing but toward independence —they came to contingents for the Boer war. enthusiastic participation in Imperial Conferences, schemes for military and naval co-operation with London, and the beginning of a Canadian “navy” under the Act virtually enabling any Governor-General to compel his Cabinet to hand our ships over to Old Country command without pre-assent from the Dominion Parliament.

These things are not here mentioned by way of blaming the Laurier Administration. Quite the contrary. It was Sir Wilfrid’s merit as Premier to have ignored pretty much all the balderdash his party talked in opposition. In office he proceeded as a Conservative no less than as a Progressive, and ever he eschewed action as a radical doctrinaire. He did not innovate. Even as to Reciprocity he stood on the plea that the policy was not for any very notable change. Lie seldom if ever bothered to defend himself or his Cabinet from those imbecile charges of “inconsistency” which are roared by frantic Oppositions at every ministry in turn. The theory on which he mostly practiced in office was that the business of a Premier is to administer public affairs in such wise as to conserve his country’s political independence, to promote its agricultural and industrial development

aind to keep race, creed, and geographic elements in the utmost attainable harmony.


All of which is here submitted as mere preliminary to enquiring:—Why should Premier Borden proceed to those great innovations that some extremists expect of him?

Will it not be better for the Dominion and therefore better for him and his ministry if they “let well enough alone,” which they can do with essential consistency, since that was their main election cry last year.

What’s wrong with the tariff? It

produces super-abundant revenue. It has 'been accepted by pretty much all interests as a fair compromise. Even the prairie West is not now, and never has been truly hostile to existing schedules of customs taxation. What annoys the people of the plains is that they lack free access for their grain to the United States market. If Mr. Borden secure that boon for them—as he probably can—they will complain no more of the present tariff than they did up to last year. As a tariff it is “well enough.” Why not leave it alone?

Virtually the tariff will be attacked if the Cabinet stand by Finance Minister White’s proposed institution of a tariff Commission. This will be an innovation. Its establishment may be plausibly defended by party politicians and_ editors. They may say “mere investigation by a permanent commission can do no harm,” and so on. But needless investigation of what is well enough may be as injurious as needless auscultation of a healthy human heart, which suspicious proceeding has often caused the patient to worry and so produced disease of the organ. Since none but a few extremists in protectionist theory, conjoined with a few overgreedy interests, ask or hope for a better tariff than the existing one. why institute a costly commission, whose public inquiries must inevitably cause much clamor for tariff change?

Before the projected Board almost

every witness might feel it necessary to ask for “more.” Every such demand would cause other demands from “interests” threatened by previous requests. Would it not be good conservauve policy to “let that fly stick to the wall,” instead of devising an expensive permanent Inquest, which can have no other purpose than to disturb what everybody now agrees is well enough to let alone?

Before passing to another item of expected Ministerial policy, it may be well to explain what is meant by alleging that Premier Borden, “probably can” secure to our prairie people the boon of free sales for their grain in the United States market, and can thus reconcile them anew to the existing Canadian tariff:—

Congress has not repealed the United States Act offering that boon. Our Parliament can pass a corresponding Act, after which proceeding reciprocity could be established immediately, by Washington and Ottawa proclamation.


Now I will put to straight Conservatives a few straight questions, presuming them to be intelligent, well-informed persons, who have read the text of that “pact” which was defeated last year. Do you honestly believe that there would be any danger to Canadian protected manufacturers or to Canada’s fiscal independence, if that agreement were accepted by a Conservative instead of by a Liberal Ministry at Ottawa? Is it not a fact that the fear which caused you to oppose ratification of that agreement bv the Laurier Government (one theoretically inclined to free trade) was essentially a fear that that Government would go further?—would work for concurrent legislation reducing protection for Ontario manufactures? Would you not feel safe if the Conservative ministry should now accept the agreement? Could not you trast Mr. Borden and his Cabinet to go no further in reciprocity? Did he ask Parliament to authorize such acceptance he would be in that matter unopposed by the Liber-

als. Hence, he can, probably, give tho West what it desires, without endangering Ontario’s protected interests, and can thus end dangerous discontents.

As for consistency ! Is it to be seriously attributed to so wise a man as Mr. Borden that he would or could be silly enough to stand on a conceit that immaculate consistency with his own past is of importance compared with the propriety and advantage of conciliating the West? If he care as much and no more for “consistency” than did the Duke of Wellington, Lord Palmerston, Disraeli, Gladstone, Sir John Macdonald, or Laurier, he must feel exceedingly free to plead honestly that the public interest requires him, now a sworn administrator, to do what he did not think should be permitted to an opponent whom he could not trust to abstain from going on to more reciprocity than he proposed.


If reciprocity be, as it certainly is, still dreaded as an “innovation” by multitudes of Canadian devotees of the “let well enough alone” principle, how can they be reasonably expected to favor more important innovation in respect of armaments? We all know that Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s “Navy” policy pleased nobody much. It was tolerated by many as a compromise between extreme opinions. There is a good deal of reason to surmise that the bulk of Canadians do not agree with the prime postulate of both sets of their politicians, viz : that a Canadian Navy or even Coast Defence is desirable. Just so the majority of electors do not take out fire or life or accident insurance. They incline to run risks rather than pay premiums. They reflect mainly on the immense amount of railway-building, canal cutting, land-clearing, scholastic or industrial education which could be effected by the many millions which both sets of politicians seem disposed to expend on ships, guns, sailors, marines, ammunition. To save the money for purposes plainly useful, multitudes are willing to run all risks of being involved in war

by continued dependency on Great Britain’s strength at sea.

Being among those convinced by study that that long-sufficient strength is likely to prove inadequate to Great Britain’s own security, let alone Canada’s, I cannot but lament an apparent general disposition of our people to “let well enough alone” in this matter. From lengthy Peace they infer its continuance. It would be as wise to have inferred a clear harvest season from weeks of sunshine last May and June. Probably no Canadian rational enough to have carefully perused most of the many good books, the chief magazine articles, and the more notable speeches of recent years on Great Britain’s naval position, can seriously doubt it to be seriously endangered, not by Germany alone so much as by the general development of naval strength in the world.

If general stolidity exist among Canadians on this matter, it must be because few of them have found time or means to study those naval conditions, acquaintance with which would force them to reflection that Great Britain’s danger is Canada’s danger, and our’s the greater, since we have no sorts of coast defence on either ocean. Tt is, no doubt, this consideration which has lately caused many eminent men outside the political arena to suggest that “the navy” be dealt with by Mr. Borden, Sir Wilfrid, and their respective followers, as a non-party question. 'Those earnest Important Persons wish to overcome public apathy on the subject by a union . of Intellectuals. The calculation is that if pretty much all the speakers and writers agree on a line, then the people will be voiceless and can be led whither the Big Panjandrum wish. This scheme amounts to a proposed negation of democratic rule, and Sir Wilfrid Laurier seems very right in staying out of it. Enough for him to promise support to all that may seem to him wise.

Surely a better way would be for Intellectuals and Big Business men to educate the masses by public discussion up to the facts and needs of the situation, thus overcoming their disposition to

rank Defence of Canada among the matters that are well enough to be let alone. Why not concentrate agreement on the one main point in which all our principal thinkers agree, viz: the need for at least a thorough coast defence— leaving to experts specification of armaments necessary to establish that necessary?

A perfect Coast defence was the first Conservative proposal, set forth by Mr. Geo. E. Foster from his Commons’ seat in 1909. Had the Laurier Cabinet backed his proposition, instead of amending it by a lot of sentimental flub-dub interjected on vain hope to compete with Tories for the jingo vote, then all would have gone well, even Mr. Bourassa would have been contented, and the country been united on a matter of paramount importance.


It seems now not improbable that Mr. Borden, no matter what he may propose by way of one direct and final contribution to the Old Country navy, will produce a program mainly proposing coast defence on both oceans. Sir Wilfrid has as good as promised to stand by such design. It is one that we shall all have

10 back, no matter how widely and steadily we may differ in case a direct bounty of millions or dreadnaughts to ihe London Admiralty be proposed by the Premier. The main business, Canada’s safety, is really quite outside the category of things that are well enough, and therefore suitable to leave alone.

My allowed space has been almost exhausted on the two principal affairs likely to embarrass Mr. Borden during the coming season of Parliament. His program of last session for general improvements of Canadian highways seemed good, and was probably popular. It was balked by what many of us think a fantastic objection against extension of Federal action to improvements hitherto left mainly to Provinces and municipalities. Mr. ILaughton Lennox, now on the bench, then said what seemed to me a wise thing—viz.—that the Federal power should not be scared, by the bugaboo of “ provincial rights,” from performing good public works on Federal responsibility. But this opinion, and many others, whose development may soon spring naturally from imminent parliamentary proceedings, may be best left to future numbers of MacLean’s Magazine.