Cabinet Portraits: Hon. James L. Ralston
The new Minister of Defence was a gallant soldier but an unlucky politician
HORATIO C. CROWELL
IF EVER in Canadian politics there was a walking paradox, that paradox is Hon. James Layton Ralston, K.C., C.M.G., D.S.O., D.C.L., Minister of National Defence and sole representative of Nova Scotia in the new Government of Mackenzie King.
Personally, one of the most likable of men, he has been rejected at the polls both by his native county of Cumberland and his adopted city of Halifax. There is no more popular man in public life between Cape North and Clarke’s Harbor, and yet he holds the record in Nova Scotia for being the most sought after and the most defeated political candidate in the province.
From early youth he has toiled toward the heights along the law’s thorny path, and now, after achieving national recognition of his legal talents, instead of reaching his goal on the Supreme Court Bench, he finds himself thrust into a federal cabinet.
By every element of his nature the antithesis of a martinet, he became the foremost soldier from Nova Scotia in the Great War. As head of the defence forces of his country, he is probably the most civilian-minded incumbent the office has ever known.
He has had none of the advantages of the social lion; he has no high financial standing, no commercial interests, and he has not had a single organized influence behind him, and yet, at forty-five, defeated and seatless, he is confronted by what amounts to an ultimatum from the Prime Minister of Canada, demanding his entry into the Government.
Small wonder that the query, ‘Who is this man Ralston?’ has become something of a political conundrum in the central and western sections of the Dominion . What manner of man is he? What is his story?
A Bluenose of the Bluenoses
THE heir, by both his father and his mother, to a lineage that goes back into the earliest days of British settlement on this continent, James Ralston was born at Amherst on September 27, 1881. He comes of that yeoman stock which, after laying the foundations of New England, moved northward when confronted by revolution, and built another commonwealth upon the bedrock of British traditions. So Ralston is a product of this country. He is not English, nor Scottish, nor Irish, but a Bluenose of the Bluenoses, and, therefore thoroughly Canadian.
He had a wholesome robust youth, like that of the average Nova Scotian boy. After passing out of high school, he articled himself to the law firm of Logan and Jenks, Amherst, and from that practical school, with only six months’ cramming at Dalhousie University Law School, he was admitted to the Bar of Nova Scotia at the age of twenty-two. The only college degree he holds is an honorary one, that of Doctor of Common Law, from Acadia University. It came after his legal achievements, not before.
His success in his chosen profession was notable from the first. When he came to Halifax, in 1912, and, with Hon. A. K. MacLean, former Attorney-General of Nova Scotia then Federal Liberal member for Halifax City, now president of the Exchequer Court of Canada, and Charles J. Burchell, of Sydney, to form the firm of MacLean, Burchell and Ralston, it was recognized that he possessed one of the keenest minds of the Nova Scotia Bar. To-day, judges of the Supreme Court rank him among the most able counsel in the Dominion. He is not ‘brilliant.’ His mind does not work by flashes of inspiration, but the thoroughness of his mental processes, his power of logical analysis and his ability to penetrate facts give him a clear track to his objective. With these characteristics, he combines a habit of life which is suggested in the phrase, ‘an infinite capacity for taking pains’ and for hard work.
If he had his way, it would be ‘the law and nothing but the law’ for him. “Ralston loves the law so much he hasn’t played a game of golf five times this season,” said one of his fellow barristers, recently. In the light of the general opinion that Haligonians spend more time in sport and pleasure than do the people of any other community in Canada, that statement is more than significant.
In the minds of most men, the law is the one
logical stepping stone to politics, but Ralston has always placed the law above politics.
“Did you ever intend to make the law a stepping stone to a political career?” I asked him one day when we had been discussing the question from the theoretical standpoint.
“I certainly did not. I never wanted to get into politics,” he said emphatically. He then told me of how a delegation from a political convention being held in Amherst, shortly after he was admitted to the bar, came to the court where he was pleading a case, dragged him to the convention hall and nominated him, as the Liberal candidate for Cumberland county.
THIS convention was for the general federal elections of 1908. Hance J. Logan, K.C., former member for the county, had retired from the field, and Ralston contested the county against E. N. Rhodes, the present premier of Nova Scotia, only to suffer the first of his four defeats.
In the provincial general elections of 1911, he was again called to the contest, and this time he was elected. He was re-elected in 1916, but for most of the subsequent term, which ended in 1920, Ralston was at the front.
It was after the war that the finger of destiny pointed like the needle of the compass to the political goal. But, if Ralston saw where the finger pointed, he would never admit it, or at the most, would look at it only through the wrong end of the telescope.
When it came to the provincial election of 1920, staid old Nova Scotia was very deeply affected by post-war restlessness. In the Liberal ranks, there was a general feeling that the day was approaching when a more vigorous and more aggressive leadership should be given to the conduct of provincial affairs. While little expression was given to this thought, it, undoubtedly, led to the demand that Ralston again be the candidate in Cumberland for the Liberal party. Here was a man, it was said, in whom the war had revealed and developed notable qualities of leadership. He had won the admiration of every Nova
Scotian. At the great national Liberal convention in Ottawa, the previous year, his name had been more than casually mentioned for the leadership. He possessed a popularity that made him invincible, it was believed by his friends.
As it happened, however, Cumberland county had decided to experiment with almost every known political creed in the country. There were no less than twelve candidates in the field in that constituency for the three seats apportioned to it. To the astonishment of the whole province, and to the genuine regret, even of men who had opposed him in his own riding, Ralston was defeated. Labor and Farmer groups elected their men. He was defeated by the same factors which in ten other counties upset both of the old line parties. The consequence was that although the government was returned by a good majority, the Legislature possessed what was dubbed a ‘conglomerate opposition,’ that as a political entity was very much like the donkey, with no pride of ancestry, nor hope of posterity.
Had Mr. Ralston been in the Legislature when Hon. George H. Murray, in 1923, resigned the premiership after twenty-six years of office,_ there is little doubt he would have been the logical successor. Opinions differ as to whether he would have been able to stem the tide which was even then rising against the government of more than two score years; whether he, alone, would have been able to revitalize it, and re-establish it in the confidence of the people. However, when the provincial contest of 1925 drew near, there was again that demand for Ralston to enter the field. Even if the government were defeated the Liberal party should have a strong man in opposition, it was argued. Those factors which had militated against his success in 1920, no longer existed, it was believed.
He was again defeated. The day after the election, however, it was fully recognized that even the Prince of Wales would not have stood a chance on the Liberal ticket, in Nova Scotia, in that year of political upheaval. The Conservatives proved themselves keen psychologists, and their emphasis on‘time for a change’ perhaps not so illogical as its opponents maintained—proved to be the most potent slogan the province had ever heard.
Mr. Ralston remained out of the federal contest in the autumn of 1925, when the ‘Maritime Rights’ cry was a factor in carrying the province, with the exception of three seats, into the Conservative ranks. When it came to the federal struggle of 1926, the Liberals, believing they had revealed a partisan element in the ‘Maritime Rights" slogan, felt it was inevitable that they would make some substantial gain.
Again, Ralston was the Liberal refuge in the hour of need—this time in Halifax city and county. At first, Ralston said he would not run and he meant what he said. Then, out of loyalty to his party and his party friends, and for the sake of unity in the party ranks, he capitulated the night before the convention. That gathering was the most united and most enthusiastic Liberal demonstration seen in Halifax since pre-war days, but it had yet to be demonstrated that anything political may happen in Nova Scotia, the state of mind of the Bluenose on federal politics having reached the point where it might be summed up in the dictum Lord Dufferin once pronounced in regard to his fellow Irishmen: “They don’t know what they want, and they won’t be happy till they get it.”
Ralston was again defeated. He succeeded in cutting the Conservative majority almost in half but that was small solace for the supporters who so confidently had expected his election.
TO WHAT extent Ralston has been responsible himself for his series of defeats? This is not an easy question to answer. ‘Woe unto him of whom all men speak well,’ may apply. It is quite easy to see, now, that his friends had shoved him up on a pedestal and that the people passed him by. There is no doubt that the popularity of the man after the war had its psychological reaction in the fickle public mind. But even that guess does not explain away the fact that he has been the political puzzle of Nova Scotia for the past six years.
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service at the front, where he commanded the 85th Nova Scotia Highlanders, a. battalion which had won distinction for themselves, and glory for their province— a public hero. He had been wounded four times; mentioned in despatches twice; awarded the Distinguished Service Order; been recommended for the Victoria Cross, and the King had made him commander of St. Michael and St. George. Though the junior colonel commanding the junior battalion of the junior brigade of the Canadian Corps, the corps commander, Sir Arthur Currie had chosen him from among all his officers to accompany him to the Peace Conference at Versailles.
Others endeavor to explain Ralston’s defeat by declaring he is no politician. A leading Liberal worker in Halifax recently said: “It will be a sorry day for the Liberal party of this province when Ralston becomes its leader, for though we all recognize his ability, he hasn’t the least political sense.” I know this man was thinking in terms of political patronage, political promises, and politcal chicanery. So far as I know anything about the present minister of defence, what this man said, viewed from the political aspect, is true, but, while the critic may have touched the sources of Ralston’s weakness as a politician, he also explained the source o' his strength as a public man.
Men who served with Ralston in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly, while strong personal admirers of the man, have complained that in party caucuses he, too frequently, pulled his oar in the wrong direction, that he constantly set his own convictions of what was right above the judgment of bis colleagues and that he never recognized political expediency. It may be observed here, however, that of all those who were in the House of Assembly in Ralston’s day, Ralston, himself, remains as the outstanding leader of Liberalism in Nova Scotia, to-day.
Immediately after the elections of September 14, Mr. Ralston was summoned by the Prime Minister to Ottawa. Mr. King was determined that no political exigencies would prevent him from having in his official family the Nova Scotian whom he had selected. Paul L. Hatfield, member-elect for Yarmouth-Shelburne, one of the two Liberals elected in Nova Scotia, acceded to the Prime Minister’s request to vacate his seat for which he was recompensed by appointment to the Senate. As a result, the constituency now has the advantage of being represented by both a senator and a cabinet minister as it elected Mr. Ralston by acclamation.
SUCH is the story in brief of Ralston’s political career to date. It has been demonstrated, I think, that, although the Minister of National Defence has found a seat, and is the Nova Scotian representative in the Cabinet, his political strength has never been proved.
In view of this, why did Mr. King particularly want Mr. Ralston? From the purely practical and utilitarian viewpoint, one may assume that the Prime Minister desired a man with some military knowledge at the head of the department of National Defence. Ralston possessed not only the knowledge, but a civilian viewpoint which would strengthen his administrative capacity for that department in peace time.
The Prime Minister, himself, said on September 26, according to the press: “I want the veterans of Canada to feel that they have a representative at the
council table who will ably present their various needs.”
It is quite obvious, from this, that Mr. King had in mind the work which Ralston had done as chairman of the Royal Commission which inquired into the conditions of ex-service men, with special reference to pensions—a gigantic task, demanding skill, patience, tact, and a judicial sympathy. The result of the Ralston Commission—the establishment of the Appeal Board—is a sufficient monument to any man, or any group of men.
Again, the Prime Minister was in all probability, aware of the reputation Ralston possesses as a man of work. His energy is dynamic, the energy of a healthy man, who has been endowed with great physical strength, keen mentality, and moral character. His splendid physique, his alert, athletic step and walk, his penetrating eye, and a massive set jaw, are the outward expressions of these inherent characteristics. He does not go to Ottawa on the stilts of any idealism, tagged with an indefinable shibboleth. There is no cant nor humbug about him. He is no oratorical apostle of political righteousness, but I believe that when the day comes, the people whom he serves will know where he stands.
Despite his bent toward the solid things of life there are many human qualities about the man. Apart from his family, .there is one other interest outside his profession to which he devotes a good deal of time. That is the Rotary Club in which he has found certain international opportunities. He visited Australia in 1921 as one of two special commissioners sent from Canada to establish Rotary in the Commonwealth, and also in New Zealand.
Curious as it may seem in one of his qualities, the new minister is something of a wit. He has even been the star performer as end-man in a minstrel show. As a travelling companion, as one of a few friends gathered together lor a sing song, or with some of the men who served with him in France, he displays a boyish exultation in a good time which makes him the most delightful of companions.
Above all else he ' has the sense of humor. One never hears him speak of the humiliation of his political defeats. According to ‘A Gentleman with a Duster,’ ‘Humanity may be thankful that St. Paul was without a sense of humor.’ I have a hunch that St. Paul would feel very much at home in Nova Scotia in this year of our Lord, for he would undoubtedly find his letters greatly appreciated among a people who take themselves so seriously as do we Nova Scotians at present. Ralston, however, possesses the saving grace to a marked degree.
It may be that when the test of his qualities as a public man is applied at Ottawa, he will not justify our estimate of his powers, as we view him from the provincial point of view. It may be that when the test of his political strength is made under normal conditions, it will be disclosed that his weakness is within himself, rather than of extraneous conditions and circumstances.
So far as these things are concerned, the future is silent. In the meantime, there is only this to say: That Nova Scotia sends Ralston to Ottawa, to-day, as her strongest man. I will go further, and say that Nova Scotia has sent, in Ralston, the strongest of her long line of public men. At times, he may disappoint us, for he is very human, but I believe he will never destroy our hopes.