Last Prime Minister: Frederick
Alderice and the Death of a Nation” authored by former journalist, Doug Letto, chronicles
the final stages of economic crises, which ultimately led to the loss of
responsible government in Newfoundland.
places more than just Alderdice under a spotlight; it illuminates the attitudes
that prevailed among the political and business elites of the day, whose views mirrored
impoverished society is cut off by its bankers, and unable to pay the
semi-annual interest due on the public debt. Alderdice proposes a partial
default, an idea rebuked by Britain which offers the timid and deferential
Prime Minister a Hobson’s choice: limited financial help but only if the Government
agrees to vote itself out of existence.
A man in awe
of the trappings of power, but lacking the ability to wield it, Alderdice is
worn down within less than two years of his Party’s rout of Sir Richard
Squires’ highly unpopular Administration. Overwhelmed by his circumstance, or
just out of his league, Alderdice is incapable of attempting a better bargain
with Britain just as he is untroubled that the loss of a Nation’s sovereignty
is at stake. Of the Amulree Report, he tells the Legislature: “I am afraid
there is nothing for us but take it or leave it…the terms that have been
offered are so very generous that it seems to me it would be ungracious to ask
if they could be improved upon”.
could not even exhibit the defiance of one as far removed from the crisis as Acting
British Opposition Labour Leader Clement Atlee, who rebuked British Prime
Minister Chamberlain’s boast “no Empire Government…has ever yet defaulted”.
Atlee reminded the PM: “the best countries default nowadays…we ourselves are
not paying the United States of America.”
had capitulated early; a condition above which he had neither the attitude nor
seemingly, the aptitude, to rise. Speaking to the Legislature in advance of the
vote to accept the Amulree Report, the pedestrian Alderdice offers not a
glimpse, but an entire window on a view of democracy all too commonly shared by
his political and business friends: “What good does this vote do for us? Has it
not degenerated the great bulk of our people?” Alderdice adds: (responsible
government) is only a theoretical boom not what it is cracked up to be”.
careful not to draw too many conclusions. In this respect, his work exhibits
the journalistic quality of a writer disciplined to objectivity. Instead, he forces the reader to wonder the
origins of such moral decay: how could a Newfoundland society that had punched
above its weight in the Great War, sending more money and soldiers than it could reasonably afford, now so flagrantly exhibit the very
anti-democratic ideas against which it fought?
attitudes the result entirely of financial desperation and despair, or merely of
uninspired and corrupt politics where the beneficiaries had nothing left to
possible that, at the very least, Alderdice might have secured the timing and
conditions of responsible government’s reinstatement?
But Letto is a political
scientist assuming the role of historian. All disciplines have their limitations. Likely, he is well aware this is a
question as much in need of sociologists and social psychologists, as any other. But, as is so often the case, it is simple economics that lays bare the largest and the smallest societies, too.
Newfoundland is in a serious financial fix; one that was in development long
before the exigencies of a world-wide depression were obvious. Alderdice is often
portrayed a micro-manager scrambling for a new iron ore market for the Wabana
Mine and another for our perennially low quality salt fish.
Letto gives scant attention to how budgetary deficits had become an annually
recurring theme. His focus is the period of Alderdice’s stewardship, though some
greater attribution to Newfoundland’s disproportionate financial contribution
to WW I and the deficit plagued Newfoundland Railway might have lent greater
context to the evolution of the Country’s economic predicament.
does offer a profound indictment of the leadership of Prime Minister Walter Monroe
and his role in the economic debacle: “the Monroe Government “borrowed $20
million from 1924 to 1928 and increased Newfoundland’s debt to $85 million.
Even as he went to the markets and borrowed more money, Monroe enriched the
upper classes by abolishing income taxes…and the profits tax on business…an
amount that surpassed the new tariffs the government…placed on goods such as
beef, flour, pork, and gasoline.”
same Walter Monroe, now a Member of the Legislative Council (the Senate) who,
in the debate on Amulree, advised: “Responsible Government was the ideal form
of government” but not for Newfoundland since “for us it has been a very
wonder Letto might conclude: “The sting of Amulree’s Report was that
self-government had been so manipulated by Newfoundland politicians for their
own benefit that there was no value in preserving it. That conclusion was
agreeable to the elites in St. John’s, including the government, businessmen,
the newspapers, and the Church of England.”
Editor asked: “Will we place first political institutions…or will we place
Newfoundland’s interests first?” as if these two matters were distinguishable.
News also spoke to “the generousity of the offer” from Great Britain.
expected, all Members of the St. John’s Board of Trade, but one, supported
Amulree’s recommendations. E.J. Godden “thought the people ought to be
consulted before giving up (their) liberty”.
and financial elites become possessed of the idea that democratic government
was a mistake from its infancy, 78 years earlier?
unfair for this Blogger, a pablum-fed post-confederate, to be judgemental about the leadership
and events of an earlier time, as thousands fought malnutrition and entire
families were forced to live on the dole, at six cents a day. Still, Letto
leaves little margin for any conclusion, other than that Newfoundlanders have
no one to blame except a group who saw the abandonment of democracy as a solution
aligned with their own self-interest.
story contains the research of an academic tome except that his unmistakeable
journalistic flair makes it a highly readable and important historical work.
a better understanding of a time when Newfoundland was denied the intellectual,
moral and political leadership that is every society’s wont. In some respects,
it is less the story of a society under economic strain than of one so politically
and intellectually immature it is capable only of the realization it must be
union, and other elites be any less eager, today, to trade what we have left of
our sovereignty to save their own skins as oil revenues suffer in a new era of declining resource wealth, successive and unbridled budget deficits and cost overruns on a latter day Newfoundland Railway, in the guise of Muskrat Falls?
“Last Prime Minister” should stir much needed reflection on that question and the
risks of electing diminutive men and women to high office.
Prime Minister: Frederick Alderice and the Death of a Nation” is published by
Boulder Publications. www.boulderpublications.ca