Mr. Mackenzie King and the Development of the Commonwealth of Nations
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The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 10 Dec 1953, p. 118-130


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Pickersgill, The Honourable John Whitney, Speaker
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Mr. Mackenzie King's attitude to the Empire and his influence on the evolution of the Commonwealth. The speaker's close and continuing association with Mr. Mackenzie King for the last twelve years of his life. A detailed discussion of Mr. King's influence from 1922 on. Some fundamental differences between Sir Robert Borden and Mackenzie King. Mr. King's principle that each of the nations of the Commonwealth must have its own external policy and that this was a logical extension of responsible government, and that no other system would work. His assertion, at the same time, that he wished to strengthen and not to weaken the Imperial connection. How Mr. King saw that this was possible. The Imperial Conference of 1923. Mr. King in the forefront of the group which resisted the idea of a common foreign policy. Setting the lines of the future development of the Commonwealth in the Imperial Conference of 1923, though the 1926 Conference was more dramatic, and why. Controversy over the issue of what the Conference of 1926 accomplished. The boldness of Mr. King's action in appointing Mr. Vincent Massey Canadian Minister to the United States. More differences between the attitudes of Sir Robert Borden and Mr. Mackenzie King: how to define the Commonwealth relationship. The decision of peace or war made by Canada, and what that meant then and afterwards. Mr. King's conception of the Commonwealth relationship springing from his experience of relationships within Canada itself. Mr. King's belief that the unity of Canada could be maintained only if all Canadians accepted one another as equals and if the historic partnership between the two great races was a genuine partnership between equals. Events and consequences during and after the Second World War with regard to this issue. Mr. King's influence in working out the understanding which would enable the Indian Government to satisfy the aspiration for a republican form of government without withdrawing from the Commonwealth association. Mr. King's influence, invariably and effectively on the side of preserving and strengthening the great association of free nations we call the Commonwealth.
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10 Dec 1953
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English
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"MR. MACKENZIE KING AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF NATIONS"
An Address by THE HONOURABLE JOHN WHITNEY PICKERSGILL, P.C., M.P., Secretary of State of Canada
Thursday, December 10th, 1953
CHAIRMAN: The President, Mr. A. E. M. Inwood.

MR. INWOOD: The Right Honourable W. L. Mackenzie King in the year 1919 made a profound address before this club entitled "Four Parties to Industry". Today, 34 years later it is heart-warming that our guest speaker has decided to pay tribute to our late Prime Minister by the very choice of his subject "Mr. Mackenzie King and the development of the Commonwealh," and it is indeed a subject close the hearts of the members of this club.

Our speaker, because of his intimate association with him over the years, is one of the very few persons able to interpret clearly the effect Mr. King had on our Commonwealth relations.

Mr. John Whitney Pickersgill was almost immediately attached to the office of the Prime Minister upon entering the Department of External Affairs in 1937.

Five years later he was appointed private secretary to the Secretary of State for External Affairs, a post he held until 1945. In that year he was appointed special assistant to the Prime Minister in which capacity he continued until his appointment as clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet in 1952.

This year, Mr. Pickersgill was appointed to the Cabinet as Secretary of State of Canada and was elected as the member of Parliament for the Newfoundland riding of Bonavista-Twillingate.

It is an honour and pleasure to present him to this club.

MR. PICKERSGILL: I was greatly flattered last August by the invitation of your President to address The Empire Club of Canada. This Club has the reputation of providing one of the best audiences in Canada, and your President's invitation was the first one I received after the election. I have to confess, however, that I hesitated a good deal about accepting.

I suppose it is the wrong attitude for a politician to take, but I really don't like to listen to speeches unless the speaker has something to say. I was not sure I had anything to say which would interest the members of the Empire Club as such. I assume, of course, that the name of the Club proclaims the common interest which brings the members together into one organization and that it would be an abuse of your hospitality not to relate what I had to say to the purposes of the Empire Club.

It was only after thinking the matter over for several days that it occurred to me that Mr. Mackenzie King's attitude to the Empire and his influence on the evolution of the Commonwealth would be an appropriate subject, and I suggested that subject to your President, who assured me it would be acceptable. I hasten to say that I have no secret revelations to make and that the facts I shall cite today are all on the public record. But the opinions I am going to express are my own; and, happily, in this free country it is still safe to have opinions and to express them. And as you all know, I did have a close and continuing association with Mr. Mackenzie King for the last twelve years of his life and the members of the Empire Club may therefore find something new in what I have to say.

From 1922 on, I believe Mr. Mackenzie King had a greater influence on the development of the Commonwealth than any other public man in any part of the Commonwealth and I am convinced that his influence was invariably exerted on the side of preserving and strengthening the Commonwealth.

He saw clearly, and earlier than most public men, that the only way the Commonwealth could be preserved and strengthened was by establishing a relationship not only of complete equality but also of complete autonomy between its members--in spirit as well as in letter. Mr. King believed that the vestiges of the former colonial relationship were sources of weakness to the Commonwealth, though he was political realist enough to realize that changes, even in formal relationships, could be made only step by step as public opinion developed or as particular circumstances raised specific issues which had to be settled.

I am not pretending that, when Mr. King became Prime Minister, Canada was still a colony and that he alone made this country a nation. There is in fact much to be said for the view that the foundations of the Commonwealth of equal British nations were laid by Sir Robert Borden and that Mr. Mackenzie King merely carried on the work started by Borden.

Now it so happens that I always had great admiration for Sir Robert Borden and I would not wish to do an injustice to his memory. But there was a fundamental difference between Borden's conception of the Commonwealth and Mackenzie King's, and it is that difference which was of decisive importance to the development of the Commonwealth after 1921.

During the first world war, Sir Robert Borden became convinced that our country, even in its external relations, could not continue to be subordinated to Great Britain. Borden tried to bring that subordination to an end by securing for Canada and other self-governing Dominions, as they were then called, a voice in the shaping of an Empire foreign policy.

Most historians are agreed that Sir Robert Borden was the prime mover in securing the establishment of the Imperial War Cabinet, which was set up in the later years of the first world war. He was equally the prime mover in securing for Canada, and the other Commonwealth nations, separate representation at the Peace Conference at Versailles, and separate membership in the League of Nations. But this representation was not intended to produce separate policies and there has never been any published evidence that Sir Robert Borden gave up his belief that it would be possible to hammer out a common Empire foreign policy in some sort of Imperial Council or conference.

The fundamental difference between Borden and Mackenzie King was that, while Sir Robert Borden apparently clung to the view that there could be an effective and continuous Canadian voice in an Empire foreign policy, Mr. Mackenzie King took the position that, because of the predominance of the United Kingdom in population, in wealth and in experience, it would never be possible for British statesmen to defer to the views of other Commonwealth statesmen in working out a common policy about any situation where British statesmen believed the vital interests of Great Britain were involved. In other words, Mr. King believed any common Empire policy would, in the final analysis, inevitably be the policy of the United Kingdom.

That is why Mr. King, from the time he became Prime Minister, acted on the principle that each of the nations of the Commonwealth must have its own external policy, that this was a logical extension of responsible government, and that no other system would work.

At the same time, he always stoutly maintained that he wished to strengthen and not to weaken the Imperial connection. I know there were many Canadians, and a good many people outside Canada, who believed that this attitude was either hypocritical or self-deceptive. But Mr. King's real position was that our common British tradition of freedom, our common heritage, and our common interest in a free and orderly and civilized world were such that, so long as the British nations all pursued policies which were in their own highest interests, there would exist among them a union of hearts and a fundamental identity of interest which would be the surest hope of maintaining the Commonwealth.

In fact, he believed, and believed fervently, that this was the only hope. When, at the time of the Chanak incident of 1922, Mr. King insisted that any question of participation in military action in the Middle East would have to be settled by Canada in the Canadian Parliament, he was acting in full accord with this fundamental principle and, incidentally, demonstrating the difficulty of devising any common Imperial policy except the policy of saying "Ready, aye Ready" to the United Kingdom.

At the Imperial Conference of 1923, the first Imperial Conference Mr. King attended as Prime Minister, a contest developed between the exponents of a common Empire foreign policy and those who believed in complete autonomy, even in foreign policy, for all self-governing nations of the Commonwealth.

Mr. King was in the forefront of the group which resisted the idea of a common foreign policy. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that the lines of the future development of the Commonwealth were set in the Imperial Conference of 1923 rather than at the Conference of 1926, though the Conference of 1926 was more dramatic, both because it followed the famous controversy in the Canadian election of that year and because that Conference undertook to define the new equal relationship between the nations of the Commonwealth.

It has recently been argued by some Canadians that the Imperial Conference of 1926 did nothing except define what had already been accomplished years before by Sir Robert Borden.

Borden himself gave some support to that view. In 1927 he delivered a series of lectures at the University of Oxford as the first Rhodes Memorial Lecturer. These lectures were published in 1928, and they set out very clearly Borden's own view of the Commonwealth at that date. In one of those lectures he said that the famous Balfour Report of 1926 in some aspects merely gave formal recognition to existing practice and that, in others, it made readjustments varying in their degree of importance, but in no case denoting any advance in status.

In the Rt. Hon. Leopold Amery's new book, "My Political Life" Volume II at page 395 there is a passage which shows that Mr. King himself largely agreed with Sir Robert. Mr. Amery says: "The Report of the Conference and, in particular, the Report of the Balfour Committee were received with almost universal acclaim. A few conservatives of the older Imperialist school shook their heads over what they feared might only be a prelude to a gradual drifting apart. But the general opinion was that while in one sense the Conference had done nothing beyond clearly stating the stage in the evolution of the Commonwealth which we all agreed had been attained, it was not merely a milestone but a signpost in that evolution. In that it only resembled other celebrated milestones in our history from Magna Carta and the Declaration of Rights onwards. The point was well expressed by Mackenzie King: 'I believe from the Canadian point of view the merit of the Conference will be not in a statement of what has been gained, so much as in the statement of what has been attained, and is now acknowledged to be altogether beyond debate. I think it is true that all the great charters of freedom in British history have for the most part not purported to introduce anything new or revolutionary. They have purported to be a statement of those rights which the citizens of the day believed were theirs, and which they regarded as established. They were a formal statement which could be appealed to by future generations as indicating the point of agreement that had been reached with respect to the several matters with which they dealt. In that particular, I believe the work of this Conference will take its place in history, so far as the statement of inter-imperial relations is concerned, by the side of those great charters which have stood in one form or another for a larger freedom. I believe this great conference, once party controversy is removed and we get a true perspective of it, will stand out in history as a conference which has revealed how broad, deep and enduring within the British Empire are the foundations of national autonomy and imperial unity.' "

While there is a good deal of truth in the view of Sir Robert Borden and Mr. Mackenzie King that the declaration of 1926 marked no advance in status, it was not the whole truth. In an earlier lecture, in the same series, Sir Robert had referred to the announcement made in the Canadian Parliament on the 10th of May, 1920, while he was still Prime Minister, that an arrangement had been concluded between the British and Canadian Governments to provide for a Canadian Minister Plenipotentiary in Washington.

He pointed out that more than seven years had elapsed before a Canadian Minister was actually appointed to Washington and then he went on to say that: "In November, 1927, the appointment of a Canadian Minister at Washington was announced; but the proposal that he should take charge of the Embassy (meaning the British Embassy) in the absence of the Ambassador was withdrawn". But what was really significant was Borden's further observation that reasons assigned for this modification were not convincing.

Now, whether those reasons were convincing to Sir Robert Borden when he gave his lecture in 1927, the real reason was one that I believe all Canadians would accept without question today. That reason was Mr. King's view that the Canadian Minister was going to Washington not as an equal but junior representative of the Commonwealth in the British Embassy, but as the representative of the Canadian Government, answerable only to Canada, and to look after Canadian interests only.

In other words, this difference between Sir Robert Borden's plan in 1920, which he still believed was feasible in 1927, and Mr. Mackenzie King's action in 1927 in appointing a Minister to Washington, was precisely the difference between one who stood for an Imperial foreign policy, in which Canada would have a voice, and one who insisted there must be a completely autonomous Canadian foreign policy.

Even at that, Sir Robert Borden's position was very different from that of the contemporary leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. Most of us have forgotten what Mr. R. B. Bennett, as he then was, said in the House of Commons in the debate on the vote to provide for a Canadian Legation in Washington.

I think it is worth recalling Mr. Bennett's language to you. Here are his words: . . . "I have nothing to say with respect to the incumbent of that office, but, Sir, I feel stronger in regard to this than to any other vote that I have ever had to give in parliament and to the fullest extent of my ability I shall oppose it. This country apparently is entering on a great adventure, the last great adventure in our relation to the British Empire. I am wholly opposed to the establishment of this embassy at Washington. It is but the doctrine of separation, it is but the evidence in many minds of the end of our connection with the empire. For that is what it means. It means nothing else ultimately, because if we are a sovereign state we cannot belong to the British Empire. We have had so much talk in days gone by of the British commonwealth of nations but we can never be a nation unless we are a sovereign power; we are not a sovereign power unless we are an independent state; and we cannot be an independent state and remain a part of the British Empire."

Mr. Bennett used those words on April 13th, 1927. His position was farther behind Sir Robert Borden's than Borden's was behind Mr. King's and it was the real measure of the boldness of Mr. King's action in appointing Mr. Vincent Massey Canadian Minister to the United States.

There was a great difference between the attitudes of Sir Robert Borden and Mr. Mackenzie King in another way. Sir Robert Borden was a lawyer, and a very great lawyer, and he used the language of lawyers. To him, the Commonwealth relationships had to be defined with precision. Mr. Mackenzie King was not a lawyer and he was not a theorist. He was sometimes unaware of logical contradictions between the attitudes he took at one time and at another. He was essentially a pragmatic politician, feeling his way along and taking the course which, in the circumstances, he believed would work, and refusing to define, in advance, what course would be taken in circumstances which might never arise.

All through the 1930s, as the fear of war grew, there were more and more Canadians, in and out of Parliament, who tried to define our relationship with the Commonwealth with greater precision, and to decide ahead of the event whether or not Canada would be a neutral, in international law, if the United Kingdom became involved in a war, or, to put it another way, whether or not Canada would automatically become a belligerent if the United Kingdom was at war.

Everybody knew that that had been the legal and constitutional position in 1914, and the Balfour Declaration of 1926 had passed over the question of neutrality in war in silence.

Mr. King persistently prevented this question from being settled in Parliament, partly because he realized that there was a sharp and probably irreconcilable difference within Canada on this point, and partly because he continued to hope--though after 1937 rather against hope--that the practical question would never arise.

Even when the war came in 1939, the question was not really settled on grounds of principle, but on purely practical grounds. I think everybody now knows that President Roosevelt, who was very anxious to find some way which would not be a breach of the United States Neutrality Law of strengthening Canada and Canada's eventual allies, enquired in Ottawa whether Canada was at war when the United Kingdom became involved in the war on September 3rd.

There was a strong practical advantage in our not being at war, at that moment, and all through the week between the 3rd and the 10th of September, war supplies were brought across the international border in complete conformity with the neutrality laws of the United States.

I like to think that what happened in September, 1939, is a typical example of the British way of doing things. Those who felt Canada was at war when Britain was at war were satisfied only one week later by our own declaration of war, and those who felt that Canada should have the right to make her own decision, and to have that decision made in her own Parliament, were satisfied because that was the way it was done.

Of course, the fact that the decision of peace or war was made by Canada meant that, for the future, that precedent had settled the question, and for the future Canada would have to make her own decision.

The beginning of the war did illustrate something else. It justified Mr. King's conviction that, so far as Canada was concerned, the one and only way to maintain Canada's association in the Commonwealth was to have complete freedom of decision for each nation within the Commonwealth, and a recognition of complete constitutional equality between the members of the Commonwealth.

I am convinced that Mr. King's conception of the Commonwealth relationship sprang from his experience of relationships within Canada itself. He believed, and believed firmly, that the unity of Canada could be maintained only if all Canadians accepted one another as equals and if the historic partnership between the two great races was a genuine partnership between equals.

Mr. Mackenzie King of course was not the first Canadian statesman to belive that. I was much interested to read in Professor Creighton's "John A. Macdonald-The Young Politician" an extract from a letter Macdonald wrote in January of 1856 to an English-speaking friend of his in Montreal.

"The truth is," Macdonald wrote, "that you British Lower Canadians never can forget that you were once supreme--that Jean Baptiste was your hewer of wood and drawer of water. You struggle, like the Protestant Irish in Ireland, like the Norman invaders in England, not for equality, but ascendancy--the difference between you and those interesting and amiable people being that you have not the honesty to admit it. You can't and won't admit the principle that the majority must govern."

Mr. King realized that, for nearly 50 percent of Canadians, the United Kingdom could not be a mother country in the sense it was for those of British descent, and that the mother and daughter conception of Empire could not have the same appeal for them. He realized, too, and often expressed the view, that nothing did the Empire more harm than a certain attitude of superiority which a good many Englishmen in Canada unconsciously adopted in their relations with English-speaking Canadians. Time and time again I myself have heard him apply the famous phrase about "the attitude of effortless superiority" to representatives in Canada of the English upper classes and speak of the resentment it created among all kinds of Canadians.

On the other hand, Mr. King was, by descent, purely a Scot, and a sentimental Scot at that. He felt a genuine call of the blood and a very deep attachment to the land of his ancestors. But he never lost sight of the fact that, for many Canadians, Great Britain was not the land of their ancestors, and that if a firm bond was to exist between the United Kingdom and Canada and the other nations of the Commonwealth, that bond must be based on something more enduring even than blood and race.

He did give eloquent and very personal expression to his conception of the nature of the Commonwealth in the address he delivered to the Members 'of both Houses of Parliament of the United Kingdom on the 11th of May, 1944. I know well how long he laboured over the preparation of that address, and what care he took to see that every word conveyed precisely what he meant.

It scarcely does justice to him to tear a passage from its context, but it would take far too long to read the whole speech, and I therefore quote this central passage: "The war efforts of the nations of Commonwealth owe their inspiration to a common source. That source is the love of freedom and the sense of justice which, through generations, have been nurtured and cherished in Britain as nowhere else in the world.

The terrible events of 1940 revealed how great was the menace to freedom and how suddenly freedom might be lost. So long as freedom endures, free men everywhere will owe to the people of Britain a debt they can never repay. So long as Britain continues to maintain the spirit of freedom and to defend the freedom of other nations, she need never doubt her own preeminence throughout the world. So long as we all share that spirit, we need never fear for the strength or unity of the Commonwealth. The voluntary decisions by Britain, by Canada, by Australia, by New Zealand, and by South Africa are a supreme evidence of the unifying force of freedom.

"This common effort springing from a common source has given a new strength and unity, a new meaning and significance to the British Commonwealth and Empire.

"Without attempting to distinguish between the terms "British Empire" and "British Commonwealth", but looking rather to the evolution of this association of free nations, may I give to you what I believe to be the secret of its strength and of its unity, and the vision which I cherish of its future."

Characteristically, Mr. King found the description he wanted of that vision in the words of another man which I now quote: "We ... who look forward to larger brotherhoods and more exact standards of social justice, value and cherish the British Empire because it represents, more than any other similar organization has ever represented, the peaceful co-operation of all sorts of men in all sorts of countries, and because we think it is, in that respect at least, a model of what we hope the whole world will some day become."

"This vision," Mr. King continued in his own words, "is not mine alone; indeed, the words in which I have sought to portray it are not even my own. They were spoken thirty-seven years ago by one whose fame today is not surpassed in any part of the world, if, indeed, it has been equalled at any time in the world's history. They are the words of the present Prime Minister of Britain, uttered by Mr. Churchill in 1907. As they continue to reverberate down the years, they bring fresh inspiration to all who owe allegiance to the Crown and increasing hope to mankind."

By 1944, there was no question left of the complete independence of each Commonwealth nation and no question either that the bonds between Canada and the United Kingdom were closer than they had ever been. What was particularly gratifying to Mr. King was that most people at last seemed to realize that he had done a great deal to strengthen those bonds.

But Mr. King's final contribution to the development of the Commonwealth of Nations had not yet been made in 1944. No doubt he believed then that allegiance to the Crown was the one essential element in the Commonwealth relationship. I am sure that if the theoretical question had been put to him in 1944: "Could a republic be a member of the Commonwealth?" he would have answered "No".

In the last few weeks he was Prime Minister, while he was lying seriously ill in his London hotel, this question was, however, raised in practical form by the position of India. Mr. King had visited India as a young man, and he had formed then, and had retained throughout his life, the view that, for India, as for the other nations in the Empire, complete freedom must be the ultimate answer.

It is no secret that Mr. King, though he was unable to be present at the meetings of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers in October, 1948, did have a great influence in working out the understanding which would enable the Indian Government to satisfy the aspiration for a republican form of government without withdrawing from the Commonwealth association. In doing so, he helped to make possible still another stage in the evolution of this association of free nations which Mr. Churchill believed in 1907 would one day be a model of what we hope the whole world will some day become.

And these, gentlemen, are the highlights of my justification for the statement I made at the outset, that Mr. Mackenzie King, from 1922 on, had a greater influence on the development of the Commonwealth than any other public man, and that his influence was invariably and effectively on the side of preserving and strengthening this great association of free nations we call the Commonwealth.

THANKS OF THE MEETING were expressed by His Honour Mayor Lamport.

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Mr. Mackenzie King and the Development of the Commonwealth of Nations


Mr. Mackenzie King's attitude to the Empire and his influence on the evolution of the Commonwealth. The speaker's close and continuing association with Mr. Mackenzie King for the last twelve years of his life. A detailed discussion of Mr. King's influence from 1922 on. Some fundamental differences between Sir Robert Borden and Mackenzie King. Mr. King's principle that each of the nations of the Commonwealth must have its own external policy and that this was a logical extension of responsible government, and that no other system would work. His assertion, at the same time, that he wished to strengthen and not to weaken the Imperial connection. How Mr. King saw that this was possible. The Imperial Conference of 1923. Mr. King in the forefront of the group which resisted the idea of a common foreign policy. Setting the lines of the future development of the Commonwealth in the Imperial Conference of 1923, though the 1926 Conference was more dramatic, and why. Controversy over the issue of what the Conference of 1926 accomplished. The boldness of Mr. King's action in appointing Mr. Vincent Massey Canadian Minister to the United States. More differences between the attitudes of Sir Robert Borden and Mr. Mackenzie King: how to define the Commonwealth relationship. The decision of peace or war made by Canada, and what that meant then and afterwards. Mr. King's conception of the Commonwealth relationship springing from his experience of relationships within Canada itself. Mr. King's belief that the unity of Canada could be maintained only if all Canadians accepted one another as equals and if the historic partnership between the two great races was a genuine partnership between equals. Events and consequences during and after the Second World War with regard to this issue. Mr. King's influence in working out the understanding which would enable the Indian Government to satisfy the aspiration for a republican form of government without withdrawing from the Commonwealth association. Mr. King's influence, invariably and effectively on the side of preserving and strengthening the great association of free nations we call the Commonwealth.