A Heavily Qualified Greatness

Was it luck or astuteness that stamped Mackenzie King’s extraordinary career?

Early in 1945, Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King chatted with Grant Dexter, Ottawa correspondent for the Winnipeg Free Press, about the conscription crisis that nearly had brought down his government the previous autumn. The conversation turned to Naval Minister Angus L. Macdonald, former premier of Nova Scotia and King’s chief antagonist during the Cabinet crisis. King recorded in his diary: “Dexter told me that he did not think Macdonald should be in the administration anyway.” King then claimed that Dexter reported that the Nova Scotia Cabinet told Macdonald he would be not welcomed back as premier.1 Rumours of Macdonald’s political death, however, were exaggerated and came from King, not Dexter. In a letter to his editor, Dexter indicated that King was the source of this false news: “Angus was another of the Judases … Angus had tried to quit … and resume the premiership of Nova Scotia. But did I know what the Nova Scotia cabinet had told him? I didn’t and he didn’t say. It was what might be called a nasty innuendo.”2 King’s remarkable diary—at more than 50,000 pages, perhaps the greatest primary source in Canadian history—can be as puzzling as its creator. Was he trying to pad the historical record in his favour, or was his penchant for self-deception at play?

Journalist and writer Allan Levine may not answer this question in King: William Lyon Mackenzie King, A Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny, but he does offer a very good portrait of King, the man. Already the subject of more than a half dozen biographies and prominently featured in hundreds of books and articles that deal with the first half of the 20th century, King remains an enigma in many ways, probably because of a surfeit, not a deficit, of sources.3 More than 300 metres of King’s papers survive—by contrast, Sir John A. Macdonald’s fonds are 36.8 metres long—highlighted by his incomparable diary. From 1893 until his death in 1950, with but a few gaps in the early years, King recorded his daily activities, conversations, ailments, thoughts, dreams and a host of interactions with and messages from the “Great Beyond.” There is enough diary for ten prime ministers but, as Levine asks several times, what are we to make of it all?

The grandson of the Upper Canadian rebel-for-democracy William Lyon Mackenzie, King left a nascent career in academia to become a senior bureaucrat in Ottawa in Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s government. He ran successfully for federal office in 1908, but lost in 1911 and 1917; thus many were surprised when the 44-year-old prevailed at the 1919 Liberal convention held to choose Laurier’s successor. Nevertheless, King managed to hold the office of prime minister for 22 of the next 29 very interesting years, governing through periods of growth, depression, war and reconstruction. He was not a charismatic leader—although he had his loyal followers and kept Quebec in the Liberal fold—and soon after his death at 75 in 1950, stories began emerging about his “eccentricities.” The longest serving prime minister in the Commonwealth, it was revealed, spent much of his time trying to communicate with deceased relatives and world leaders. With the publication of C.P. Stacey’s A Very Double Life: The Private World of Mackenzie King, he became a caricature for most Canadians—a doddering bachelor talking with his dead mother and dog.

Levine seeks to correct this perception, but includes so many accounts of King’s communion with unseen forces that the effect is to reinforce it. He argues that King was so lonely and insecure that he craved constant contact with and validation from his departed kinfolk, patrons and political idols. Lonely he certainly was, but narcissism seems more apt than insecurity. The prime minister did not rely on seances to make decisions, rather to affirm his course, but there is no evidence at all that he ever felt unworthy of his power. When King heard a medium tell him that his grandfather or Laurier was helping to orchestrate events or when he noticed the hands of the clock in a straight line at the end of his speech, he was confident that he was an instrument of God sent to usher in a liberal paradise. The principles of liberalism might change with political conditions, but King was always confident that aught could be achieved were he not at the head of the government.

Arthur Balfour suggested that biography “should be written by an acute enemy,” but if our goal is to know a subject, an empathetic researcher would seem to be best. To explain an action or a decision taken, a biographer must try to understand the complexity and context of the subject. The risk is that the biographer will embrace the subject’s perspective and accept that person’s rationalizations, essentially becoming an apologist. It is necessary to step back and ask basic questions at key historical moments. Was this action taken in good faith? Is that a valid assessment of the achievement? It is a difficult balance to strike, and Levine does well, although his assertion that King was Canada’s greatest prime minister appears to be based heavily on King’s self-assessment and Maclean’s polls. His longevity reflects his tremendous political skills but also a healthy measure of luck—having Governor General Lord Byng deny his request for dissolution of Parliament in 1926, for example, or losing the 1930 election.

King’s political survival until 1935—when the disintegrating Conservative government handed him an opportunity akin to Jean Chrétien’s in 1993—was due mostly to good fortune and the fact that politics at the highest level was still a “gentlemen’s game.” The 1925 election resulted in a minority House, and King clung to power after promising Byng that he would stand aside for the Tories, who had won 15 seats more than the Liberals, if his government fell. The Liberals were out in seven months due to a scandal involving the Department of Customs collaborating with rum runners, but when Byng turned to the Conservatives, King portrayed him as an imperialist meddling in Canadian affairs and won another minority government.⁴ King might also have been destroyed by the Beauharnois scandal involving hundreds of thousands of dollars in improper donations swirling around the Liberals. When it came to light in 1931, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett intervened to save King any embarrassment. By relying so heavily on the diary to work through political events, Levine gives King a pass on the corruption; because King did not mention receiving money or selling influence in his diary, Levine accepts that he was uninformed and naive.⁵

King’s most lasting achievements were three notable pieces of social legislation: old age pensions, unemployment insurance and family allowances. Each persists in modified form, and collectively they helped to redefine the relationship between the state and its citizens. Yet even here we must insert an asterisk. King was forced to accept pensions in 1926 as the price for the support of some Progressive and Labour members of Parliament, who in turn held their noses at the Customs debacle. He resisted the development of a national unemployment insurance program and appointed two blue ribbon commissions to forestall it. The “baby bonus” was not King’s idea, but he did fight to get the approval of a reluctant cabinet, and the scheme was surprisingly successful at reducing poverty. In spite of his training in economics, it is not clear that he grasped the essence of Keynesianism, even as his bureaucrats and ministers transformed the national economy through federal spending and taxing powers.

King’s greatest feat was to steer Canada through the Second World War, overseeing an admirable war effort and preventing a rupture between the two linguistic nations. It has been argued that no one else could have held the government and the country together, especially around the question of conscription, which prompted two Cabinet crises. King’s leadership was anchored in his stand beside Laurier against conscription in 1917, and his Quebec ministers pledged in 1939 not to send conscripts overseas. Germany’s 1940 conquest of Europe convinced the government to impose conscription for home defence; Japan’s dramatic entry to the war led the government in 1942 to hold a plebiscite, seeking a release from its anti-conscription promise. The first Cabinet crisis followed the yes vote and several resignations were threatened over questions of how to proceed should conscripts be needed overseas. The crisis in 1944 erupted when casualty rates among the infantry fighting in Europe dramatically exceeded expectations; the only source of trained infantry reinforcements, his defence minister reported, was among the conscripts in Canada. King switched defence ministers and insisted that he could never send conscripts overseas, that he would resign first. The conscriptionist ministers considered forming their own administration, but acknowledged that the government’s collapse could split the country—supposedly King’s greatest fear. Over several weeks, King gradually was brought round to enforcing the government’s policy of “conscription if necessary.” It is likely that King’s threats, pleas and even lies helped to convince key anti–conscriptionist ministers—including King’s successor, Louis St. Laurent—that the government had no choice, but nowhere in his diary did King suggest this was his strategy. Even if it were, his histrionics risked provoking the conscriptionists to resign, which surely would have led to the feared national split. Was King a great wartime leader? The answer would seem to be a heavily qualified yes.

Levine avoids political complexity and shies away from the sorts of questions that would engage academics but bore a general audience—did King, the author of federal labour law, really think that capital and labour shared a common interest?—but his book is perceptive and eminently readable. Levine’s discussion of King’s personality is excellent; although he opens by describing King as a “passive-aggressive male” with “oppressive insecurity,” Levine generally avoids pathologizing his subject. King merely began with some unattractive traits that were accentuated by time, isolation and political battles. He was capable of a certain amount of charm, wit and even kindness in intimate gatherings. He courted several women and had close friendships with others—including a married Italian woman 35 years his junior—but his deepest affections were reserved for his mother and his dogs. As a rule, King was vain, egocentric and full of self-pity and was as fawning to his social superiors as he could be mean-spirited and ungrateful to his inferiors. In 1939, King played host to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and barely left their side for a month. At the end of the tour, he told them that God had “chosen you for a work which no other persons in the world can perform … I truly believe that your example [and] influence and what you may be able to do with the advice of the ministers around you should enable the peace of the world to be maintained.” King once demanded that a civil servant be fired for not coming to see him off at the train station—the man was attending to his wife and newborn—but an aide refused to carry out the order. King complained almost daily about the incompetence of his caucus members, senior bureaucrats and personal staff, but the diary seems not to contain an unqualified admission of error on his part. Moreover, King rarely led his government or the country anywhere, even on matters of liberal principles. This is best exemplified in the question of race, which receives superb treatment from Levine. King was probably no more racist than most Canadians before 1945, yet he deferred to the assumed racism of voters and let slip two remarkable opportunities to demonstrate his Christian and liberal values—failing to rescue German-Jewish refugees on the eve of the Second World War and interning all Japanese Canadians in 1942.

King’s diary reveals a man difficult to like, in either the flesh or in print. Had his executors destroyed most of it, as King wished, it would be easier to think well of him. Had he retired at the end of the war instead of aimlessly occupying the prime minister’s chair for three more years, his reputation as a leader might have been bolstered. Had his government introduced a full package of social welfare legislation, including health insurance, in the reconstruction period, King’s claim to have fulfilled a divine mission for humanity could be given more credence. Levine does not prove his case for “the greatest,” perhaps, but he has ably shown that King was important and remarkable.

Notes

1 William Lyon Mackenzie King, Diaries, January 9, 1945; for the full version of the diary, see <www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/databases/king>. In the fall of 1945, Macdonald reclaimed the leadership of the provincial party by acclamation and led it to a landslide victory, claiming 28 of
30 seats.

2 Dexter memo to George V. Ferguson, January 9–10, 1945, in Ottawa at War: The Grant Dexter Memoranda, 1939–1945, edited by Frederick W. Gibson and Barbara Robertson (Manitoba Record Society, 1994), page 494.

3 For some of those accounts, see W.L. Mackenzie King: A Bibliography and Research Guide, compiled by former Queen’s University archivist George F. Henderson (University of Toronto Press, 1998).

4 King and Lady Byng despised each other after this, and King could not resist a parting shot when the Byngs departed Ottawa: “His Excellency got a good send off, but Her Excellency received not a cheer. She looked terrible, a wreck of a woman.” King, Diaries, September 27, 1926, and recounted in Levine. This ludicrous claim can be contrasted with the press coverage, which mentions an overwhelming number of cheers and flowers.

5 King also benefited from a slush fund to which certain wealthy donors contributed several hundred thousand dollars.