03 January 2018

Politics and History: SRBP at 13. #nlpoli

The week before Christmas, I dropped by The Rooms for a quick check of some government documents in the provincial archive.

The last time I'd been there, a major public display covered the Newfoundland experience in the  First World War.  The provincial government is, at least on paper, still in the midst of its official celebration and commemoration events a century ago. In practice though, the official celebration and it in the middle of 2016 and the Centennial of Beaumont Hamel. With the exception of a small, sparsely attended symposium at Memorial University, events to mark one of the most significant periods in Newfoundland and Labrador history are now over. What was so striking about The Rooms is the mere absence of any Great War commemorations beyond the travelling exhibit from the mainland about Vimy Ridge.

As much as this fits with a comment emphasis on celebrating the slaughter in 1916, the more troubling aspect of this historical blindness is that the war had a far greater impact on Newfoundland subsequently in 1917 and 1918 that it had had in a single day on the Somme.

In April, 1917 the Newfoundland Regiment fought at Monchy-le-Preux with as dramatic a result as the one of Beaumont Hamel the year before.  This battle as well as others through the spring and summer put a further strain on manpower, already severely tested in 1916. The result would be a conscription crisis lasted almost a year and that was marked by both rural/urban and Protestant versus Roman Catholic divisions. Recruiting had been consistently most successful in St. John's, while in rural areas proportionately fewer men volunteered. 

One popular view that the burden of the war had been born predominantly by Protestants from St. John's while those from the bays, particularly Roman Catholics, and shirked their national responsibility. Regardless of whether such views were right or wrong, they revealed the deep divisions within the country and a lack of understanding of one part for another that has echoes in the current day's debate about resettlement.

The recruiting problems mixed together with allegations of profiteering by Water Street merchants and an increasingly boisterous opposition to greet Prime Minister Edward Morris on his return from Imperial War Cabinet meeting in the spring of 1917. There should have been an election that fall but Morris had already  decided to introduce legislation in the House to postpone the election for a year due to the wartime contingency. He tried and eventually succeeded in forming a coalition government with the opposition Liberal and Unionist parties.

With Morris nominally serving as Prime Minister, opposition Leader W.F. Lloyd took on the role of deputy prime minister. In a secret agreement with Lloyd and union leader William Coaker, Morris agreed to resign by the end of the year with Lloyd as his replacement. In addition, the new administration created a Department of Militia to take over the administration of the war effort from the volunteer National Patriotic Association. In the event, the new department was no more successful than the NPA had been recruiting but at least some of the stink of corruption that attach to the NPA with allegations of wartime profiteering had gone.

On the Sunday nearest July 1, the country marked the first anniversary of the tragic day in 1916. This was one of the first four commemorations established throughout the Empire. As such, the event was worthy of commemoration in its own right and yet the day passed in 2017 without any mention in the official Centennial commemorations.

 No sooner had Morris announced a coalition, that he boarded a steamer and returned to England. He resigned in December 1917 and was created Baron Morris of Waterford early in 1918. Lloyd's coalition served through to the end of the war in the Paris peace talks in 1919 before he was replaced by Richard Squires. Morris was last of the long serving prime ministers of Newfoundland. His successors lasted short periods, some only a matter of a few days, in a fluid political climate of shifting coalitions and alliances.

Richard Squires only stands out because of the allegations of corruption in his first administration and because of his return to office in a second administration shortly before the collapse of responsible government. Through the entire period of the 1920s, the government struggled with mounting debt and difficulty in meeting its financial obligations while the politicians fought among themselves.

-srbp-