A conservative is a traditionalist, i.e., someone who believes strongly in preserving all the good things – ideas, customs, habits, institutions, rules, etc. – that have been passed on to us in the present from the past, as a trust for future generations. A progressive is an innovator, i.e.. someone who believes that the road to a better future starts by moving away from the past through radical experimentation guided by the light of reason and science.
The terms “Tory” and “Whig” are synonyms for “conservative” and “progressive” respectively, but they have more specific connotations. They are the old names for the parties which were re-organized and re-named into the Conservative and Liberal parties in the nineteenth century. The old names were used from the late seventeenth through to the early nineteenth century. The Tories were the champions of the rights and privileges of the Crown and of the established Church of England. The Whigs were the champions of the elected legislature and of the dissenting, non-conformist, Protestant sects.
The term “Tory” is still widely used, mostly as a nickname for the members of the Conservative Party. I use it as a self-descriptive label in a somewhat different sense, to indicate that my conservatism is the older type of royalist and religious conservatism rooted in established institutions that the Tory Party stood for before it changed its name, and not primarily a conservatism of low taxes and free markets, although I have nothing against those things per se.
The term “Whig” has not survived as well. The American Republic was founded upon Whig principles in the eighteenth century and for a time the term was used as the name of an American political party, albeit one whose policies differed somewhat from those of the English Whigs. This was dissolved in 1860 and the Republican Party took its place. Canada was founded upon Tory principles as a confederation of provinces that had remained loyal to the British Crown in the American Revolution. Here, we do not refer to the members of the Liberal Party as Whigs in the way we speak of members of the Conservative Party as Tories, we call them “Grits” instead.
Nevertheless, Whig ideals have often been on display in the policies and actions of the Liberal Party in the Twentieth Century. Likewise, Canadian history, once written by such stalwart Tories as Donald Creighton and W. L. Morton, in the last half of the Twentieth Century began to bear a marked resemblance to what Sir Herbert Butterfield called “The Whig Interpretation of History”, when a new school of Liberal historians, including such notables as Pierre Berton and Peter C. Newman arose. Whereas the older school of historians were patriots of the Dominion of Canada founded in 1867, who believed in its founding principles, and saw its British heritage of Common Law, the Westminster Parliamentary system, and the Crown itself as an indispensable part of what Canada was all about the newer school were advocates of a newer kind of Canadian nationalism, heavily promoted by Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau in the 1960s and 1970s, which sought to create a new Canadian identity by stripping Canada of as much of her British heritage as possible and de-emphasizing the rest, while emphasizing the traditions and heritage of French Canadians, Canadian Indians, and new immigrants from the Third World. This new Canadian history can be seen at its most Whiggish, however, when it discusses a 1926 event known as the King/Byng affair.
To understand this it would be helpful to define the basic difference between Tories and Whigs under the Westminster system. A Tory and a Whig can both support the system of parliamentary monarchy. They view it differently, however. A Whig has a natural distrust of kings and regards the powers of the elected assembly as a fundamental check on the potential for tyranny in the royal office. A Tory’s natural distrust is of mobs and the demagogues that stir them up, and he regards the office of the king as an essential check on demagoguery, political opportunism, and the “tyranny of the majority” that Alexis de Tocqueville warned the Americans about.
The Whig interpretation of history, as Butterfield explained it, is the theory, predominant in the histories of the Whig historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in which the past is seen as one endless series of progressive events leading up to the liberal democracy of the present. Every event in which royal power is limited is regarded as a positive step towards the rights, freedoms, and democracy of the day, regardless of whether the king at the time was behaving tyrannically, as was the case with King John, or was a good man defending the traditional rights and prerogatives of his office, from unscrupulous fanatics, as was the case with King Charles I.
In classrooms across Canada, the King-Byng affair, if discussed at all, is given the Whig treatment. It is portrayed as an important step in Canada’s becoming a sovereign country with full control over her own affairs. While this view conforms to the 1926 election propaganda of William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberals it does not conform to the facts.
The events leading up to the affair began with the 1925 federal election. At the time King was Prime Minister, the Liberals having won the 1921 election with 118 seats. This was reduced to 101 in the 1925 election. Arthur Meighen’s Conservatives won 116 seats. Ordinarily this would have resulted in the Conservatives being asked to form a minority government. King, however, went to Lord Byng of Vimy, the Governor General (viceroy) at the time, and told him that he had obtained the support of the Progressive Party for the continuation of his government. Byng reluctantly accepted this.
Before the year was out, King’s government was rocked by scandal. Here is how John G. Diefenbaker described it in his memoirs:
Within weeks of the 1925 election, the entire range of corruption began to emerge. Canadian customs officers were involved in a smuggling ring operating in Windsor-Detroit, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, and throughout the New Brunswick-Maine boundary. Directing much of these operations was a senior Customs Inspector and implicated was the former Liberal Minister of Customs and Excise, the Honourable Jacques Bureau, who, instead of being sent to jail, had been appointed to the Senate by King prior to the 1925 election. (John G. Diefenbaker, One Canada, Volume I, p. 146)
A House committee was appointed to investigate and when its report was in, the Conservatives called for a vote of censure against the King government, the socialists called for a Royal Commission to investigate the customs corruption further, and finally a proposal was put forward that combined both of these calls.
Desperate to avoid a vote of censure, and having obtained an adjournment, King went to Lord Byng and asked him to dissolve Parliament. Byng, in Diefenbaker’s words “rightly and properly refused King’s request” for:
Never before in Canadian or in the whole of British parliamentary history had such a request been granted to a Prime Minister facing the censure of the House of Commons. (Ibid. p. 147)
Byng instead, asked Arthur Meighen, leader of the Conservative Party – which had won the largest number of seats in the preceding years election – to form a government. It was entirely within his rights and prerogatives as representative of the Crown to do so. As it so happened, Meighen’s government lost a confidence vote shortly after being formed and an election was called anyway. During that election, King lied through his teeth about the whole affair. Here is how Diefenbaker described it:
Mackenzie King then produced one of the most transparent falsehoods of any man in any generation of our country. He claimed that Canada was in the midst of a constitutional crisis, that the Governor General, Lord Byng, had acted on instructions from Downing Street in inviting Meighen to form a government, and that he, MacKenzie King, would save the common people of our nation from colonial peril. King’s “challenge of imperialism” was so phoney it made Barnum look like an amateur. There was no substance in it, either in law or in logic. But it attracted the public imagination, or at least King’s performance did. (Ibid., pp.147-148)
What the last sentence means is that King’s Liberals won the election. This doesn’t speak well of the electorate at the time that they would buy King’s spurious charge of interference from London when the Prime Minister had clearly asked for a dissolution of Parliament for entirely self-serving reasons, showing utter contempt for the legislative body that was about to censure his government for corruption. This charge was all the more spurious given that in King’s letter to Lord Byng, resigning his premiership he reminded the viceroy that:
in our recent conversations relative to dissolution I have on each occasion suggested to Your Excellency, as I have again urged this morning, that having regard to the possible very serious consequences of a refusal of the advice of your First Minister to dissolve parliament you should, before definitely deciding on this step, cable the Secretary of State for the Dominions asking the British Government, from whom you have come to Canada under instructions, what, in the opinion of the Secretary of State for the Dominions, your course should be in the event of the Prime Minister presenting you with an Order-in-Council having reference to dissolution. (William Lyon Mackenzie King to Lord Byng, Governor General of Canada, June 28, 1926)
Lord Byng, far from acting under orders from Downing Street, had rejected King’s advice that he consult with London, before doing his constitutional duty of refusing to dissolve a parliament just so the Prime Minister could avoid a vote of censure.
Far from being a champion of Canadian sovereignty against imperial interference in Canada’s domestic affairs, King was a sleazy politician, desperate to cling to power and avoid the censure his government richly deserved. While the Whig interpretation of this event is taught in history classes around the country, the Tory interpretation of this event, as explained by John Farthing in his posthumously published Freedom Wears a Crown is more in keeping with the facts. According to Farthing, the King-Bing-Thing, damaged the traditional constitution of parliamentary monarchy that is the foundation for our country’s form of democracy and tradition of personal liberty. King, in insisting that Byng should have granted his dissolution request, showed contempt both for the constitution role of the King, whom Byng represented, and of the Parliament that wanted to censure him. He did not want his government to be accountable either to the Crown or to the elected assembly. Here is how Farthing put the matter:
If a Prime Minister either receives or is threatened with adverse vote in Parliament has he the right to demand of the King the immediate dissolution of the Parliament? Must the Sovereign or the Governor General accede to any and every such request on the part of a Prime Minister? If so, then it follows by the same logic that Parliament itself also becomes a puppet of the same Prime Minister. (John Farthing, Freedom Wears a Crown, p. 67.)
If the King or his viceroy must grant a dissolution whenever the Prime Minister asks for one and for whatever reason, even if it is to prevent the Prime Minister from being held accountable to Parliament, then the Prime Minister and his cabinet have usurped the rightful, constitutional powers of both the King and Parliament. Ever since Stephen Harper became Prime Minister of Canada the Liberals and NDP have accused him of showing contempt for Parliament and running the government as if he and his cabinet were accountable to nobody. If this is the case, he is following the precedent of Liberal Prime Ministers going back until Mackenzie King in the 1920s.
The solution to the problem is not one either the Grits or the NDP are likely to accept, but it was identified by John Farthing years ago, who wrote:
I suggest that only when its true and rightful priorities are restored to the Canadian Constitution – when the King is recognized as of prior significance even to the Prime Minister – will the Cabinet take its true place in our national government and fulfil its democratic function. (Ibid. p. 68).
John Farthing, Judith Robinson ed., Freedom Wears a Crown, Toronto, Kingswood House, 1957.
John G. Diefenbaker, One Canada: Memoirs of the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker, Volume One: The Crusading Years 18695 –1956, Toronto, Macmillan of Canada, 1975.
Letter from William Lyon Mackenzie King to Governor General Byng, 28 June 1926 found here:
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca