Ralph Champneys Williams was a career British public servant who came to Newfoundland as the Governor at the tail end of one of the greatest periods of political turmoil in the country’s history.
Sir Robert Bond went to the polls in the 1908 at the head of the Liberal to face his rival Sir Edward Morris, the Leader of the Opposition and head of a coalition of Conservatives and some others under the name of The People’s Party.
The result was a tied election. Unable to form an administration that could survive the election of a speaker. Bond went to the Governor to advise him to issue a writ for a new election. The Governor – Sir Williams MacGregor – refused to issue the writ and instead called on Morris to form an administration. He was in the same position, of course, and, when the House could not elect a Speaker, MacGregor dissolved the House on Morris’ advice. Morris went to the polls as Prime Minister and won a majority.
Williams arrived in Newfoundland in the wake of two years of political upheaval. He found himself in a place that was likely very strange to him.
The Governor was the official conduit through which the government in Newfoundland dealt with the government in the United Kingdom. That part wasn’t odd for Williams. One of his first duties, in October 1909, was to forward to the Colonial Office a copy of an official Newfoundland government public on the denominational breakdown of positions in the Newfoundland public service. In the cover letter, we can find Williams’ observation on the role sectarianism play in local public life. The civil service from a denominational perspective itself and the fact the government had produced the document showed, in Williams’ words “how jealously the several denominations would appear to regard the allocation of posts.”
In February the following year, Williams sent a secret and confidential letter to the Colonial Office containing his assessment of local politics. ‘It is as a rule easy for the Governor of Newfoundland to hold himself free from party politics because so far as I have been able to see, there are no definite political principles upon which the parties differ.” Williams recounted two separate conversations to illustrate the point. The Prime Minister headed the Conservative Party in the country, but Morris had told Williams that he was a supporter of the Liberal Party in Britain. The Liberal leader Robert Bond told Williams that he supported the British Conservative Party.
Politics in Newfoundland was a struggle between the ins and the outs, wrote Williams, with the “spoils to the victor.” The spoils included the posts in what Williams considered the poorly paid and understaffed civil service. None was too small to change after an election to make room for friends of the winning party. The result of this attitude, especially after the divisive election, was that “much of the country [had been] given away” by Morris.
Williams spoke differently of Bond and Morris in his memoir, How I became a governor. There the two prime ministers were “leaders of unusual ability.” Bond lived mostly outside of St. John’s during his time in office, Williams noted. Bond was “not only the dominant personality, but also almost the entire personality of his Cabinet and I have marvelled at the sheep-like obedience of his colleagues and supporters.”
Those in Britain popularly imagined that “Ministers of the Crown in Newfoundland to be corrupt to the core,” wrote Williams but he believed that this did not apply to the politicians he knew. They may not have always dispensed patronage as wisely as they might, and certainly the spoils went to the victor but this was a feature of every self-governing colony, according to Williams
The fault, Williams felt, lay with the voters themselves. “Electors give not thought to general principles of policy of which they know nothing, and which they, for the most part, care nothing. For them, it is simply a case of the ‘ins’ and the ‘outs’. Broadly speaking, every election in every constituency turns on” government spending on all sorts of local projects. Money for roads repairs are simply handed out to each district with the money handed out for work that did not appear to be done at all. The voter, Williams claimed, regarded his vote as an asset and would cast about to get the best return on his investment of it.
That was the view of politics in Newfoundland a little over a century ago. Sometimes it seems very little has changed.