Monday, 27 April 2015


“Newfoundland’s Last Prime Minister: Frederick Alderice and the Death of a Nation” authored by former journalist, Doug Letto, chronicles the final stages of economic crises, which ultimately led to the loss of responsible government in Newfoundland.

The book places more than just Alderdice under a spotlight; it illuminates the attitudes that prevailed among the political and business elites of the day, whose views mirrored Alderdice’s own. 

An impoverished society is cut off by its bankers, and unable to pay the semi-annual interest due on the public debt. Alderdice proposes a partial default, an idea rebuked by Britain which offers the timid and deferential Prime Minister a Hobson’s choice: limited financial help but only if the Government agrees to vote itself out of existence.

A man in awe of the trappings of power, but lacking the ability to wield it, Alderdice is worn down within less than two years of his Party’s rout of Sir Richard Squires’ highly unpopular Administration. Overwhelmed by his circumstance, or just out of his league, Alderdice is incapable of attempting a better bargain with Britain just as he is untroubled that the loss of a Nation’s sovereignty is at stake. Of the Amulree Report, he tells the Legislature: “I am afraid there is nothing for us but take it or leave it…the terms that have been offered are so very generous that it seems to me it would be ungracious to ask if they could be improved upon”.

Alderdice could not even exhibit the defiance of one as far removed from the crisis as Acting British Opposition Labour Leader Clement Atlee, who rebuked British Prime Minister Chamberlain’s boast “no Empire Government…has ever yet defaulted”. Atlee reminded the PM: “the best countries default nowadays…we ourselves are not paying the United States of America.”

But Alderdice had capitulated early; a condition above which he had neither the attitude nor seemingly, the aptitude, to rise. Speaking to the Legislature in advance of the vote to accept the Amulree Report, the pedestrian Alderdice offers not a glimpse, but an entire window on a view of democracy all too commonly shared by his political and business friends: “What good does this vote do for us? Has it not degenerated the great bulk of our people?” Alderdice adds: (responsible government) is only a theoretical boom not what it is cracked up to be”.

Letto is careful not to draw too many conclusions. In this respect, his work exhibits the journalistic quality of a writer disciplined to objectivity.  Instead, he forces the reader to wonder the origins of such moral decay: how could a Newfoundland society that had punched above its weight in the Great War, sending more money and soldiers than it could reasonably afford, now so flagrantly exhibit the very anti-democratic ideas against which it fought? 

Were those attitudes the result entirely of financial desperation and despair, or merely of uninspired and corrupt politics where the beneficiaries had nothing left to grab?

How was it possible that, at the very least, Alderdice might have secured the timing and conditions of responsible government’s reinstatement? 

But Letto is a political scientist assuming the role of historian. All disciplines have their limitations.  Likely, he is well aware this is a question as much in need of sociologists and social psychologists, as any other. But, as is so  often the case, it is simple economics that lays bare the largest and the smallest societies, too.

There is no doubt Newfoundland is in a serious financial fix; one that was in development long before the exigencies of a world-wide depression were obvious. Alderdice is often portrayed a micro-manager scrambling for a new iron ore market for the Wabana Mine and another for our perennially low quality salt fish.

Unfortunately, Letto gives scant attention to how budgetary deficits had become an annually recurring theme. His focus is the period of Alderdice’s stewardship, though some greater attribution to Newfoundland’s disproportionate financial contribution to WW I and the deficit plagued Newfoundland Railway might have lent greater context to the evolution of the Country’s economic predicament.

But Letto does offer a profound indictment of the leadership of Prime Minister Walter Monroe and his role in the economic debacle: “the Monroe Government “borrowed $20 million from 1924 to 1928 and increased Newfoundland’s debt to $85 million. Even as he went to the markets and borrowed more money, Monroe enriched the upper classes by abolishing income taxes…and the profits tax on business…an amount that surpassed the new tariffs the government…placed on goods such as beef, flour, pork, and gasoline.”

This was the same Walter Monroe, now a Member of the Legislative Council (the Senate) who, in the debate on Amulree, advised: “Responsible Government was the ideal form of government” but not for Newfoundland since “for us it has been a very expensive luxury”.

Little wonder Letto might conclude: “The sting of Amulree’s Report was that self-government had been so manipulated by Newfoundland politicians for their own benefit that there was no value in preserving it. That conclusion was agreeable to the elites in St. John’s, including the government, businessmen, the newspapers, and the Church of England.”

The Telegram Editor asked: “Will we place first political institutions…or will we place Newfoundland’s interests first?” as if these two matters were distinguishable.

The Daily News also spoke to “the generousity of the offer” from Great Britain.

As might be expected, all Members of the St. John’s Board of Trade, but one, supported Amulree’s recommendations. E.J. Godden “thought the people ought to be consulted before giving up (their) liberty”.

How did the political and financial elites become possessed of the idea that democratic government was a mistake from its infancy, 78 years earlier?  

It may be unfair for this Blogger, a pablum-fed post-confederate, to be judgemental about the leadership and events of an earlier time, as thousands fought malnutrition and entire families were forced to live on the dole, at six cents a day. Still, Letto leaves little margin for any conclusion, other than that Newfoundlanders have no one to blame except a group who saw the abandonment of democracy as a solution aligned with their own self-interest.

Letto’s story contains the research of an academic tome except that his unmistakeable journalistic flair makes it a highly readable and important historical work.

We now have a better understanding of a time when Newfoundland was denied the intellectual, moral and political leadership that is every society’s wont. In some respects, it is less the story of a society under economic strain than of one so politically and intellectually immature it is capable only of the realization it must be fed.

Would the business, union, and other elites be any less eager, today, to trade what we have left of our sovereignty to save their own skins as oil revenues suffer in a new era of declining resource wealth, successive and unbridled budget deficits and cost overruns on a latter day Newfoundland Railway, in the guise of Muskrat Falls? 

Doug Letto’s “Last Prime Minister” should stir much needed reflection on that question and the risks of electing diminutive men and women to high office.

“The Last Prime Minister: Frederick Alderice and the Death of a Nation” is published by Boulder Publications.


  1. The comparison between the 20's and the period from 2006 to 2013 are erily similar. Massive increases in public spending, lowering of income taxes, and the increased dependence upon a single source of revenue. We are not where we were in 1932, but we should be ashamed of how the government of the last 15 years have spent silly. It was an opportunity to provide a lasting legacy of debt reduction, and long term sustainiblity. It was an opportunity squandered.

    This is a good review.

  2. "the risks of electing diminutive men and women to high office"
    This is not a real risk we need to worry about. Des would be distracting us like poor dimi-Davis has to, if he was progressive cucumber party leader. Ed Hollett would be slightly better at liberal Ballgames and someone quicker than him would wear the bow-ties and blog out his shortcomings. Why not put Tom Baird in the NDP leadership position and see how easy it is to play King Ludd then! Or, put Chris Bruce in the position and Poof!, he is no longer the taxable-earnings Robin Hood of Town. The augmentative 'super'-risk to fragile democracy is in fostering inadequate community response and accepting weak 'celebrity' journalism. Dr. 'Who Letto democracy die', should get in his TARDIS and and visit us in 2015. Don Dunphy's body is being used as a soapbox by Lynn Moore (crying for cop jobs) and Simon Bono (sulking for a suited boards), and others, to push for 'more work' and 'more oversight'. Letters-analysis indicates an idiopathic streak of political patronage, but not necessarily a sociopath's badness/coldness towards us, or the dead Dunphy? One solution not offered by the politically-motivated: We should add civilians to the force to cope with much of the work that does not require an expensive, trained armed officer, and provide a trust-fostering buddy system below budget. A big strong assertive person is not always the answer. Not even in the oil patch - see the life and times of Neil Young, lately. The Great Depression of the 1930s was a lark for millions of non-diminutive people in North America. In Newfoundland, where a democratic government was replaced by a British-controlled commission, the thousands of people living on free Costco samples still had their sense of sustaining hyperbole, living on a rock with no soil. As the situation worsened, a voice arose amongst the poor. Pierce Power, a shy leader of unemployed workers in St. John’s, led a poetry slam against Newfoundland’s business and political Elmo's, Bert's and Ernie's. He was so diminutive however, despite his strong lyrical expression, that his myth merged with that of the little people.