The Last Hundred Years
THE FATE OF PARLIAMENTARY GOVERNMENT
By RT. HON. ARTHUR MEIGHEN, Leader of Opposition in Dominion of Canada
Delivered on "The Hundredth Anniversary" of St. Mary's, Ontario, September 13, 1942
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 174-176.
IT is an honour to be invited and a happiness to come back to resume the role of fellow-townsman. This role, I can assure you, was long ago much enjoyed, and this afternoon fond memory brings around one the light of those earlier days. It was just fifty years ago, exactly half way through your century of life, that I left a neighbouring farm and the halls of education here to commence studies in Toronto. It is ninety-nine years, though, since my grandfather, a teacher of Eastern. Ontario, moved out to this town and established himself in a stone schoolhouse not far from the old station, a schoolhouse which I think he built. It is written, and written in the Journal-Argus, so no doubt correctly, that, afterwards, having settled in the Anderson district of Blanshard, he obtained the first land patent taken out in that township. The family has since reached moderate numbers and is scattered far, but we look back to St. Mary's as our home.
A century is but a moment of history. In these times, however, such moments are vibrant with great events. Mankind has travelled a lot and witnessed much in the pasthundred years. Some think it has learned but little. Surely such a discouraging conclusion cannot be true.
In 1842 Canada was emerging from the animosities of an unfortunate Rebellion, and was struggling with problems very similar to those which beset us still. In Europe the nations were seething with social unrest—just the same thing ghat is all around us now. Poverty and want were rampant, far worse than we have ever known them on this Continent. Britain had just launched herself on a journey toward universal suffrage, and very many believed that along that path was social salvation. They fondly hoped that with everybody voting the day of their worries would be over. Prophets of a millennium of social security were almost as numerous and just as confident as they are in our own time. Hope springs eternal—but somehow or other troubles never stay long away.
In the same year, 1842, India was the seat of Britain's anxieties. There were wars on her frontiers just as there are now, but oh, how small was the sum of the perils faced by Melbourne and Peel to those which today flame beforethe eyes of Churchill! Then it was a matter mainly of tactics; now it is a strain and the very uttermost strain on the manpower and willpower of the British nation. Then it was a choice of the wisest diplomacy; now it is a choice of life or death.
It was in that year that Macaulay wrote his famous essay on "Frederick the Great," from which most of us have derived our impressions of that not very admirable man. One wonders what he would have written had he known that the creed of blood and iron pumped through German veins by that ruthless tyrant would harvest out since in the massacre of millions and the scourging of humankind for a century.
True enough, your hundred years of life have been only a moment, but how crowded that moment has been with wisdom for all who will try to learn. It has been crowded with lessons and it has been charged and supercharged with interest. The years have been prolific with inventions, with discoveries, with events, which to the end of time will grip the human mind.
In that period man has entered the majestic arsenal of Nature and there has captured and brought forth for the service of his fellows her mighty forces—forces which only Nature could call into being and which for long ages had been hidden and unknown. In that period we have seen those mighty forces set to work with high efficiency in tremendous mechanisms. We have seen these mechanisms naturally and necessarily falling into place in great units of production which absorb the savings of thousands. And we have watched those great units of production adjust themselves slowly and cumbrously into an economy of free enterprise—the same economy of free enterprise to which they owe their birth and under which alone a free people can survive. In the midst of this adjustment, with its inevitable and very serious imperfections, we find ourselves today. But the ills that flow from those imperfections we can take care of and steadily remove if only we keep our feet on the ground and our common sense intact.
In this same century the restless, buoyant human intellect has peered into the mysteries of that astounding spectacle we call the world. It has penetrated far and toiled with amazing energy and patience. It has brought back to us tales of wonders bewildering. It has told us of a universe of staggering immensity and incredible antiquity, beyond the powers of human language to portray or human imagination to conceive. No map will ever disclose to us even a segment of the Heavens, because any map upon which a speck the size of this earth could be seen with the naked eye would have to be as large as Europe. And yet, notwithstanding myriads of constellations, followed by myriads more and multiplied by myriads again, stretching wherever we look into endless space, we are told that only one, this little grain of dust we call the earth, is at all likely to be the home of man or of any form of life as we understand life to be—indeed, that before such life could exist on any other star, not only must a miracle have taken place but two miracles must have happened together. The all but indomitable intellect has reached out and examined the starry occupants of Heaven and confidently informs us of the temperature of far-distant planets and even of their chemical components—all this of planets so far away that light travelling from them at the rate of one hundred and eighty-six thousand miles per second takes hundreds of years to reach us.
The scientific mind returns from its journey through space to bend its light on the incomprehensible minuteness of the atom. It holds that atom before us and tells us its character and conduct, though the thing it holds is so small as to be as far beyond our capacity to see as the Milky Way is beyond our capacity to reach.
Then, within the compass of these two extremes, which for want of better terms I call the infinitely large and the infinitely small, there has been revealed to us the biography of life in this our earthly home. And what a biography it is!—its humble beginnings, its long struggle, its endless complexities, its abounding diversities, its pitiful frailties its cruel strength. Over the ages we are carried in a recital of throbbing interest documented by evidence found in the records of onward-marching time, and in the end we are left in amazed wonderment by it all and more than anything else by the perfect conformity throughout the universe of means to ends, a conformity which only Nature can achieve.
When one lifts his head from the contemplation of these things, he feels himself prostrate before the unimaginable greatness of it all and the all-pervading Providence presiding within, without and around.
The more we learn the more there is left to learn. The vista of the unseen at once intrigues and appalls. Macneile Dixon, whose book, "The Human Situation," is one of the great productions of this century, reports to us, after long biological study, that it is just as impossible for a man to understand a moth as for a moth to understand a man. "Before the mystery of memory"—for memory seems to be the deepest of enigmas—"before the mystery of memory," he says, "all the sciences flee in despair." Yes, although what we now know is much and precious, and we salute men of science for the conquests they have won and the light they have shed, the whole seems to reveal more than anything else the vastness of the great unknown—the great unknown whose boundaries recede with every advance of knowledge, and still again recede. Our learning, like our experience, is an arch where through "gleams the untravelled world whose margin fades forever and forever as we move."
During this period, far from your peaceful town but within sight of every observant mind, tremendous events have taken place. In the middle of the nineteenth century, when you were just started on your journey, you saw the rise of democratic institutions in many lands—that is, of government by the people through Parliaments freely elected. In Britain, in the United States, in France, and in the expanding British Dominions, you saw these institutions grow into every appearance of maturity and permanence. Throughout nearly all of Europe, through some of Africa, and through much of South America they took form as the years passed, and in varying degrees acquired substance as well.
We all remember how sanguine we were as we passed into the twentieth century that mankind at long last was coming into its own. But no such millennium was near. The people of a nation can make success of government by Parliament only if education is general and the level of honesty is high. I mean honesty both of Parliament and of people, honesty of character and of thinking. Without these the path downward is a gadarene slope. Prejudice takes the place of reason. The demagogue finds himself with the handiest weapons, and easily reaches power. It is the obligation of every citizen to read and ponder the last quarter century of French history. What lessons it has for us! We can think, as we look back, of nation after nation whose Parliament degenerated and passed away or became only a shell. Others could not sustain the shattering impact of war, and at a time at which in earlier days we had hoped to see the flowering of free institutions over civilized humanity, we witnessed instead their melancholy disappearance and the resurgence of selfish despotism. Even before the outbreak of this worst of wars, one could travel from the Atlantic seaboard in Europe all the way East to the shores of the Pacific in the Orient and never set foot in a country where democratic institutions had survived. They were just houses built on sand.
Parliamentary Government! Freedom! In the very hour in which you are gathered here to start your second century, what remains of this thing, this finest product of human aspiration and human toil, this hope, this last hope for the emancipation of mankind, is under the test of war. In Britain, its ancient home, in Britain, the Mother of Freedom, in the British Domininions, in the United States—for these are the only strongholds left—it is going through a furnace of fire. Its fate hangs on the issue that at this moment wavers in the balance, and with it your fate and my fate and our children's fate. If the light that lit the century goes out, there is nothing left for us.
This is the hour to be true to ourselves, true to our history and our lineage, true to our friends and our Allies. Remember, we are in the fourth year and we have not yet started to win. We in Canada have to fight this war as if to win or lose depended on ourselves. Once you are in a fight like this, there is no other way to behave. The more our Allies do, the more we must do. Look at the United States: There is an example of a giant roused. What they did in the last war was not a circumstance to what they are doing now. Their huge industrial machine is rolling swiftly to the top of its might, and what is far more significant, within three, four or five months of the day they threw the gauntlet down, their guns, their tanks, their ships, their men were fighting in every quarter of the globe—no privileges, no preferences, no reservations. The nation was in it for its life and all men were the servants of the State.
And what of Britain! What of Britain! When that great and ancient country, in the crash of 1940, in the blackest hour that ever enveloped this planet—when Britain shook her lone fist in the face of Germany, shook her lone fist in the face of the master of Europe, she made herself again the standard-bearer of human liberty; she made herself the shining beacon of the world's hope.
I cannot give you any recital of Britain's part in this conflict, taken from British propaganda, from literature poured forth to impress her great effort on the world. I cannot do that because they send out no such literature. From a circular published by the American Government I find this:
"Britain's armies have fought ten campaigns and garrisoned strategic bases such as Iceland, Malta, Gibraltar, India and the Middle East. Britain's fighting forces have suffered 183,500 casualties, 71 per cent of all the Empire's dead and wounded. Britain's navy, with never less than 600 ships at sea, has sunk 5,520,000 tons of enemy merchant shipping, and convoyed 100,000 United Nation's ships with loss of only one half of one per cent of those convoys, Britain's air force fought and won the greatest air battle in history; its coastal command has flown more than 50,000,000 miles."
That old land has four and a half million men in her armed forces. She has four times as many serving out of Britain as have her four Dominions together serving outside
their countries. She has five and a half millions more in vital war work, and of these, one million are women. Women are being taken from their homes and put into essential war work at the rate of twelve thousand per week, and three-quarters of those women are married. The age of conscription for her men runs from eighteen and a half years to fifty-one. She has poured out the great bulk of her production to her allies, mainly to Russia, and to battle areas overseas. Her fighter planes and her bombers are as yet unmatched.
I lose patience with people who talk about Britain emerging wrecked and bloodless from this war and sitting powerless in the councils of peace, while others of the United Nations will sit there supreme. It is too soon to talk about the councils of peace, but Britain has fought wars before. Stripped she will be of her wealth, drained she will be of her blood, but her abounding spirit will have soared to heights untouched in other centuries. The leader in victory will be the leader of the rescued nations.
The century you have been through thrilled with interest from its opening year to this Anniversary Day. It was warmed and illuminated by the triumphs of peace. It was scourged by the brutalities and ennobled by the sacrifices of war. The cycle you enter now? . . . its key hangs by a sword. But, come what will, come the best, the aftermath will be heavy. The air is full of talk of new eras and new orders. There is no man fit to live who does not long for better things for the masses of mankind, and there is no man worth very much who would not toil his utmost to bring better things about. But better things only come by clear thinking and hard work—not by dreams, demonstrations and resolutions. The road upward has always been steep and thorny; it has never been a primrose path and not likely ever will be. Keep in mind, though, this eternal truth:—Difficulties do not crush men, they make men. All these things we are ready to face and we will face them cheerfully just as soon as we have made certain that this nation is going to live. Make sure of that and then there is solid ground for hope that sunshine serene and abundant will one day light the coming century. It may indeed, as decade follows decade, provide for our children a great deal more of warmth and happiness than we ourselves have seen. If the Allied Nations can not only succeed in striking down the wicked authors of this crime, but can accomplish man's greatest task and make a conquest of war itself, closing it like a tamed beast within the encircled nations, then the future will in very truth be better than the past. Let us not, however, strain to pierce the veil of tomorrow. Our day's work is here, and now.
I must close. Permit me to express what you all feel, sincere sympathy for those among you whose families already have suffered. The scythe of time swings swiftly in these days. Week by week, hour by hour, we must fortify ourselves with new resolve and new courage. We are on the threshold of tremendous events. The stoutest hearts, the clearest minds, the tireless toilers—to them will go the victory.