So far, we have looked at two Liberal leaders who never became prime minister. Today, we reach our first Conservative Leader of the Opposition who never became prime minister, and it comes only a few years after our last individual, Daniel Duncan McKenzie. This time, we are talking about Hugh Guthrie, the man who served between two Conservative Prime Ministers, Arthur Meighen and R.B. Bennett. Although, he didn’t start out as a Conservative, but we will get to that.
Born in Guelph, Ontario on Aug. 13, 1866, his father was Donald Guthrie, a prominent politician himself. Donald had served in the House of Commons as a Liberal from 1876 to 1882, and then in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario from 1886 to 1894. Into this political family, with a father who also had a background in law, Hugh would be born. Like his father, he would pursue becoming a lawyer, studying at Osgoode Hall and being named to the King’s Counsel in 1902. During his time with the Guelph Collegiate Institute, which he attended prior to Osgoode Hall, he had several well-known classmates, the most famous of which was John McCrae, author of In Flanders Fields.
As a young man, he would often work on political campaigns and in western Ontario he gained the name “Boy Orator”
Public school inspector James Davison would say of Guthrie at that time, when he gave his first public appearance at 17 to speak from a Liberal Party platform, quote:
“There is nothing to show then, that in the militant liberalism of the youth there smoldered the Tory flame of today, but I vote for Hughie, just the same, on great principles.”
On Oct. 27, 1898, the Windsor Star wrote about Premier Arthur Hardy attending an event in Whitby, Ontario. At the event, he was introduced by Hugh Guthrie, which the newspaper described as such, quote:
Less than six months later, Guthrie would be nominated by the Liberal Party to run for the House of Commons.
On Dec. 20, 1899, the Windsor Star reported that he was beginning his campaign for election with an event at the Opera House in South Wellington. It reported, quote:
“There was a very good attendance, considering that politics have not waxed anything like warm yet. In the audience were a large number of ladies, who listened with interest, to the speakers, until the close of the meeting at half past 10.
In 1900, he would be elected to the same riding his father held, also as a Liberal. Laurier liked Guthrie and often called him Hughie. During his first term in the House of Commons, Guthrie was already being marked for promotion due to his keen intellect, imposing appearance due to being taller than most people of the time, and his polite manners.
In 1911, Guthrie had made enough of a name for himself that he was rising up the ranks of the party and it was known that Sir Wilfrid Laurier was going to appoint him as the Minister of Justice after the federal election. Unfortunately for Guthrie, the Conservatives came to power and the chances for Guthrie to serve in cabinet vanished.
In 1914, Maclean’s described Guthrie as such, quote:
“He is built for the job, quiet, observant, strong. There is nothing theatrical about him. He does not pose. He is devoid of affection. He is no demagogue, and he doesn’t practice the arts of popularity. He will not be stampeded. He studies a situation before he deals with it and even the enthusiasm of the boys will not carry him along until he is satisfied to go.”
After stating that he was what the party needed as it dealt with being in opposition, the article would state, quote:
“His mind is open to fresh impressions. He listens to all, examines all and advocates what seem to him the most practical improvements. And when he goes forth to war, it is like Thor of the Thunder Hammer sallying forth from Asgard to do battle with the mud giants. His enemy is not the government, it is their administration. His force is not hurled against men, but against things. His battle is not with performers but with performance. When Hugh Guthrie fights, he fights a cause.”
Guthrie would sit in the caucus of Sir Wilfrid Laurier for 17 years but when the Conscription Crisis of 1917 erupted, and the Liberal Party was split between those who supported it and those who did not, Guthrie chose to cross the floor and join the Unionist government of Sir Robert Borden.
Guthrie would state in Toronto on July 24, 1917, quote:
“I certainly do not agree with the stand taken by the convention of Liberal candidates and members. I opposed the position that was taken at that meeting and have not changed the position I took in the house when I spoke on the conscription bill.”
Guthrie felt that there were many young men in cities and towns who would never be reached except by a conscription measure, and he urged leaders to try again for a coalition government that would support conscription.
As a prominent Liberal who had crossed the floor, he was rewarded with the post of Solicitor General in the Unionist Party. The decision to cross the floor could have come about because Guthrie spent over a decade as a back bencher in the party, never getting a cabinet post. By crossing the floor, he likely hurt his chances at becoming prime minister. In 1914, he had been considered to be the natural successor to Laurier, who would pass away in 1919.
Of course, Guthrie was also highly patriotic, and he supported all the government measures, he made recruiting speeches and he did everything within his power to get the country behind the war effort. He was the first Liberal in Parliament to break with the party over conscription. He would stand in Parliament and make a speech calling for a coalition and conscription. As a prominent member of the Liberals to break with the party, he was quickly followed by others who supported conscription but worried about breaking from Laurier.
To say he crossed the floor may be a bit misleading through, as many members of the Liberals joined the Unionist Party, which was a coalition of the Conservatives and Liberals who supported conscription. It is not like today where one would cross the floor and be part of the rival party.
Many in his riding were unhappy about his choice to cross the floor. At a meeting in Guelph on Sept. 29, 1917, he was highly criticized by attendees. He would tell the attendees in his speech that he had done what he believed was his duty and would stand by his convictions whether the Liberal Association of South Wellington supported him or not. He would say quote:
As such, when the First World War ended, most of those who had joined the Unionist Party from the Liberals went back to the Liberal Party or joined the new Progressive Party. Guthrie chose to remain with the Conservatives, and he would be appointed as the Minister of Militia and Defence until the Conservatives were pushed to the Opposition in the 1921 election. Guthrie, having switched to the Conservatives, barely won his riding. He would take the riding with 36.6 per cent of the vote, only 125 votes more than his opponent. This was the only time that Guthrie would ever have less than 51 per cent of the vote in his riding.
When Arthur Meighen formed a government in 1926, Guthrie was appointed as the Minister of Justice and Minister of National Defence. The Meighen government, as we saw in my episode on him, did not last long and quickly fell later that year. Meighen lost his seat in that election and Guthrie found himself as the new interim leader of the Conservative Party and the Leader of the Opposition.
In the 1927 leadership convention, Guthrie attempted to remain on as leader of the party. At the time he was believed to be the front runner. This was the first official Conservative Leadership convention in the party’s history, and the only real competition to Guthrie was R.B. Bennett, who had risen in prominence over the past few years.
Guthrie may have been the front runner but then he said something that would destroy his chances. He said, quote:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I welcome this, the greatest Liberal convention in all history.”
Future prime minister John Diefenbaker was at that convention, and he would write in his memoirs that Guthrie hurt his chances of winning when he accidently had the slip of the tongue.
Guthrie would go on to state, quote:
Unfortunately for Guthrie, Bennett proved to be strong competition, and his slip of the tongue hurt his chances. Bennett took the leadership on the second ballot with 50.2 per cent, while Guthrie finished second with 20.6 per cent. The only political election that Guthrie ever lost was the leadership convention, arguably his most important election.
While he was not leader, he remained in the party and in 1930, R.B. Bennett cruised to victory and Guthrie found himself in the high-profile post of Minister of Justice and Attorney General. Guthrie was actually quite similar to Bennett. He did not play golf, never went fishing, read light novels and the only sport he would take part in was bridge. One thing he did love was collecting antiques, which included old pictures and furniture, old China and more.
In 1930, Guthrie would attend the Imperial Conference in London and in 1931, he would lead the Canadian delegation at the League of Nations.
As the Minister of Justice, he would be highly involved in many high-profile incidences for the government. He would openly clash with Agnes Macphail, who sat in the opposition, and was demanding an inquiry into the inhumane conditions in Canadian prisons. He would also introduce legislation to make it illegal to carry a concealed weapon without authorization.
Guthrie and his department would also crack down on what they saw as a threat of Communism during the first years of the Great Depression. Due to this, the Communist Party of Canada would be persecuted heavily and its leader, Tim Buck, would be incarcerated under the charge of sedition.
While incarcerated, Tim Buck would be shot at by soldiers in what was stated to be an assassination attempt while he was inside his cell during a prison riot.
After extensive news coverage, Guthrie had to admit that the attack was deliberate, but that the intent was only to frighten him.
In July of 1934, Guthrie would state in the House of Commons, quote:
“The purpose was not to injure him but only to frighten him and as I said the other day, dissuade him from making further speeches.”
He would continue, quote:
“The situation was serious, and Buck was one who had been encouraging the disorder. He was in his cell making speeches to the prisoners and encouraging the disorders. I suppose it was to frighten or cow him that guards fired into the ceiling of his cell. There can be no doubt of this. If anyone had wanted to shoot Tim Buck it would have been done. The fact that 11 shots were fired, and he was not hit shows they were not trying to hit him.”
Witness testimony would show that Buck had been sitting quietly in his cell during the riot. The public outcry was so intense over this that Buck was released.
In 1935, unemployed men in British Columbia deserted their relief camps with the intention of going to Ottawa on freight trains to pressure the government to improve pay and conditions at the relief camps. Bennett and his government did not see this as a group of unemployed men looking to make things better. He and his government, including Guthrie, saw this as an insurrection and they acted as such.
Guthrie would speak in the House of Commons, stating that the protesters, quote:
“were a distinct menace to the peace, order and good government of Canada.”
Once the protesters reached Regina Guthrie had the Trek halted, and the RCMP would use tear gas and guns to break up the Trek when the men reached Regina. Exits out of the city were blocked and on July 1, 1935, during a peaceful rally, police moved to arrest protesters, resulting in dozens of injuries and one death.
Guthrie would state in the House of Commons that the RCMP did not fire any shots, which was not true, and that the crowd were agitated and armed with sticks and rocks had attacked the Regina city police and that the strikers had fired shots at the police and the city police returned fire.
Guthrie would also deny in the House of Commons that there had been an order put in place to prohibit any gifts of money, clothing or food to the Regina relief camp strikers.
I did an episode on the On To Ottawa Trek, find it on my website.
With so much of the public against him, Guthrie chose not to run in 1935. This was probably a good idea as the Liberals and William Lyon Mackenzie King roared back to victory.
He would then take on the position as the Chief Commissioner of the Board of Transport Commissioners. He would journey to Montreal in November of 1939 to preside over a hearing by the Board of Transport Commissioners when he started to feel ill, and he would return home. He would eventually be taken to the hospital, but little could be done for him.
Guthrie would die at the age of 73 on Nov. 3, 1939.
Sir Thomas White, Finance Minister during the First World War, would state, quote:
R.B. Bennett would say of his friend, quote:
“He is a most distinguished parliamentarian. A wise and capable counsellor and an able administrator. He has served Canada through 39 sessions of Parliament and is by training and temperament eminently qualified for his work. He has a great capacity for friendship.”
Arthur Meighen would state quote:
“His capacity both as a parliamentarian and administrator was greater than the public in general estimated. He handled all tasks with ease and dispatch. I remember particularly his speech in the Commons in 1917 calling for the formation of a union government. There has been no finer speech delivered in that House.”
Information comes from CPAC, Wellington Advertiser, Wikipedia, Macleans, Windsor Star, Vancouver Daily World, The Vancouver Sun, the Ottawa Citizen,