H.H. Stevens, the Man Who Would be Prime Minister

Posted by Daniel on Jul 21, 2010 - 3 comments

One of the more interesting political books of the year is a new biography of the much-maligned Tory fat-cat and former prime minister, R.B. Bennett. Titled, rather absurdly in my opinion, Bennett: The Rebel who Challenged and Changed a Nation (I'm sorry but a wealthy corporate lawyer and Conservative Party stalwart cannot, by any definition of the word, be called a "rebel", not in my dictionary) and written by Ontario teacher and writer John Boyko, the book attempts to rehabilitate Bennett's reputation as one of the most hated men ever to hold Canada's top job.

Whether Boyko succeeds at his revisionist project I will leave up to each reader to decide for him or herself. But I was interested to be reminded of the contentious career of one of BC's more successful federal politicos, H. H. (Harry) Stevens (that's him above).

Stevens, who was born in England in 1878, settled in Vancouver twenty-four years later. He began his political career as an alderman but in 1911 won election to Parliament as a Conservative member from the city. During the 1920s he was a cabinet minister in two of Arthur Meighen's governments, then became minister of trade and commerce when Bennett led the Tories to power in 1930. Which is when things got interesting.

If the Dirty Thirties turned Bennett into something of a New Dealer, they turned Stevens into a caped crusader for the beleaguered Canadian householder. Stevens decided that large corporations were gouging consumers by engaging in unfair pricing practices, not to mention exploiting workers in manufacturing sweatshops.

Early in 1934 in a speech in Toronto Stevens laid out his case, particularly against the large department stores, and leapt onto the front pages of the nation's newspapers. Bennett was not pleased that government policy was being made without his consent and Stevens offered to resign from the cabinet. Instead, the prime minister appointed him to chair a parliamentary committee to look into the issue.

The Stevens Committee went to bat for Mr and Mrs Average Guy. The public loved his skewering of Big Business, even as members of the Tory Party old guard were furious and wanted his head on a platter. Bennett didn't know what to do, finally siding with the popular Stevens and naming him to chair a royal commission into "Price Spreads and Mass Buying".

It didn't take long for Stevens to get himself into hot water again over his accusations of price-fixing, etc. Tory allies in the business community were incensed and Bennett demanded an apology from his minister. Instead, Stevens resigned. The feud was turning the party into a three-ring circus and adding to its already plummeting standing with the electorate.

Stevens emerged from the fray with popularity intact. It was one of the few times that a politician from BC held centre stage in the national political theatre. Indeed, it looked like he would probably succeed Bennett as party leader. But the old leader didn't leave. "I'll die in harness rather than quit now," he growled. So in the summer of 1935 it was Stevens who quit, leaving the Conservatives to found his own Reconstruction Party.

In the 1935 election the Reconstructionists won ten percent of the vote but only one seat in Parliament, Stevens's. They had contributed to a Tory rout, though; Bennett's party was reduced from 134 to just 39 seats. and 30 percent of the popular vote. It is possible to argue that even though Mackenzie King and his Liberals emerged the winner in the election, it was Harry Stevens who brought down the government, in the sense that his popularity had so weakened the Conservatives that they were set up for a fall. According to Boyko, this is certainly what Bennett thought.

And what if Bennett had retired and Stevens had taken over as Conservative leader prior to the election? Would Canada have had its first prime minister from BC? As Boyko says, it is one of the great "what ifs" of Canadian political history.

Having helped to destroy the Conservatives, Stevens rejoined the party in 1939 but his later career was undistinguished and he left politics to tend to his private business affairs in Vancouver. He died in 1973.