British Policy and Newfoundland, 1942-1946
The British government began to think about Newfoundland 's
future in 1942. The Commission of Government would have to be
terminated when the war ended, but what should replace it?
||Commission of Government, 1948.
From Joseph R. Smallwood,"The Story of Confederation," The Book of
Newfoundland, volume III (St. John's, Newfoundland: Newfoundland Book Publishers,
with more information (67 kb)
British officials, like their Canadian counterparts, thought Newfoundland
should join Canada. But this could only be done by consent. So what
did Newfoundlanders want?
The Dominions Secretary, Clement Attlee, visited Newfoundland in 1942,
and he was followed the next year by a "goodwill mission" of three British
members of parliament. These soundings showed that while very few people
seemed to support confederation, there was widespread unease about an
immediate and unconditional return to responsible government status.
|Newfoundland House of Assembly, 1933.
Members of the last Newfoundland House of Assembly.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives (J.R. Smallwood Collection 075,
Photo 5.05.216), Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.
with more information (25 kb)
That there had been no democratic government since 1934 was of particular
concern to Attlee, who thought that a process of political education had to
take place before Newfoundlanders decided on their future. Another factor
worried the British. They were concerned that once the wartime boom ended the
Newfoundland economic situation could rapidly deteriorate. If the colony was
independent, might it collapse again, as it had in the early 1930s? Would
Britain once again be called upon to help out?
Eventually, the Dominions Office in London made two linked decisions, based
on the assumption that confederation was extremely unlikely. The first met
Attlee's concerns. There would not be an immediate return to responsible
government at the end of the war. Instead, an elected national convention
would be set up, which would allow Newfoundlanders to consider their situation
and their future. This would be followed by a referendum. To meet the fear of a
future collapse, a reconstruction plan would be developed. This would give the
country what was described as "the fairest possible start for the future."
The problem with this policy was the expense of the reconstruction plan,
estimated at $100 million. Britain could not afford to allocate so many
scarce dollars to Newfoundland, whose government, though solvent, did not
have large reserves. Perhaps Canada could help? Canada was asked. But
Anglo-Canadian talks in Ottawa during the summer of 1946 made it clear
that Canada was not interested. However, Canadian officials did offer to
cooperate with the British in trying to bring about confederation instead
of a return to responsible government.
By the fall of 1946 the reconstruction plan was dead, and, informally,
Britain and Canada had agreed to encourage Newfoundland to join confederation.
It was a gamble, and much would depend on the National Convention, whose
debates were about to start.
©1997, J.K. Hiller
Updated January, 2003.