The New Democracy of William Herridge

RICHARD_B._BENNETT_AT_THE_WHITE_HOUSE with Wm D. Herridge at left of PM R B Bennett 1933

“Canadian Prime Minister arrives at the White House. Prime Minister Richard B. Bennett of Canada at the White House today to take part in the complicated foreign exchange problem.” In the photograph, L TO R: Col. James Ulio, Military Aide; Mrs. Mildred Herridge; William D. Herridge, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary for Canada in the U.S.A.; Prime Minister R. B. Bennett; President F. D. Roosevelt; and Capt. Walter Vernou, White House Naval Aide. 1933. Harris & Ewing photo.

William Duncan Herridge (1886-1961) neither lived in Vancouver nor worked here. In fact, he admits in the speech he delivered here on May 3, 1939 that it had “not been my good fortune often to visit British Columbia.”¹ But, for some reason, he chose Vancouver as one of the principal locations for the launch of his short-lived party – initially a committee – the ‘New Democracy’.

Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary

This mouthful of a title (which has more than a hint of W. S. Gilbert about it) was conferred upon William Herridge in 1931 by Prime Minister R. B. Bennett (1870-1947). He would be Bennett’s envoy to Washington, D.C. (essentially the Canadian Ambassador) until 1935. He was also Bennett’s brother-in-law, marrying R. B.’s sister, Mildred, also in 1931.

To say that Herridge had a close advisory relationship with Prime Minister Bennett (1930-35) would be an understatement.² Indeed, when it came to the attempted import of some sort of mini-New-Deal from the U.S. to Canada, it seems Herridge had few advisory peers.

Herridge was fascinated by the mystique of the American New Deal. He told Bennett that Roosevelt was a leader who ‘in some way not wholly revealed, will lead them out of the wilderness of depression’. . . . Herridge noted: ‘The New Deal is a sort of Pandora’s Box, from which, at suitable intervals, the President has pulled the N.R.A. [National Recovery Administration] and the A.A.A. [Agricultural Adjustment Act] and a lot of other mysterious things. Most of the people never understood the N.R.A. or the A.A.A. any more than they understand the signs of the Zodiac.’ The people did not have to understand the New Deal. . . . ‘Pandora’s Box has charmed the people into a new state of mind.’ If only they could do it in Canada, they could provide the same, ‘the hope and promise of a new heaven and a new earth’. Herridge realized that the moral was to ‘promise all things – a new system, regulation, control, and so forth  – and ask for a mandate to bring them about. But under no circumstances say how you propose to achieve the new order of society, don’t be specific or definite. Stick to generalities.’
(Hoogenraad, 65-66. Emphasis mine.)

Herridge had a two-phase plan for a Canadian New Deal under Bennett: Phase I would consist of a series of radio broadcasts to be delivered by Bennett in which the New Deal would be outlined. Phase II was based on the assumption that the Liberal Party under MacKenzie King would denounce the New Deal in the context of the debate on the Throne Speech which would follow the radio broadcasts and that King would defend laissez-faire liberalism. Bennett would respond to that by dissolving Parliament and going to the people, asking that they choose between the New Deal Conservatives and the status quo Liberals.

Bennett’s five radio speeches, delivered in January 1935, came off all right. He introduced the ideas of a uniform minimum wage, a maximum work week, unemployment insurance, and health insurance. The final line of his last speech promised to “reclaim this land from trouble and sorrow, and bring back happiness and security.”

The plan as conceived by Herridge did not come off, however. For one thing, there was a falling out between Bennett and Herridge pertaining to the drafting of the Speech from the Throne. According to one witness, Herridge defended one of his ideas that he wanted included in the speech so vociferously, that he even questioned Bennett’s authority to draft his own speech. Bennett sent Herridge out of his office and they didn’t have any contact for six months after that.

The New Deal plan did not succeed for another reason: King did not come to the defence of laissez-faire liberalism as Herridge had forecast. Instead, the Liberal leader took Bennett and Herridge by surprise and demanded that Bennett’s government introduce their reforms immediately.

Herridge urged Bennett to drop the writ and seek a New Deal mandate from the people soon after Throne Speech. But Bennett ignored Herridge. He dawdled (probably partly because, by this time, he was having heart problems). The election did not happen until September, 1935. By that time, any influence the Bennett broadcasts had had in the minds of Canadians had faded.

New Democracy Speech, Vancouver, May 1939

In 1935, Minister William D. Herridge became just plain Bill Herridge. With the defeat of Bennett’s government in the 1935 federal election, he resigned his Ambassadorship to Washington and picked up his law practice. His wife, Mildred, died in May 1938,  after a lengthy illness. A year later, Herridge was in Vancouver urging the local New Democracy to field candidates there and across the country in the forthcoming election (which would be in 1940).

His speech was full of code words. One of the most often repeated of these which had a positive connotation was “security”; another was “prosperity” and that, in turn, was contrasted with “profits” (negative). “Production for security” is good; it is how the economy ought to run in the “age of plenty” versus the old economy, aka “the age of profits”. According to Herridge, the “old parties”, by which he meant the Liberals and Conservatives, should be kicked out of Parliament because they represent “reaction”. “Reform” is the contrasting code word to describe, presumably, those who are ‘new democracy’ advocates.

“Totalitarianism” and “fascism” are two negative code words he sprinkled liberally in his speech:

The totalitarian principle works well only when the people act like robots. Be warned. If you want to keep democracy, you must keep it close to the people. He who favours the impairment of provincial rights [one of the ‘bulwarks’ of our democracy], favours implicitly, the totalitarian plan, which is the machinery of fascism. And fascism will strip the people of every right; even the right to live.

During most of the speech, Herridge was careful to speak in the third person singular. But in the section pertaining to “relief” for those who are unemployed, he shifted to the first person singular:

At the moment, among the federal, provincial, and municipal authorities, there is a dangerous shifting of responsibility upon the the question of relief. The people are the victims of it. If I were the head of the federal government, I would assume full responsibility. I would take over relief, unconditionally, one hundred per cent. And it would no longer be called relief. It would be called the right to live . . . . Therefore, I would see that every law-abiding Canadian had the food and housing necessary for health. I would not let our people starve when we have the means to care for them. . . . I would put the whole power of the state between our people and their present suffering. For if the Dominion of Canada cannot give its people health and happiness, of what use is the Dominion of Canada?

I found myself responding to this paragraph with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was struck by how in this paragraph, Herridge seems to be unaware of how government functions in Canada; both that we are a parliamentary democracy and that we are a federal system in which responsibilities for different areas of governance are allotted constitutionally to the federal government and provincial governments.

On the other hand, I found this paragraph to be among the best in the speech. It was full of passion and there were blessedly few code words.

Failure of Herridge’s New Democracy

In the 1940 general election, New Democracy fielded only 17 candidates, and of those, just three were elected (and all of those were incumbents who were first elected under Social Credit’s banner in 1935). Herridge ran for the seat in Kindersley, Saskatchewan, which he lost. In British Columbia, New Democracy won no seats and earned just 1/10th of 1% of the popular vote in the province.

There are at least a couple of factors that come to mind when considering explanations for the failure of New Democracy. First, the timing was plainly wrong. The Vancouver speech was presented on May 4, 1939, just 4 months from when Canada would declare war with Germany. The election itself was a wartime one – never an opportune time for new parties to make an impact.

Another reason for the failure of New Democracy, it seems to me, is that – if his Vancouver speech is indicative of the way he spoke publicly elsewhere of the party and its objectives – it wasn’t at all clear what those party goals were. It seemed in his speech as though he’d swallowed whole the advice he gave R. B. Bennett when he was advising him on how to sell the Canadian New Deal: “Under no circumstances say how you propose to achieve the new order of society, don’t be specific or definite. Stick to generalities.”

This cynical view seemed to be poor counsel for both Bennett’s New Deal and for Herridge’s New Democracy.

Herridge’s Speech on New Democracy (unattributed), Vancouver May, 1939


¹From “Address to be delivered under the auspices of the New Democracy Committee, at Vancouver, Wednesday May , 1939, at 8 p.m.” I recently purchased a copy of this speech. It was marked “Confidential. Released for publication in newspapers not appearing on streets before Thursday morning, May 4, 1939.” It wasn’t attributed to Herridge, but it is plain from at least one newspaper account on May 4th (in the Winnipeg Tribune), that it this was Herridge’s Vancouver speech.

The text of the speech has been scanned as a pdf file and is attached just above these notes.

² Most of the information in this section was gleaned from the third chapter of Stephen Hoogenraad’s Guiding the ship Through the Storm: W. D. Herridge and the Canadian Relations with the United States, 1931-1935. A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research in partial fulfillment of his M.A. degree from the Department of History at Carleton University, 2000.

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