William Lyon Mackenzie King

(1874—1950) prime minister of Canada

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(b. 17 Dec. 1874, d. 22 July 1950).

Prime Minister of Canada 1921–6, 1926–30, 1935–48

Early career

Grandson of the anti-establishment rebel William Lyon Mackenzie (b. 1795, d. 1861), he was born at Berlin (Kitchener, Ontario) and studied at the Universities of Toronto, Chicago, and Harvard, graduating in economics. Canada's first Deputy Minister of Labour in 1900, he was elected to the House of Commons as a Liberal in 1908, and in 1909 became Minister of Labour under Laurier. He failed to be re-elected in 1911 and 1917, during which time he became a forceful advocate of government intervention in industrial relations, as a mediator between employers and trade unions. He remained active within the Liberal Party, and in 1919 became party leader. He narrowly won the 1921 elections and reduced tariffs to gain the support of the Progressive Party. When he lost the latter's support in 1926 the Conservative Meighen formed a brief government, but Mackenzie King won the ensuing general elections of 1926, thanks to the return of Progressive support.

In office

Mackenzie King introduced old-age pensions, and in international affairs insisted on Canadian autonomy from the UK, which led to the redefinition of its Dominion status in 1926. His failure to address adequately the Great Depression led to his defeat at the 1930 elections. His effective opposition to Bennett ensured his victory in 1935, though apart from the negotiation of a series of trade agreements his response to Canada's economic problems was not very coherent. Originally a supporter of appeasement, he backed Canada's entry into World War II, promising (mainly to appease French Canadians) that there would be no compulsory military service overseas. He gained an increased majority in the 1940 elections, and proceeded to switch the economy to war production, mainly through vastly increasing state intervention. To nurture the promise of a better society after the war, he introduced unemployment insurance in 1940, and outlined proposals for a health insurance scheme. As war went on he was plagued by the controversial issue of conscription, introducing it for compulsory military service at home in 1940. In a referendum in 1942, a majority of Canadians supported the introduction of conscription for overseas service, relieving Mackenzie King of his original promise. However, the majority of French Canadians in Quebec voted against the measure, so that conscripts were not sent to Europe until 1944, this time with little opposition.

After the war, Mackenzie King showed little interest in realizing promises of a new social order, preferring minimal government intervention in economics and society. His curiously unimpressive legislative record stands in some contrast to the fact that he was Canada's longest-serving Prime Minister. However, his political longevity was due precisely to the fact that, in times of intense uncertainty and dislocation, he was the least divisive leader. He preferreed rhetoric to potentially controversial action, legislating only when it became unavoidable.

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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