The King–Byng Affair was a Canadian constitutional crisis that occurred in 1926, when the Governor General of Canada, the Lord Byng of Vimy, refused a request by his prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, to dissolve parliament and call a general election.
The crisis came to redefine the role of governor general, not only in Canada but throughout the Dominions, becoming a major impetus in negotiations at Imperial Conferences held in the late 1920s that led to the adoption of the Statute of Westminster in 1931. According to constitutional convention in the British Empire, the governor general once represented both the sovereign in his British council and in his Canadian council, but the convention had evolved with Byng's predecessors, the Canadian government, and the Canadian people, into a tradition of non-interference in Canadian political affairs on the part of the British government. After 1931, the governor general remained an important figure in Canadian governance as a constitutional watchdog, but it is one that has shed its previous imperial duties.
In September 1925, William Lyon Mackenzie King, the Prime Minister of Canada, advised the governor general, the Lord Byng of Vimy, to dissolve parliament and drop the writ for a general election, to which Lord Byng agreed. In the subsequent election, Arthur Meighen's Conservative Party won 116 seats in the House of Commons to 101 for King's Liberals. Counting on the support of the Progressive Party, with its 28 seats, to overcome the Conservative plurality, King (who had lost his seat in the election) did not resign and remained in office as head of a minority government. Strictly speaking, this was not a coalition government, as the Progressives were not given any Cabinet seats and were thus not a part of the government.
On 30 October, King visited Byng after consulting with the rest of Cabinet and informed the Governor General that his government would continue until parliament decided otherwise. Byng, who had suggested to King that he ought to resign with such a tenuous mandate, later claimed to have told the Prime Minister: "Well, in any event you must not at any time ask for a dissolution unless Mr Meighen is first given a chance to show whether or not he is able to govern," to which King acquiesced.
While Meighen and other Conservatives expressed public outrage at what they viewed as a desperate attempt on the part of King to cling to power, some Conservatives were privately relieved by King's decision; they seriously doubted whether the Tories could convince the Progressives to support a Conservative government, were confident that King's attempt to remain in power would eventually fail, and thought the expected debacle would be so damaging to the Liberals' reputation that the Conservatives would then be swept into office with a large majority.
A few months later, one of King's appointees in the Department of Customs and Excise was revealed to have taken bribes, after which the Conservatives alleged that the corruption extended to the highest levels of government, including the prime minister. King had already replaced the Minister of Customs and Excise, Jacques Bureau, with Georges Henri Boivin, but recommended that Byng appoint Bureau to the Senate. This further alienated the members of the Progressive Party. The Progressives were already distancing themselves from the government because of its failure to transfer control of Alberta's natural resources from the federal government to the province, but in June had saved the government from defeat in a no-confidence motion on the matter.
The Progressive Party's support was temporarily retained by the formation of a special committee to investigate the corruption in the customs department. Its report, which was presented to the House of Commons, acknowledged that there was widespread fraud in the department but did not specifically criticise the government. A Conservative Member of Parliament (MP), H. H. Stevens, proposed an amendment to the report which would effectively censure the government and compel it to resign. However, Labour MP J.S. Woodsworth proposed amending Stevens' amendment to remove the censure of the government and set up a Royal Commission to investigate the customs department further. The motion was defeated, despite the full support of the government. A Progressive MP, W. R. Fansher, then proposed that a Royal Commission be combined with the original motion of censure. The Speaker of the House ruled the motion out of order, but, on division, the members over-ruled the speaker and the Cabinet was defeated again. After a motion that the House adjourn, put forward by a Progressive member at King's behest, was subsequently also voted down, King announced that he would accept Fansher's amendment and secured an adjournment.
Request for dissolution
To avoid the inevitable vote on the Fansher amendment, which would either force his government's resignation or bring his administration into disrepute, King went to Byng on 26 June 1926 seeking a dissolution of parliament. Byng, though, using his reserve powers, refused the request, reminding King of their agreement made the previous October and arguing that the Conservatives, as the biggest single party in parliament, should have a chance to form a government before an election was called. For the next two days, the Prime Minister and the Governor General discussed the matter, with Byng asking King not to request a dissolution which he could not give and King twice requesting that Byng consult the British government prior to making any decision. Byng again refused, saying the matter should be settled in Canada, without resort to London. With Byng remaining steadfast, King then, on 28 June, formally presented the Governor General with an Order in Council for the dissolution of parliament, which Byng declined to sign, on the grounds that the House of Commons should first be given the opportunity to decide if it could support an alternate government. Thus, believing that he no longer had enough support to stay in office, King resigned, as per convention that requires a prime minister who has lost the support of the House of Commons to either step down or advise the governor general to drop the writs for an election.
Byng then invited Conservative leader Arthur Meighen, who had been prime minister from 1920 to 1921, to form a government. Although many Conservatives privately preferred an election, Meighen believed he was bound by honour and convention to accept Byng's invitation. Meighen thus formed a new Cabinet. At that time, convention dictated that the ministers of the Crown drawn from the House of Commons were obliged upon appointment to resign their seats in parliament and run for re-election. This posed a problem for Meighen: his and the other ministers' temporary absence would make the government extremely vulnerable in the event of a vote of non-confidence. Meighen circumvented this by advising the appointment to Cabinet of ministers without portfolios, who were not required to run for re-election. The Liberals were infuriated over this usage of "acting ministers" and were able to get the Progressives to join them in a successful drive to bring down the Conservative minority government, the government losing confidence by only one vote. Meighen subsequently requested a dissolution of parliament, which was granted by Byng, and an election was called. King's Liberals won a plurality of seats in the House of Commons, while Meighen lost his seat. It is often erroneously claimed that the Liberals won a majority in the 1926 election but in fact they fell seven seats short of an overall majority.
In a letter to King George V, Byng expressed surprise that the Liberal leader, a staunch nationalist, had requested that Byng consult the Colonial Office in London over the matter. Byng said: "I have to await the verdict of history to prove my having adopted a wrong course, and this I do with an easy conscience that, right or wrong, I have acted in the interests of Canada and implicated no one else in my decision." The Colonial Secretary, Leo Amery, privately informed Byng that had he appealed to the British government for an answer, "I could only have replied... that in my view it would not be proper for the Secretary of State to issue instructions to the Governor with regard to the exercise of his constitutional duties."
Much was made of the "Byng–King Thing" during the election campaign, which King conducted rhetorically as a campaign for Canadian full sovereignty from Britain, even though it was King who demanded that Byng consult London. King also painted the matter as one relating to democracy, insisting that the Governor General had had no right to refuse his prime minister's advice, while Meighen denounced King's actions as "a shameless attempt to hang onto power and avoid imminent defeat by the people's elected representatives." However, the Liberals were returned to power with King as prime minister. Once in power, King's government sought at an imperial conference to redefine the role of the governor general as a personal representative of the sovereign in his Canadian council and not of the British government, the king in his British council. The change was agreed to at the Imperial Conference of 1926 and came to be official as a result of the Balfour Declaration of 1926 and Statute of Westminster 1931.
Byng returned to the United Kingdom, leaving Canada on 30 September 1926 a much respected man, despite the political crisis. Some authorities have held that Byng was constitutionally obligated to refuse King's request; for example, Eugene Forsey argued that King's advice to Byng was "utterly unprecedented" and said further: "It was tantamount to allowing a prisoner to discharge the jury by which he was being tried.... If the Governor-General had granted the request, he would have become an accomplice in a flagrant act of contempt for Parliament." The relatively brief time that King had served in office prior to seeking a dissolution has also been cited as a reason for denying his request. Other authorities agreed with King, since by custom the Lord Byng of Vimy was obligated to heed the Prime Minister's request to call the election. In 1997, then Governor-General of New Zealand Sir Michael Hardie Boys expressed the opinion that Byng had been in error in not re-appointing King as prime minister and then granting the dissolution of parliament to King instead of Meighen.
The King–Byng Affair was the most controversial use of a governor general's reserve powers until the Australian constitutional crisis of 1975, in which the Governor-General of Australia, John Kerr, dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.
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