The First Gay Prime Minister in the Empire

According to a review in the National Post, Bob Plamondon’s Blue Thunder, The Truth about Conservatives from Macdonald to Harper drops “fascinating” hints about R.B. Bennett. “Did Canada have the first gay prime minister in the Empire?”

Well, it’s a question.

But since we seem to be talking about prime ministers in the plural, here’s a better one. How can there be more than one prime minister at a time? A prime minister does not and may not answer to a superior government. In the parliamentary system the prime minister and his cabinet are responsible to the majority in the elective legislature and to the electorate.

Each of the senior “Dominions” had a prime minister. The Dominion of Canada, the Commonwealth of Australia, the Dominion of New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, the Irish Free State, and Newfoundland. (Yes, Newfoundland was one of the “Dominions.”)

The problem is this. With a plurality of autonomous P.M.s, what held the Empire together? Who was in charge?

What I am beginning to think is that as each of the British North American colonies adopted the principle of “responsible government” (in 1848 or thereabouts), it ceased to be a dependency; it became an autonomous and self-governing political entity. A nation. It is true that in each of the small nations most people still spoke of their “membership” in the British Empire; they still boasted about it. But after 1848 the reality of imperial rule had been stretched to the point of invisibility.

As legal scholars and historians we should take another look at the nineteenth-century “struggle for responsible government.” It was a huge struggle and a formidable achievement. There’s a pamphlet literature.

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2 Responses to “The First Gay Prime Minister in the Empire”


  1. 1 Rob Leone April 15, 2009 at 12:46 am

    Interesting commentary. I suppose federalism offers some clues. Even though in Canada we call them premiers, the popular term in Quebec for the head of government is prime minister. We divide sovereignty between co-equal governments here. I think the case can be made for the colonies. Thus there might be two necessary conditions on gaining independence: division of sovereignty (i.e. autonomy granted through a constitution) and responsible government. I’ll need to think some more about this…

  2. 2 Craig April 19, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    Janet –

    Surely the answer to your question is that the Crown held the empire together both symbolically as well as legally (the Privy Council was still the highest court of appeal in the empire until well into the 20th). This is what Jefferson and Adams wanted in 1774 – an empire (and they still called it that) of co-equal legislatures under one Crown.

    Also, 1848 only meant that the Crown exercised its authority through ministers responsible to the legislatures. It did not mean that the Crown (or it representatives) did not still have formidable reserve powers over colonial legislation, not to mention the fact that it appointed the dominion’s chief executive. And the autonomy of the dominions was only over internal affairs in the 19th. The Crown (or more accurately the King-in-Parliament) still exercised the executive authority over foreign policy for them. Finally, Parliament was still the ultimate sovereign in the empire (see Dicey on this) until the Statute of Westminster, which I’d say was the true moment of independence.


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