Old Salts Licking Their Wounds
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Republished on VDARE.com on November 30, 2003

The Times (London)

December 26 1987

Boxing Day is rarely celebrated in America that many Americans don't even recognize the term. But it is alive and well in Canada. By the time readers see this column, I hope to be confirming its health in the tiny fishing port city of St John's Newfoundland, which for very good reasons looks a little like a weatherboard version of a Devon fishing village, and whose population appears to be about half made up of my wife's friends and relations.

God and Air Canada willing, that is. The island of Newfoundland is the eastern-most point of North America, so far out in the Atlantic that it has its own unique time zone, 90 minutes ahead of New York, three and a half hours behind London. Its rugged grandeur suggests how the west of Scotland must have appeared before the conifer forests were cut down in the Middle Ages. But around St John's, the pine trees are bonsai-sized, stunted by the same relentless climate that makes winter air travel difficult. It is not unlikely that we will be spending Christmas stranded in some fogged-in intermediate airport.

Newfoundland bills itself as Britain's oldest colony. Fishermen from the West Country were almost certainly wintering there by the time of the Spanish Armada. The Newfoundland Regiment was the only unit from the Empire to go into action on the worst single day in British military history, the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, where it was destroyed. Until this generation, St John's merchants regularly sent their children to school in England rather than to Montreal of Toronto.

British wanderers in North America continually come across evidence of these far-flung links with their land of origin, abandoned as abruptly and mysteriously as the temples of the Mayas. But I find the case of Newfoundland particularly poignant.

Until 1949, Newfoundland was quite separate from Canada. It had evolved differently, its people a curious but surprisingly successful mixture of West of England and West of Ireland. There is a distinctive Newfoundland dialect—the subject of a full-scale dictionary co-edited by JDR Widdowson, a scholar from Sheffield University—rich in colourful words for innumerable varieties of ice and for 'useless, good-for-nothing fellow'.

Newfoundlanders, in short, were on the verge of becoming another British nation, like the New Zealanders or Australians. But in 1949 Newfoundland was in essence manipulated by the Labour government into joining ('confederating') with neighbouring Canada, a fate it had resisted for generations. The story is too complex and disgusting to be summarized briefly, but the combination of executive coercion and staged referendum had distinct parallels to the similar campaign to get Britain itself into the EEC some twenty years later. A distinguished opponent in Britain was AP Herbert, the humorist and MP for the old Combined Universities seat, itself about to fall victim to Mr Attlee's gentlemen from Whitehall.

Confederation has been a poisoned chalice for Newfoundland. In the short run, it brought transfer payments from the mainland in the form of various social programmes. These unquestionably transformed life in the cruelly poor 'outports'—the scattered fishing villages along the hundreds of miles of coast. But in the long run, these transfer payments have created dependent populations and interfered with price mechanisms that could have stimulated self-sustaining enterprise. Canadian tariffs, by wrenching the economy away from the Atlantic trade, have done hidden damage far outweighing the benefits of Ottawa hand-outs.

In retrospect it's clear that Newfoundland could have flourished without Canada. Iceland, which chose not to affiliate with Denmark at the end of the Second World Ward, has achieved a per capita gross national product twice that of Newfoundland—and it lacks Newfoundland's natural resources (the development of which, ironically, has been seriously hampered by Canadian politics).

Many Newfoundlanders seem resigned. Like Dr Johnson's Irish, from whom so many are descended, they are a fair people: they rarely speak well of one another. Their collective self-confidence has been profoundly shaken. But they are not the last victims of the mid-century bankruptcy of the political culture of the British world.

Peter Brimelow's The Patriot Game: Canada and the Canadian question revisited, is published by the Hoover Institution Press.

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