BOOKS

The rulers who fell from grace

GRITS: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT OF THE LIBERAL PARTY By Christina McCall-Newman

ANGELA FERRANTE November 1 1982
BOOKS

The rulers who fell from grace

GRITS: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT OF THE LIBERAL PARTY By Christina McCall-Newman

ANGELA FERRANTE November 1 1982

The rulers who fell from grace

GRITS: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT OF THE LIBERAL PARTY By Christina McCall-Newman

BOOKS

(Macmillan of Canada, 1+86 pages, $2195)

Except for the odd, almost accidental episode, the Liberal party has ruled Canada for most of this century as if by right. Seemingly untouchable and all-powerful, the prime ministers and ministers, the backroom boys and the bureaucrats have paraded proudly through history, calling each other great men. But, by the end of the 1970s, the party militants lost their confident step. Alienated from large sections of the country, ill at ease with a leader they never really understood, the Liberals were about to experience something new—defeat. With Grits, the long-awaited portrait of the Liberal party, Christina McCall-Newman has created a historical drama, a tragedy in six chapters, and the audience is the Canadian people.

Penetrating deep within the Liberal psyche, she succeeds in analysing the alchemy of mysticism and ambition that once worked to keep the party in power but is now failing. A gathering tension permeates her account of the rise and fall of the great party that forged the “alliances of elites.” Always elegant in her language, rarely tempted by the flashy phrase, she traces, with enviable precision, the graph of the inexorable decline.

In McCall-Newman’s words, the Liberal mystics had long viewed their party as a “marvellously adaptable institution.” And, indeed, with each passing generation the party succeeded in giving the majority of Canadians what they thought they wanted. In the days of William Lyon Mackenzie King, Louis St. Laurent and C.D. Howe, it was the “know-how” party that forged an alliance between big business and labor. In the days of Lester the pure-of-heart Pearson, it was the party of the “little guy,” the party that brought in a national health plan. Ironically, at the start of the reign of Pierre Trudeau, the party was viewed as the crucible of the great EnglishFrench entente and the home of the first truly strong contingent of FrenchCanadians in federal power.

But, by the spring of 1979, on the verge of a fateful election, the party had become nothing more than “the leader’s

machine.” After completely ignoring the party organization for his first four years as prime minister—and as a result nearly losing the election in 1972— Trudeau grudgingly turned back to the political professionals who were so beneath his interest. But, as Senator Keith Davey, the party’s chief fixer, ruefully puts it: “[The election] didn’t teach Pierre Trudeau anything about politics or about the Liberal party.”

In time, McCall-Newman says that the party, which was supposed to be the “vehicle for progress,” had become little more than a network of old cronies so focused on staying in power that they lost sight of their reasons for doing so.

The progressives, who had wanted to make the party more open in its decision-making, merely watched it move “from oligarchy to oligarchy in one generation.”

Nowhere is the tragedy of lost opportunity more apparent than in McCallNewman’s insightful portraits of the men—they were almost all men—who had been attracted to the party by a mixture of idealism and drive and who ended up being tired and cynical. With a lethal combination of sympathy and disillusionment she gives substance to the names that have dominated the front pages for the past two decades. There is Keith Davey, who now dispenses patronage with all the assurance of a high priest dispensing benedictions. There is the boyish Calgarian, Jim

Coutts, the man originally admired for his “smart politics,” who becomes the master manipulator, intolerant of all critics and “altered alarmingly by the power.”

Particularly well described is the metamorphosis of that elusive Trudeau alter ego, Marc Lalonde, a Catholic activist of principle and rigidity who loses his charm along the way. “The sweetness that had tempered his single-mindedness had vanished,” writes McCall-Newman. Michael Pitfield, Trudeau’s lieutenant in the bureaucracy, is the Good 01’ Boy who wanted to streamline government but instead complicated it with “endless Pitfieldian seminars,” as one bureaucrat puts it.

At the centre of the growing chaos stands the figure of Pierre Trudeau, a man with his own agenda that few could read. McCall-Newman extracts the essence of Trudeau’s cultural insecurity. She interprets him as a man who only joined the Liberal party because it was the one most likely to help him achieve his dream of a strong French-Canadian presence in Ottawa. Though initially viewed by relieved Canadians as some sort of “racial hermaphrodite” who would miraculously end all problems between the two cultures, he remained an alien in the midst of all those jock Toronto politicians.

The history of the Liberal party is nothing less than the history of the country itself. While much of what McCall-Newman writes about has been addressed before, her strength lies in her dramatization. By piling detail upon detail, she adds great force to the story of the dissolution of a party so secure that it was called the Government Party, the dissolution of the careers of ambitious men, and the end of the Canadian dream. Throughout, we are like passengers in a speeding car, catching glimpses of the country as it slowly deteriorates.

McCall-Newman’s only fault is that she leaves the reader dangling. Ultimately we are left to draw our own conclusions about why the best and brightest have failed. It seems too easy to say, as she seems to, that power corrupts even the best intentioned. She compounds the problem for the reader by ending her story on the eve of the Liberal’s first electoral defeat in 22 years, saving the campaign for Volume 2. “To be continued” is a poor substitute for the last act of a national tragedy. -ANGELA FERRANTE

ANGELA FERRANTE