GENERAL ARTICLES

Bracken, the Leader

BLAIR FRASER May 1 1944
GENERAL ARTICLES

Bracken, the Leader

BLAIR FRASER May 1 1944

Bracken, the Leader

BLAIR FRASER

WHEN John Bracken walked out on the platform of Winnipeg Auditorium, blinking in the glare of klieg lights, and sat down with four other nominees for Conservative Party leadership on Dec. 10, 1942, he hadn’t a note in his hand. Less than an hour had passed since he’d finally decided to let his name go before the Conservative convention— indeed, his nomination papers were filed with only seconds to spare.

So he hadn’t much idea whut he was going to say. Compared to the long-conned oration of his competitors, his nomination speech was a clumsy affair. But it had one line that sticks in the memory. He complimented the Party on the farm plank of its new platform—“If you hadn’t adopted that plank I wouldn’t be here”— and on its labor policy. Then he said:

“I’ve touched on one or two of my views. I have others. I just want to say that if you take me you’ll have to take them too.”

Progressive and other Conservatives have been learning ever since how earnestly he meant what he said.

Bracken’s assumption of Conservative leadership (it didn’t become Progressive Conservative until the next day) is a study in paradox. Two factions, both opposed to Mackenzie King but otherwise having little in common, came together under one banner at Winnipeg. It has been Bracken’s task, still uncompleted, to fuse these separate elements into a firm alloy.

Bracken himself had been an agrarian Progressive for 20 years, ever since the leaderless farmers of Manitoba, swept into legislative power by an electoral landslide, asked him to leave his job as a professor of agriculture and be their Prime Minister. Since the Liberals had entered a coalition with him some years ago he’d been known as a Liberal-Progressive, but he always made it pretty clear that this was not the same thing as a Liberal.

He had been increasingly restive under the federal leadership of the King Government. Depression years, repeated trips to Ottawa seeking aid for the wheat farmer, which he never got to his own satisfaction, were the prime source of his discontent. The Sirois Conference of 1941 confirmed it. He felt, and still feels, thut Messrs. King and Lapointe used the Hepburn torpedo as an excuse for dissolving the Conference, and doing nothing about a politically ticklish but vital question.

Last straw was the King Government’s manpower policy. And it was Bracken who, early in 1942, described the plebiscite as “a crowning indignity.”

Conservatives who knew his views had several times hinted that he could join their ranks and welcome, but he always refused. He was no

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Bracken, the Leader

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Tory, he told them. He was a prairie Free Trader, accustomed for years to win elections by reading extracts from Tory speeches, and asking his voters if that was what they wanted. He had no intention of changing his mind.

But, meanwhile, Toryism had been taking a beating. Even on Toronto’s Bay Street, sacred citadel of True Blues, there were realists who said the old-line Conservative tradition was permanently washed up with the Canadian people. If, as they believed, the next election should visit the people’s rage upon Mackenzie King, no alternative would be left but the CCF, a prospect which horrified them. To find a second alternative to the Liberals they were ready to pay a steep price in compromise and concession.

Defeat of Meighen

One of these realists was the man who» more than any other, is identified in the public mind with the Tory tradition— Right Hon. Arthur Meighen, then Conservative leader in the Senate. Even before the Conservative committee meeting at Ottawa in November, 1941, which “drafted” him from the haven of the Senate to the Party’s helm once more, Meighen was convinced that Toryism was politically dead. He tried to get Bracken to come and head a revived, rejuvenated Conservative Party. Even Bracken’s Free Trade views would no longer, he said, be an obstacle with the Party that had plumped for high tariffs since 1879.

But Bracken said, No. Meighen, against his better judgment, accepted the Party’s call, left the Senate and advanced to the debacle of South York.

After that Tory Waterloo, when CCF schoolteacher Noseworthy defeated the Conservative leader in his own strong! hold of Toronto, no doubt remained. Mourn it who would, Toryism must go —it had become, all too obviously, political poison. Thoughts turned once more to John Bracken. Cautiously and secretly, lest the curse of Tory support should blight him in the bud, Bay Street set out to see if he could be J persuaded.

Meanwhile, more or less independi ently of the Bracken plan, younger ( Conservatives were hatching rebellion. They, too, wanted a substitute for Toryism, and they concentrated not on personnel hut on principles. This Young Turk movement reached its fruition in a round-table conference at Port Hope, in September, 1942. There about 150 Conservatives drew up a “statement of aims and beliefs,” which differed sharply from their Party’s accepted creed. It came out, among other things, for reduction of tariff barriers, compulsory collective bargaining, social security measures.

Shortly after Port Hope, a Conservative delegation called once more upon John Bracken. They asked John Bracken if he would contest, or accept, Conservative leadership.

This time Bracken said, Yes—on certain conditions. First, the Party must adopt a Progressive platform; he had seen the Port Hope resolutions and approved them heartily. Second, the invitation must be unanimous; he wouldn’t go unless assured of a united Party. Third, the Party must give tangible evidence of its change of heart by changing its name to Progressive Conservative before Progressive John Bracken would lead it.

There was no difficulty about the first stipulation. Adoption of a platform modelled on Port Hope was already a virtual certainty. But

Conditions Two and Three were stumbling blocks. Murdoch MacPherson, likeliest candidate for the leadership among the existing Conservatives, though at that time he hadn’t decided whether to run or not, was uncompromisingly against a promise of unanimity. It would look like a “fix,” he said, a back-room deal which would turn the convention into a farce. He’d have no part of it.

As for the change of name, none of the spokesmen thought it had a dog’s chance of passing the convention. The Liberal - Conservative, Conservative, National Conservative, National Government Party had changed its name too oftenthrice bitten, it would be four times shy. They told Bracken this. “In that case,” he said, “the deal’s off.”

“Change Your Name”

That was where matters stood when the convention opened. MacPherson’s hat was now in the ring, along with those of Howard Green, John Diefenbaker and Harry Stevens, so the idea oí a unanimous call was definitely out. But the argument against a “backroom deal” had impressed Bracken, and he was willing to forego that stipulation provided the others were met. At Conservative suggestion, he wrote a letter to the Convention executive saying so. “Change your name,” he said in effect, “and I’ll join you.”

When this communication was tossed to the convention and a motion that the Party change its name presented, pandemonium broke loose. For two solid hours, speaker after speaker— Tory and Progressive alike—denounced this scheme to “stampede” the convention and “fix” the vote for one candidate.

Beaten and booed, the Bay Street Brackenites retreated. A motion to put the whole matter over until after the election of the new leader was adopted unanimously, and the disorganized Bracken forces reported their failure to their candidate.

Bracken’s first reaction was to stay out. But his friends urged him not to. They assured him the convention’s action hadn’t meant hostility, hadn’t meant defeat either for him or for the change of name. It was just a protest against the smoke-filled room technique and against a seeming attempt to grease the ways for one candidate. Let him come and take his chance with the rest, they told him, and he’d win.

“Well,” said Bracken, “I’ll think it over. If I’m there for nomination tonight you’ll know I’ve decided yes. If I’m not there it’ll mean I’ve decided no.”

Nomination dead line was 8 o’clock. It was nearly 7.30 when Bracken made up his mind, and he lived about three miles from the auditorium. Three or four more red traffic lights on that wild ride into town and John Bracken would still be Premier of Manitoba.

But he made it, at about one minute to eight, and he won next day on the second ballot, having missed a firstballot victory by only 16 votes. After his election the change of name went through without a dissenting voice.

Almost immediately the paradox of his election began to show. Bracken, a lifelong Progressive, had been supported at the convention by despairing Tories. Many a Progressive, angered by the “unanimity” scheme, had backed MacPherson. But once the election was over these ex-opponents became Bracken’s warmest supporters. Bay Street, on the other hand, discovered it had a bull by the tail.

Bracken started at once on a tour of the Dominion, feeling out public sentiment in the way he finds best, by personal, intimate contact with the

people. What he found staggered him a bit. He hadn’t fully realized how low the old Conservative stock had fallen. However, that very fact strengthened his hand within his own Party. In the contest between Progressives and Conservatives he could and did use the Conservatives’ palpable failure as a stick to beat them with.

Slowly, methodically, Bracken set about building a new Party on the ruins of the old. Neither he nor Gordon Graydon, who represents him in Parliament as Leader of the Opposition, ever neglected a chance to stress that the Progressive Conservative Party is Canada’s newest, not Canada’s oldest. For the achievements of the Conservative Party, Bracken wanted no credit; for its mistakes and shortcomings he would accept no blame. He was breaking new ground.

New Deal For Farmers

Speech after speech blocked out the pattern of his doctrine. At Lethbridge he committed himself and his Party to a New Deal for the farmer. At Windsor he pledged a charter to Labor—not only compulsory collective bargaining, but Labor representation on all Government agencies affecting Labor interests, and equal status with Management in colloquies with the State on matters of policy. It was the sort of stuff to make the Albany Club turn over in its lounge.

Bracken himself blinks innocently at any suggestion that he’s deliberately patting the Tories in the teeth. His relations with Toronto are most harmonious, he always says. He’s “not conscious” of any tension within the Party, let alone schism. But observers remark that for a sleepwalker he’s awfully fast on his feet.

For instance, when the Progressive Conservative Association met at Ottawa in March, there were open murmurings about this “new Party” stuff. Men who had been Conservatives before they were Progressives, and had liked it better, were resentful of the implied repudiation of the Conservative past and the Conservative tradition. Bracken’s rejoinder was to make the most heretical speech he has made yet— the one in which he found “a kernel of truth” in Social Credit.

And to old-line Tories he minced no words:

“I did not leave my western home to lead a Party whose primary asset would be the incapacity and incompetence of its political opponents. . .1 would like you to understand that the Party is being built up not just to win elections but to serve Canada. . . Personally I don’t want the Progressive Conservative Party to win elections unless it deserves to win. . .

“Since Port Hope and Winnipeg we | have begun to deserve the public confidence. . .We must satisfy the Canadian people that this is the newest Party in Canada. . . make the people believe that this great Party puts prosperity for the many before profits for the few. . . convince the people that we are resolved to put human welfare ! first.”

That speech shut the dissidents up. Then and there they decided not to j fight over words. Bracken can say | anything he likes. When the time ! comes for doing, they say, then we’ll | see.

I talked to one venerable Conservative, out of the battle now and franker than most. “There’ll be no split in the Progressive Conservative Party,” ' he said. “Not before an election, anyway. We have to win converts, to get people voting for us who haven’t voted for us before. Everybody recognizes that.

“Now the old Conservative doctrine appears sound to me, but it doesn’t

go down with the people any more. They won’t have it. So we aren’t going to challenge anything Bracken says. When he gets into power and sets about doing the things he says he’ll do, we’ll have to do what we can to keep him from going too far.”

This contest in the field of action has already begun. The Party’s secretariat, the young men who have desks at Bracken House, Laurier Avenue, Ottawa, are Brackenites to a man — Tories call them the Brain Trust. In the field, they have set up an organization of their own. From an infancy in Winnipeg a year ago the Bracken Study Club blossomed in February into a national organization. It recruits members from all Parties or none—so far it’s composed about 50-50 of exGrits and ex-Tories, both of whom now swear they’re neither. They’re Bracken men, and their organization will parallel the old Conservative machine from coast to coast.

But the crucial battle will be in nominating candidates, and here the Tories have a big initial advantage. Tradition gives the sitting M.P. the privilege of running again as his Party’s choice. And Progressives in the present House Opposition number less than half a dozen.

None of this seriously worries the Progressives. Most of them regard the Parliamentary Opposition as more a liability than an asset, anyway.

Important Decision

Bracken has never given any indication of sharing this view, but he does remember that the present members were elected not as Progressive Conservatives but as plain Tories, temporarily known as National Government candidates. This consideration has been a strong, perhaps a determining factor in the most important decision John Bracken has made as Party leader—the decision to stay out ot Parliament until a general election.

It was a decision many of his followers deplored. Gordon Graydon is in a difficult position in the House, and feels it. Liberal and CCF jibes at the Opposition’s absentee leadership have been frequent and not ineffective.

Last December there was a while when the pro-by-election group thought it had won. Word went out “from the horse’s mouth” that Bracken would enter the House from a nice, safe Ontario seat. But Bracken said, No. He’s a westerner. To run in an Ontario riding which had voted Conservative ever since Confederation would look like ignominious retreat from his own ground. Worse, it would label him Tory.

There are seats in the West that could be opened for him -Howard Green’s in Vancouver, John Diefenbaker’s in Lake Centre, Art Ross’s lone Manitoba riding of Souris. But western seats of Progressive Conservatives have three things in common: they’re scarce; they’re valuable; they’re unsafe.

Lately the suggestion has been advanced in Progressive Conservative circles that John Bracken should contest Weyburn, Sask., when Tommy Douglas resigns his Ottawa seat to run in the provincial election as CCF leader. A good case can be made out for this idea. It would be a bold challenge to the CCF in a Socialist stamping ground. If successful it would be a tremendous feather in the Bracken cap.

But my own guess, for what it’s worth, is that Mr. Bracken once again will say, No. Not only because he’s a cautious man, and Weyburn would be a pretty desperate gamble for high stakes. Also, and perhaps even more, because his qualities are those of a Prime Minister rather than those of an Opposition Leader.

He hasn’t the temperament for

Opposition. His instinct is to co-operate, —it’s no accident that he was the first Canadian Premier in this war to form a wartime coalition government. In his 20 years as Premier of Manitoba he has weathered many a ticklish session, twice getting through full terms without a clear majority in the House. But always his preferred technique has been teamwork, consultation, unity. A slow and careful speaker, who likes to have a text which he has pondered for days and in which every word has been weighed, he has neither talent nor liking for the fast, petty thrustand-parry of Parliament today.

John Bracken’s personality was sketched for Maclean’s a year ago by a man who knows him far better than I do, John Bird of the Winnipeg Tribune. All I can add, as one who never laid eyes on John Bracken until he stood before the convention at Winnipeg, is something of how he strikes the observer at Ottawa.

Likable is the first adjective that comes to mind. This calm, quiet, rather inarticulate man, with the curling grey hair and the plain grey suit, has a look of solidity about him. He looks like a man who would be a close friend of your father.

His year and a half at Ottawa has taken a lot out of him. For 20 years he had been Premier of a province he knew well and loved deeply, a province smaller in population than Montreal or Toronto, a province whose problems, though grave, were in dimension small. He had stepped, at 60, from comfort and familiar surroundings into strife, worry, a round of new and difficult situations, endless and arduous labor.

Like most newcomers he has no love for Ottawa as a place to live. He and his wife have a two-room apartment at the Roxborough, rated as swank quarters in the capital but a poor exchange for the roomy, comfortable home he left in Winnipeg. Besides, he has had little enough time even there— he has travelled thousands of miles, slept in trains or hotel beds for weeks on end. He has made only half a dozen formal speeches, but his unreported semiprivate talks have run into the hundreds.

He has no firmly set routine of work. At Bracken House, the new Progressive Conservative headquarters, he hasn’t even an office—he uses the board room. At the House of Commons he uses a little anteroom off the chambers Gordon Graydon occupies as Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Bracken moves around in this milieu without fuss. He lunches one day at the Rideau Club, another at Bowles, the chair-arm cafeteria where the coffee is a dime and they put your spoon in your cup.

Patience Unfailing

His working technique is the same he perfected in Manitoba—hear advice from everybody, commit yourself to none. His patience is as unfailing as his caution. Co-workers have to be patient too, for Mr. Bracken makes up his mind slowly. He dislikes flat, unqualified statements, likes to walk around a sentence for a long time and think out all its implications. When he is satisfied the statement is sound and compatible with principle, he’ll pass it. Not before.

But once his mind is firmly made up he’s hard to budge. The Old Guard has found that out. Some of them are sorry now they ever got into this fix. They wish they’d never listened to Arthur Meighen, wish they’d never let themselves be convinced that the good old Tory cause was hopeless. They look wistfully at young, colorful, dynamic Premier George Drew of Ontario, a

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lifelong Ontario Tory, progressive enough about such agreed matters as health and welfare but with “no nonsense” about him. Moreover, Drew is one of the few ranking politicians in Canada who still utters the word “Empire” right out in meeting.

But murmur as they may, the Old Guard is licked for the moment, and knows it. Best proof, perhaps, is the way the money is rolling into the Party treasury. Veterans of the Tory Ordnance Corps admit, somewhat grudgingly, that funds are fatter now than they have been since the days of Bennett, regardless of the distasteful things John Bracken persists in saying.

For better or worse, Bracken is carrying the ball. Whether or not he can carry it across the goal line, we’ll know in a few months now.