Let’s stop leaving our future to old men

FRANK UNDERHILL October 13 1956


Let’s stop leaving our future to old men

FRANK UNDERHILL October 13 1956


Let’s stop leaving our future to old men


Enthusiasts would have it that we have entered upon our Elizabethan Age in Canadian history. There is a new exhilarating spirit of adventure, so I have been assured, a sense that we are setting out toward new horizons. Our seemingly limitless economic potentialities are intoxicating in themselves. We have also begun to make a name for ourselves in world affairs. And new springs of cultural activity are bubbling up everywhere. But there is no sign that 1 can see of a new era in our polities. Our political life remains mean, drab, petty, insignificant. Why should this be? Why the contrast between the general promise of Canadian life and the lack of promise of its politics? Why do we take for granted that Canadian politicians as a class should be dull and fatuous, and that nothing imaginative or creative is to be hoped from them? In the reign of Elizabeth I politicians were inspiring poetry.

One thing wrong with our presentday politics is the age of our politicians. Politically we have become an old man’s country. Elder statesmen arc expected to show a balanced judgment and a ripe wisdom, but they are not likely to have the dynamic energy that ushers in a new age. In fact, the old man in a hurry has become proverbial in history for having been usually in a hurry about the wrong things. It is the young man’s imagination that is creative.

Young men created Canada

Let’s go back to a period in our Canadian history when our polities was genuinely creative, to the month of October 1864, at the meeting of the Quebec Conference that drew up the framework of Confederation, in October 1864, the oldest of the leading Fathers of Confederation, Georges Etienne Cartier, was just over 50. John A. Macdonald was just under 50. George Brown was 46. D'Arcy McGee was only 39. Charles Tupper was 43, and Leonard Tilley 46. Of the outstanding public men of that time there was one great figure who failed to rise to the opportunity of the moment. He was, of course, Joseph Howe; and what was wrong with Howe in October 1864 was clearly that he was too old for constructive politics; he had reached 60.

Go back a little further to another creative period in our political history. In December 1837, when he broke into rebellion. William Lyon Mackenzie was 42. His fellow rebel in Lower Canada, Louis Joseph Papincau, was 4L Lord Durham, whose famous Report started a new era, was 47 and at the end of his career when the Report was published in 1839. Robert Baldwin, who had the interview with Durham in Toronto in 1838 that insinuated the idea of responsible government into Durham’s mind, was at that moment only 34. After a long fight for his great idea, he retired from politics in 1851 at 47. His great French-Canadian colleague, Louis Lafontaine, retired with him in 1851 at 44. Think of it—two of our greatest statesmen,retiring from polities, their work done, at the ages of 47 and 44!

Now look at the situation today. Mr. St. Laurent, the prime minister, is 74. His two senior colleagues are Mr. Howe, 70, and Mr. Gardiner, 72. The leader of the opposition, Mr. Drew, is 62. Mr. Coldwell of the CCF is 67; Mr. Low, the Social Credit leader, is 56. In the two chief provinces, Mr. Frost of Ontario is 61. and M. Duplessis of Quebec is 66. And if you turn to the younger men, look at the Liberal front bench in Ottawa. Mr. Pearson is 59, Mr. Martin is 53, Mr. Harris is 52, Mr. Piekersgill is 51. These are the young hopefuls who are shortly, so one presumes, to take over the Liberal government and give us twenty or thirty years more of Liberalism with a capital "L.” Yet they are all today older than was Cartier in 1864, though Cartier was the oldest of the leading Fathers of Confederation. All of these contemporaries whose names I have mentioned arc men of exceptional ability. But where are the young men in our public life?

Another thing that we all agree to be wrong with Canadian politics at present is the phenomenon of overpowerful governments. Since the end of the war in 1945 only two provincial governments have been upset in elections, and the federal government has been in office since 1935. There they sit to the right of Mr. Speaker, with overwhelming majorities in the representative assembly, so secure in their hold of office that they becoTie contemptuous of the puny helpless oppositions facing them, and grow careless, arrogant and cynical in the exercise of their power. But Her Majesty’s Opposition is just as necessary for free, democratic, parliamentary institutions as is Her Majesty’s Government.

“The Canadian people don’t really want parliamentary government they want to make money”

Now, if we examine the voting figures in the elections that placed these overpowerful governments in office, we find nearly always that the balance of seats in the House is fantastically divergent from the balance of votes among the electorate. This is due to the working of our electoral system of single-member constituencies in a multi-party grouping of candidates. The successful party seldom gets even a majority of the votes, but it may get 70 percent or more of the siats. Thus the l iberal Party in recent federal elections got 46.5 percent of the votes across Canada in 1935, 54.8 in 1940.41.4 in 1945, 50 in 1949. and 49.9 in 1953. But in the House of Commons it has been accustomed to ride roughshod over oppositions that can easily be outvoted, because at these successive elections it won 176. 181, 125. 193. 172

The picture is similar in the provinces, l ast June, M. Duplessis was re-elected for the fourth consecutive time in what the newspapers described as a landslide; but, actually, even with the help of all those remarkable devices by which elections are won in Quebec, he got only some 52 percent of the votes. His majority in the Assembly, however, enables him to behave as if the opposition were as insignificant. practically, as an opposition in the Supreme Soviet at Moscow. In Saskatchewan last June, also. Mr. Douglas was re-elected lor the fourth time. He has 36 out of 53 seats, but he only got some 45 percent ol the votes. And so one might go on indefinitely.

It seems to me that, if we really think that Canadian governments are becoming too powerful in office, we should do something to change our electoral system. so as to give minorities a representation in the House more in proportion to the votes they receive in the country at large. Of course, our practical politicians, who enjoy the unearned security of unbeatable majorities in the House, will do nothing to make the working of our electoral system fairer to minorities. And those prim, prissy old maids, the professors of political science in our universities. will warn us that if we llirt with proportional representation we may be seduced into a fate worse than death. For PR. so the experts assure us. makes for a multi-party system rather than a two-party system. But we have a multiparty system already; and it could hardly produce worse results than it does at present.

1 am well aware that it is useless to argue with Canadians about electoral systems. The Canadian people don't really want parliamentary government as it is understood by historians and political scientists. They want to vote a government into office and leave it there to run the political machinery, while they themselves can get on with the serious business of making money. To us, as lo our American neighbors, an election is a way of escaping from politics for four years.

l et me go on to say something about the peculiar working of our multi-party system. I assume without argument that a two-party system is a better way of conducting democratic politics than a multi-party or a group system. I believe also that a two-party system like that of Britain, where the division is fairly clear-cut between a party of the Left and a party of the Right, is preferable to a two-party system like that of the United States, where each party contains all varieties of opinion from left to right, and where the method of political dialectic is for both parties to take both sides on every issue—-except on the issue of which party is to be on the inside and which on the outside of every office.

Most of the confusion of our national politics today is due to the fact that we haven't had a two-party system, of either the British or the American variety, for longer than most Canadians can remember. Since the election of 1921 we have suffered from a multiplicity of parties whose action and reaction have not been dynamic or creative enough to produce a new two-party system, but which have now been with us too long for a return of the old two-party to be possible. We arc wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.

A few years ago a well-known American journalist. Mr. Joseph Harsch, while broadcasting about American politics to a British audience over the BBC, made a comparison between British and American parties that I think is suggestive for Canadian politics. He said:

Your Conservative Party specializes in conservatism, your Labour Party in socialism. There may be an odd socialist in the Conservative Party, and vice versa; but by and large your British voter has a point of view which puts him automatically into one party or the other . . . Your British parties, like your shops, specialize in one particular line of goods. The American political party is like a big American department store. It tries to appeal to customers of all classes, doctrines and social persuasions.

Now in Canada, broadly speaking, we had by 1914 two political parties that called themselves by English names, Liberal and Conservative; but they were really two American department-store parties, each offering something for shoppers of every range of taste and pocketbook. Just before 1914 each was advertising its own special brand of naval goods, but otherwise the customer stood to get pretty much the same things, whichever store he patronized. This system was burned out by the fires of conscription in 1917. We found ourselves after the 1917 election with the worst possible kind of a two-party system— two parties of which one was EnglishÇanadian and one was French-Canadian. But by 1921 the English-Canadian combine had gone to pieces. And since then the strains of war and depression have produced divisions in our Canadian community with which the old departmentstore parties have not been able to cope successfully. The Progressive, CCF, Social Credit and French-Canadian nationalist movements were revolts against this old department-store type of politics. They accused the old department stores of selling high-quality goods at low prices to rich customers, and cheap shoddy goods at high prices to poor customers. But they all failed, in the sense that none of them was able to build up a new party with a wide enough appeal to make it capable of winning a majority of seats at Ottawa—i.c. capable of government.

To win such a majority a party must be able to make some effective appeal to English Canadians and French Canadians. to Protestants and Catholics, to city dwellers and urban dwellers, to easterners and westerners, to employers and workers. Only the Liberal Party has measured up to this necessity and built up a really national following. In this sense only the Liberal Party has deserved to be in office.

But the old two-party system of the two department-store parties never recovered. The Conservative department store failed to stock itself with goods that appealed to French-Canadian customers or to the mail-order customers out on the prairies. It gradually declined into an old-fashioned Victorian country store, with oil lamps and wood stoves, selling stiff starched collars and long woolen underwear, whalebone corsets and high-button shoes, to such old-fashioned customers as still survived in Ontario and New Brunswick. Though, to be sure, it did every now and then put up a freshly painted sign in front announcing that it had adopted a new name and was under entirely new management.

Meanwhile the L.iberal department store, under the astute direction of its young manager, Mr. Mackenzie King, equipped itself with all the modern merchandising techniques of the twentieth century. It added new departments to deal with such new commodities as oldage pensions and baby bonuses. It introduced a gaudily packaged new specialty of national citizenship for new Canadians. Its sales have therefore gone on booming from year to year; since 1935 it has blanketed the country and pretty nearly driven its rivals out of business.

In short, for the last twenty years we have had one genuinely national party, which is able to make an effective appeal in all parts of the country; and over against it a variety of special sectional, ideological or racial groups, none of which seems able to grow into the second national party that is necessary for a two-party system.

It seems to me that this has inhibited in Canada one healthy development that has been taking place all over the Western world: the rise of a genuine conservatism with a conservative philosophy and conservative policies. In the middle of the twentieth century conservatism means political leadership by big business. Britain and the United States now have conservative governments that are frankly businessmen’s governments. And the British or American citizen today knows what his politics is about. The Englishman is watching to see whether a conservative government depending upon private enterprise can put the British economy upon its feet, as a socialist government failed to do. The American is making up his mind whether it really is true that what is good for General Motors is good for the United States. And in American politics the two old department-store parties are being gradually forced into an alignment of Left versus Right.

But where is the conservative revival in Canada? There is a revival, I think, but it is taking a peculiar form that is unhealthy. We are now buying conservative goods from the L.iberal department store. It is the L-iberals who boast thenbelief in private enterprise—American private enterprise, if necessary. It is the Liberals who are closely associated with big business and who are committed to a program of economic expansion under the leadership of big-business enterprise. Under Mr. King in the 1920s and 1930s the Uberals were able to frustrate the rise of any genuine party of the Left. Under Mr. St. Laurent they frustrate the rise of any genuine national party of the Right. Their blanketing of the Centre prevents our ever getting any clear sense of the direction in which we are moving or any clear sense of the alternatives between which we might choose.

All this had led to another peculiarly Canadian phenomenon. Since we seem unable to produce an effective second party, and so to produce an effective opposition on Parliament Hill, we arc turning by some instinctive subconscious process in another direction. Her Majesty’s Canadian Opposition is emerging in the provincial capitals. The federal government treats the little opposition parties in Ottawa with contempt, but it negotiates warily with the provincial governments. It well knows where the countervailing power is located which is really a check upon its own power. In effect, our Canadian opposition now consists of the Social Credit governments in British Columbia and Alberta, the CCF government in Saskatchewan, the Conservative governments in Ontario and New Brunswick. and the Union Nationale government in Quebec.

But they constitute so effective an opposition that our politics has reached a condition of stalemate. The federal government manoeuvres skillfully so as to put the blame for inaction upon obstinate provincial governments, while they in turn try to convict the federal government of being the villain. L.ook at what is happening, or rather what is failing to happen, in health, in education, in road building, in housing and so on. Moreover, far from trying to shake loose from this vicious system, we Canadian voters now elect anti-Liberal governments in the provinces to save ourselves from Ottawa, and then we turn around and elect a L.iberal government to Ottawa to save ourselves from these provincialrights wreckers.

Such conduct does not strike me as a demonstration of political intelligence. We need some fresh stimulant in our politics that will have the same invigorating effect as the stimulant of unprecedented capital investment has had upon our economy. Being an old man myself. I haven’t the slightest idea of where this stimulant will come from. But there are some four hundred thousand new babies being born every year in Canada. Surely, when the due quota of these babies eventually goes into politics, surely some of them will come up w'ith some new political ideas. ★