July 6 1963


July 6 1963



ON BOOKS: the blind worship that makes Canadian politics unique

ALMOST EVERYONE WHO WRITES on Canadian politics agrees that our major political parties are not distinguished by any serious differences in outlook or policy, but every student of the subject must somehow discover the reality of this fact for himself.

The first time I took part in a political campaign I was astonished to discover that my fellow political workers spent practically no time at all discussing political issues. Until then l had believed that political issues were what politics were about — after all. the newspapers said so. 1 expected that a local political organization would be the place to hear excited arguments about the events of the day.


But as it turned out, we political workers in this modest provincial campaign (we speechwriters, doorbell-pushers, envelope-addressers) rarely spoke a word to one another about education, roads, health, etc., the fields in which our candidate, it elected, would make his influence felt. Anyone who heard our conversations would have assumed, rightly, that these matters were far from our minds. What we talked about, mostly, was the party we were working for and its chances of winning. Our side was then out of office, and we wanted it in. The other fellows were in, and we wanted them out. Those two facts established the limits of our views.

At this point I began to grow vaguely aware that this was not only true in our constituency but was indeed the situation throughotit most of Canadian politics. Through the years this fact has become clearer: no matter how hot an issue may be in the newspapers, the politicians themselves regard it as trivial compared to the status of the political party to which they belong. In Canada it is the party itself, not the viewpoint, which engages the passions of men. This explains why, as one Liberal organizer pointed out to me recently, it is possible within the Liberal Party to hold views somewhat to the right of those held by Maurice Duplessis. At the same time, in the Conservative Party, it is possible to be an advocate of deficit spending and far more social welfare. Canadian political parties operate like secular arms ot the Unitarian Church. The only faith they require is attendance.

This being so, how is it that they claim the loyalty which is necessary to political campaigning? How, without agreeing on important issues, can they inspire their members to work long hours at the boring tasks political organization demands? Sometimes, of course, specific groups, such as wheat farmers or Quebec nationalists, express themselves through certain parties, but these are the exceptions. How does it work the rest of the time0

In 1921, Lord Bryce, a British diplomat and jurist, pointed out the peculiar character of Canadian politics:

"Party (in Canada) seems to exist for its own sake. In Canada ideas are not needed to make parties, for these can live by heredity, and. like the Guelfs and Cihibellines of medieval Italy, by memories of past combats; attachments to leaders of such striking gifts and long careers as were Sir John Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier, created a personal loyaltx w hich exposed a man to reproach as a deserter when he voted against his party."

Bryce's comment is quoted in the late John W. Dafoe's Laurier: A Study in Canadian Politics, one of a small pile of Canadian political books I’ve been reading lately. Dafoe, writing in 1922, said that Canadian political parties had ceased to be expressions of political views and instead had become warring tribes, or states within the state. Their leaders had come to resemble absolute monarchs. Ot Macdonald and Laurier. Dafoe wrote: "Of these principalities they were the chieftains, chosen in the first place bv election — as kings often were in the old times; but hereafter holding their positions by virtue of personal right and having the power in the last analysis by their own acts to determine party policy and enforce discipline."

Macdonald and Laurier, he wrote, led their parties for so long that toward the end of their careers half their followers "could not remember when other suns shone in the firmament; all these influences helped to transform party feeling into . . . blind worship." The variety of views across Canada made it impossible to maintain distinct party policies, so for policies Canadians substituted loyalty to the party leader and the party itself, as an abstract force. This is pure politics, like pure abstract art — the style and passion are there, but the content is missing.


Dafoe expected this would change, but it did not. Blind worship of leader and party is still the great stabilizing force in Canadian politics. In Britain it is possible to change according to your convictions — Churchill, for instance, did it twice. In Canada this is considered a shameful act of betrayal, like treason to the king — consider, for instance, the bit-

terness of New Democrats following Hazen Argue's defection to the Liberals. Equally, to attempt to unseat a leader is an act of blasphemy — consider the general Conservative attitude to George Hees’ attempt at a palace revolution last winter. When loyal Canadian politicians speak of their own party it is with that same noble blindness which characterizes most patriotic writing: "My party right or wrong; but, right or wrong, my party? Last year J. W. Pickersgill's book. 7 he Liberal Party of Canada, demonstrated, to his own satisfaction, that the Liberal Party had always been right about everything, no matter which side of which issue it happened to choose. In this respect Pickersgill is the perfect ( anadian politician.


George Hogan is a Toronto politician who has written a little book called The C onservative in Canada. Hogan tries consciously to avoid Pickersgill's attitude — he mentions it specifically, in fact — but he sets himself a task which is, if possible, even more difficult than attempting to prove the historic virtue ot the Liberal Party. He tries to tell us what a Progressive Conservative is.

An intelligent young politician wrestling with this problem presents a melancholy spectacle. "Our system of responsible government." Hogan writes, “should give the electorate the opportunity of making a clear-cut choice, not only between men. but between policies." Alas, articulate people in all parties have been saying just this for the last half century, to no purpose. While they have been carefully defining the issues, those politicians who have preferred to muddy them — King and St. Laurent and Diefenbaker, and most of the others — have been running the parties, w inning the elections, and shaping our public life. Hogan admits that conservatism is an instinctive philosophy, but nevertheless he feels he must define it rationally. He insists that Progressive Conservatives stand for the constitution, free enterprise, the Commonwealth, national development, etc., but of course he cannot tell us how this makes them different from the Liberals. He makes several specific suggestions for future policy

(a Commonwealth airlines merger, free trade with the West Indies), but he cannot give us a reason why these policies could not be pursued equally well in the Liberal Party — or. indeed, the NDP. For there is no reason.

It seems likely that federal politics in Canada will continue to exist without the “clearcut choice” that Hogan and people like him seem to yearn for. But this doesn’t make the accomplishment of great changes in Canada impossible. In the past, those people who have worked imaginatively within the system, from a firmly held viewpoint, have often seen their dreams come true — or. at least, halt true. Two recent biographies — ./. E. Atkinson of the Star, and The Politics of John IV. Dafoe and the Tree Press — indicate some ot the ways in which two political journalists used the Canadian political situation to move the country in the directions they chose. Atkinson, who built the Toronto Daily Star into the most popular paper in the country, made social welfare measures the chief aims of his policy, and spent most of his lifetime pushing the reluctant Liberal Party toward the Welfare State. How he did this — how, for instance, he promoted the CCF as a threat to keep the Liberals nervous — is one of the most fascinating aspects of Ross Harkness’ biography. Ramsay C ook’s book on Dafoe is equally interesting in its account of Dafoe's campaign for Canadian independence from Britain; the voice of Dafoe, which became the voice of the Canadian West, was one of the constant pressures pushing Ottawa toward genuine Canadian independence. Dafoe, an articulate political thinker, often resented the permanent fog in which Canadian politics were carried on; but he knew how to pierce it.


Both Atkinson and Dafoe understood the means by which the national mood of the moment could be used to promote those projects in which they were interested. Mood, not policy, is the essence of Canadian politics, according to J. R. Mallory, one of the contributors to a new anthology, Party Politics in Canada.

“At any given time only one party is in tune with a national mood.” Mallory explains, “and that party is likely to stay in power until the mood changes and leaves it politically high and dry.

"Macdonald was in his way the perfect expression of the national spirit in the nineteenth century — raffish, careless, tough and pliable. Laurier combined an elegant and eloquent idealism with the embodiment of a spirit of compromise — of healing the scars of race, religion and region which had grown up since the Seventies . . . The time came when . . . compromise appeared merely the inaction of old, tired men in office. The earnest, precise Borden represented the reaction in a time of deep national trial. Again, Mackenzie King, with his earnest preaching about the virtue of conciliation, represented the tortured doubts of an age of national frustration." With St. Laurent, Mallory says, the country turned to a bland, sophisticated, managerial competence. But this in turn produced a certain frustration and insecurity. "Into this atmosphere was skilfully projected the personality of John Diefenbaker, solemnly intoning evangelical phrases about a national vision and a national dedication. It does not matter whether these ‘thoughts’ have much meaning — they did catch a mood." It is this question of mood — of style, tone, posture — which finally emerges as the central fact in Canadian politics.

LAURIER: A STUDY IN CANADIAN POLITICS: J. W. Dafoe started out to write a review of

/ he Pife and Letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier in the Winnipeg Tree Press, but his series of articles grew into this short, subtle, and extremely well-written expression of one man’s liberalism. Dafoe’s attitudes seem ancient today — for instance, when he stresses Canadian independence from England and brushes off the Erench-Canadian question — but his book is still much more than just a document of the times. It is issued as part of a new series of paperbacks, the Carleton Library. (McClelland and Stewart. $1.95, 109 pages.)

* C:' i HE CONSERVATIVE IN CANADA: Whatever difficulties he has in rationalizing the history of his party, George Hogan proves in this brief, modest book that he is his own man, and an interesting one. ( McClelland and Stewart, $3.50. 130 pages.)

OP .1. E. ATKINSON or THE STAR: Ross Harkness, a Toronto Star reporter, wrote this biography of the paper’s founder on assignment from the paper’s present owners, but it's remarkably free of the usual sins of company books and remarkably frank in its assessments of Star policies. For anyone whose interests encompass journalism and politics, it's indispensable. (University of Toronto Press, $6. 390 pages.)

OP THE POLITICS Of JOHN W. DA EOE AND THE FREE PRESS: Ramsay Cook, a young University of Toronto historian, has produced a well - written, closely reasoned account of Dafoe’s political views and their impact on his country. (University of Toronto Press, $5.95, 305 pages.)

Of PARTY POLITICS IN CANADA: Perhaps the liveliest book in this pile, this is an anthology, compiled by Hugh G. Thorburn, of essays by academic writers on subjects ranging from the "loose fish" of the nineteenth century (members who chose their party after election, and invariably chose the government party) to the 1958 Liberal leadership convention (PrenticeHall, $3.50, 172 pages.)