MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

GIVING FORM TO THE MURK OF POLITICS

Here is a searching analysis of the scandals haunting the politicians

JAMES BANNERMAN December 1 1965
MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

GIVING FORM TO THE MURK OF POLITICS

Here is a searching analysis of the scandals haunting the politicians

JAMES BANNERMAN December 1 1965

GIVING FORM TO THE MURK OF POLITICS

Bannerman on books

Here is a searching analysis of the scandals haunting the politicians

WHAT THE PUBLISHERS of a book say about it is generally and understandably much too favorable. But what the publishers of The Shape Of Scandal, by Richard Gwyn (Clarke, Irwin, $5.00) say about it turns out to be thoroughly justified; as for example when they call it “an imponant book which goes far to explain the nature of our government.” It does indeed go far to do that, and thus it is indeed important.

To have deserved this praise is a remarkable achievement. The nature of our government in Canada is complex and full of contrasts. Some aspects are positively Machiavellian in their cold cynicism. Others are so ingenuous that they'd seem a bit too wide-eyed even to Anne of Green Gables. Yet Richard Gwyn has managed to show, with admirable clarity, how such opposites can co-exist, and why the political whole is greater than the sum of its oddly assorted parts.

Gwyn, who for the last three years has been an Ottawa correspondent for Time, was born in England and is still in his early thirties. He came to Canada in 1953, after graduating from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst — surely a most unlikely place to have produced a good journalist. The disciplines by which an English career officer is formed are not designed primarily to broaden the mind and stimulate a searching curiosity about people and things. But Gwyn’s mind, besides being broad and inquiring, has a further excellence: the ability to observe with detachment, and to perceive and evaluate relationships.

He demonstrates this quality in the very first paragraph of the foreword to his book. “The content of a political scandal,” he writes, “is usually venial, seldom original. What is important in the long run is the shape each scandal assumes. This shape has three dimensions: a story, a structure and a source. It is built less by what happened than by why it happened and by what was done about it by those in authority.”

This makes it plain that Gwyn’s

choice of a title wasn’t determined by a simple wish to be striking. What he set out to write was a study of a series of events which weren’t scandalous in the lurid sense, unlike many of the events in the Profumo Affair which rocked, or at any rate shocked, Britain in 1963. There was nothing in the Canadian scandals to match the seductive Christine Keeler and her highly seducible friends. On the surface, our scandals were the greyish kind that arise out of charges of bribery, corruption and the improper exercise of influence. But below the surface, as Gwyn says, they had a shape, and the shape was significant.

It was significant about many things — the characters of the people involved, the moral and ethical standards of our politics, the relations of French

Canadians with their fellow citizens. Perhaps most significantly of all, the shape of the scandals raised the question of individual competence. A lot of distressing incidents could have been avoided, or greatly minimized, if certain people appointed to influential positions had been better qualified to hold those positions, and consequently less inept in their handling of the various deplorable situations that arose. And some of these persons were so clearly unsuited by temperament for the positions they held, that it’s permissible to wonder why they were ever appointed to them in the first place.

Gw'yn’s analysis of all this is superb, and so is his telling of the story. Indeed it was his gift as a story-teller that led me to read the book. I wasn’t much interested in the scandals even when they were being uncovered and the front pages of newspapers were loud with headlines about them. What little interest 1 did have was soon lost in a sort of confused boredom — a feeling that may have crept over you too in those not very distant days. And with such a lack of interest in the subject of The Shape Of Scandal,

I thought that instead of being the sort of book I couldn’t put down once I’d started it, it would be one I couldn’t pick up. But I did pick it up, read a page at random, and was instantly captivated.

Its most obvious attraction is Gwyn’s style, which is clean and vivid enough to heighten the impact of what

he has to tell, and mask the dreary pettiness of so much of his raw material. But its chief merit is something less obvious. Behind the vivid writing, which only occasionally lapses into gaudy color, there is a solid structure of clear thought. Everything is intelligently arranged and lucidly presented, with as much detail as is needed for adequate exposition, but with no more. There is the same relevance and economy in dealing with the characters and personalities of the people concerned in these shoddy events and allegations; most, like Lucien Rivard, quickly sketched; a few, notably Guy Favreati and Lester Pearson, given full-length and compassionately revealing portraits.

Something that emerges from The Shape Of Scandal, like a dividend added to the history of those troubled months and to the probing study of the nature of our government, is both unexpected and valuable. Now and then explicitly, but more often by implication, you and I and the rest of us are shown the extent to which we’re responsible for the way we’re governed, and for the kind of people who govern us. I mean responsible beyond the self-evident responsibility we accept when we cast our votes. The people we elect, their standards of conduct and their whole approach to life, are deeply and inevitably influenced by the moral climate of Canada. And the moral climate of Canada is what we make it — the end result of an immense complex of views and prejudices, held by us collectively, reflecting us, and so to speak imposing us.

Ottawa, like charity, begins at home.

JAMES BANNERMAN