A Canadian historian rates the country’s prime ministers
To praise and to bury
A Canadian historian rates the country’s prime ministers
RIGHT HONOURABLE MEN: THE DESCENT OF CANADIAN POLITICS FROM MACDONALD TO MULRONEY
By Michael Bliss (HarperCollins, 336 pages, $29)
Not all Canadian prime ministers get a chapter of their own in historian Michael Bliss’s new work, Right Honourable Men. Tories Arthur Meighen and R. B. Bennett have to share one. Others, such as Alexander Mackenzie, Canada’s first Liberal prime minister, or Kim Campbell and John Turner, are reduced to little more than footnotes. But Brian Mulroney gets a chapter all to himself that is only two pages shorter than the chapter on Pierre Trudeau, and two pages longer than Lester Pearson’s—statistics that Mulroney would not think trivial. Mulroney, however, may wish that Bliss, a professor at the University of Toronto, had stuck to the social and economic studies that he has written in the past. For historian Bliss is not kind to Mulroney, a man consumed by how history will rate him.
By the time of his retirement, Mulroney’s personal popularity—and his parly’s—had fallen to an all-time low. The party richly deserved the drubbing it took in last October’s election, Bliss concludes. The arguments over whether Mulroney or Campbell was to blame for the debacle were futile, he adds, as few faces had changed in the transition from one govern-
ment to the other. “They had all been cut from the same cloth,” says Bliss. The party was out of touch: it had lost its credibility, its moral centre and its connection to the governed.
For Bliss, the judgment of the people seems a final verdict. Since Confederation, power has gradually shifted from the political elites to the people, he argues, culminating in the electorate’s rejection of the Charlottetown constitutional deal in the 1992 referendum. Canada’s best prime ministers, William Lyon Mackenzie King and Trudeau, both “had an abiding faith in popular sovereignty” and both realized that the power they wielded was only borrowed.
But Right Honourable Men is not a political science tract on democracy, nor a dry recitation of the lives of Canadian prime ministers. Bliss’s skilful prose and caustic wit—which sometimes borders on the savage—make for a lively text. Mulroney “would have been an excellent mayor of Boston in the 1940s,” writes Bliss, who later describes the former prime minister as a “glad-handing ambitious throwback to the political world of the 19th century.”
Arthur Meighen, briefly prime minister in the 1920s but known chiefly for his failed tenure as Tory leader, suffers perhaps the most severe mauling. Like Robert Stanfield in contemporary times, Meighen lost because he was not up to the task, Bliss argues. If Stanfield was an “aging slow-moving butler claiming a right to sit at the head of the table,” the arrogant Meighen, a onetime high-school teacher
who blamed the public for his defeats, did not understand the country he was trying to lead and lacked the fundamental skills needed for leadership. “Like Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney in the 1980s,” Bliss writes, “he was bom to be a lieutenant, not a general.”
Bliss saves his highest praise for King,
Canada’s longest-serving prime minister who led the Liberal party for nearly three decades and played a key role in national politics for almost half a century. For all his personal quirks, King was “the leader who divided us least,” Bliss writes, quoting with approval the assessment of historian and social activist Frank Underhill. And Bliss finds Underhill’s subsequent comment prescient: “Perhaps this is as much as we shall ever be able to say, for a long time to come, about Canadian unity.”
King has been mocked as a fence sitter interested only in maintaining power, famed for his wartime nostrum: “Not necessarily conscription but conscription if necessary.” But the policy worked, Bliss notes. When King finally did impose conscription in 1944, there was no repetition of the 1918 Quebec City riots. King’s record was condemned after his retirement by poet Frank Scott: He blunted us./We had no shape/Because he never took
sides/And no sides/Because he never allowed them to form. But with another Quebec referendum looming, such condemnation may in fact be high praise. “In a country like ours,” King once wrote, “the art of government is largely one of seeking to reconcile rather than to exaggerate differences.”
Trudeau can hardly be called a conciliator, but Bliss accords him the same respect he gives King. In his view, Trudeau’s greatest achievement was the charter of rights, with its limits on the power of political leaders and its underlying principle that the people, and not Parliament, are sovereign. While noting Trudeau’s failures, such as the National Energy Program, Bliss says that ‘Trudeau’s career was about enabling Canadians to take control of their lives.” Even after his retirement, he remained “the most effective political warrior in Canada during the Mulroney years” because Canadians respected him.
Right Honourable Men is not, as Bliss freely admits, a work of original research. But it does fill an important gap in drawing together sketches of Canada’s most important leaders. Bliss points out that Canadian historians in re cent years have concentrated their research on almost everything except politics. His book may signal a revival of interest in political history—which may not be welcome news to politicians on the receiving end of that scrutiny.
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