There were always enemies, treacherous schemers, who were plotting to destroy him. They were big-city folks, easterners who wielded power with casual and brutal disregard for any Western outsider. But the real people, those folks that nobody represented except him, would defend him. The grassroots would save his job as leader of the party—and allow him to fulfil his destiny. “I have been maligned,” he once thundered. “I have been condemned. Will it be the will of the people or those that are all-powerful?”
It is all eerily familiar, an eddy in time. The embatded leader was John Diefenbaker, Conservative prime minister from 1957 to 1963, winner of two minority governments and one huge majority, finally ousted from his position as leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in 1967 after two electoral defeats and a bitterly divisive party struggle. But the paranoia about enemies, the stance of defiant outsider, the appeal to an oppressed grassroots, the stubborn yearning for power: it could so easily be Stockwell Day, leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, grasping only last week for the support that would keep him in control of his Canadian Alliance party even as dissident MPs moved to establish their own Democratic Representative Caucus. “Both Diefenbaker and Day claimed that numbers did not matter, other than the fact they had the confidence of humble, ordinary Canadians whose numbers were legion,” muses former Tory party official Dalton Camp, who spearheaded an almost-three-year drive to oust Diefenbaker. “Both knew who their people were: they were very tribal.” There was a time, of course, when the appeal of both Diefenbaker and Day stretched far beyond their Prairie populist roots. Was it only last year that Alberta’s former treasurer, now 50, captured his party’s leadership as a new and beguiling face? Diefenbaker, the eldest son of rugged Saskatchewan homesteaders, came later to power: the 61-year-old lawyer had been an MP for 17 years when he upset a tired Liberal administration with the electrifying promise to recapture “the vision and the idealism” of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. True, the two men brought radically different aptitudes to office. Day is a university dropout, a Christian school administrator who bounced through jobs ranging from auctioneer and chicken peddler to oilfield worker before setding on a political career. A stolidly leaden speaker, he remains a fundamentalist outsider in a now-secular land. In contrast, Diefenbaker was a well-educated party veteran with an abiding respect for Parliament and strong sense of history. He drew his outsider status from his Germanic last name—and his Spartan small-town childhood. But his spellbinding oratory could twist any jury around his finger—and tug a crowd into his corner. “He was much brighter, more experienced and much more cunning than Stockwell Day,” says University of Toronto political scientist David Cameron.
Determined to hang on, Diefenbaker contested the leadership one last time. He was trounced
Although Day has called for a party vote, he has also indicated he may choose to run again
It’s as political leaders that their failings show striking parallels. During last fall’s election campaign, Day constantly revised party policy, unilaterally amending and then re-amending positions on everything from health care to direct democracy. Although Diefenbaker spun enticing visions in campaigns, he could not translate those dreams into a sustained plan of action. As the Cold War raged, as President John F. Kennedy fumed, he dithered over Canada’s role in continental defence: should the nation accept
nuclear weapons on its soil? He sporadically espoused a quixotic attempt to reduce Canada’s economic dependence on the United States through greater trade with Britain. A lifelong champion of civil liberties, Diefenbaker produced a bill of rights—but allowed the RCMP to continue its silent purge of suspected Communists. As political scientist Denis Smith observes in his landmark biography Rogue Tory, solid progress was doomed by Diefenbaker’s “congenital caution, disorganization and shallow intellectual focus.”
The similarities are strongest in the two leaders’ turbulent relationships with their own colleagues. Cabinet batdes during Diefenbaker’s tenure were awesome: in 1963, during a bitter argument over his reluctance to arm Bomarc missiles, there were shouts of “traitor” and “treacherous bastards,” table-banging, walkouts and the resignation of defence minister Douglas Harkness. There were no subdeties in the Prime Minister’s judgments, no shadings: MPs were either for or against him. He rarely attended caucus, expected absolute loyalty and classified dissent as treachery. “With his own paranoia he drove people away from him,” says Senator Marjory LeBreton, a longtime activist who worked in his office and at party headquarters during those stormy years. “He made enemies of his dissidents much like Day is doing with his.”
It is instructive to recall his fate. When Prime Minister Lester Pearson defeated him in 1963, Diefenbaker could scarcely contain his rage or his festering sense of grievance. He was determined to return to power. But the aging lion was out of step with the Swinging Sixties; the GermanScotdsh descendent had difficulties with the concept of “two founding nations”; the Prairie anglophile who mangled French could never grasp the balancing act of a true federation—or the pride and the purpose of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution.
He ran out of rope. In early 1965, exasperated by Diefenbaker’s inability to accommodate the new Quebec, MP Léon Balcer asked party president Camp to consider a leadership convention. Because there was no automatic procedure for leadership review, the wily Diefenbaker thwarted that move—and went on to lose the 1965 election. Camp knew that Diefenbaker could hold his by-now largely Prairie-based caucus; instead, he used party executives to plot his coup at the 1966 general meeting. First, he defeated Diefenbaker’s hand-picked candidate for president. Then, he pushed through a resolution for a leadership convention. Diefenbaker still refused to resign. At the last minute, he even threw his hat into the ring. He was trounced.
There are lessons here. Last week, Day asked the Alliance national council to call a leadership vote, and pledged to step down 90 days before the balloting. But he left open the possibility that he would run again. Surely the good of the party—that is, of the broadest possible coalition of the party—should be put ahead of the ambitions of the leader. “Both leaders were struck down by the nemesis of pride,” says Smith today. “It is one of the endemic diseases of political leadership.”
Should Stockwell Day run in the upcoming Alliance leadership race?
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