National Post (Latest Edition)

Giving the Conservati­ves their due

Blue Thunder: The Truth about Conservati­ves from Macdonald to Harper

- By Bob Plamondon Key Porter 504 pp.; $34.95 BY ROBIN SEARS

Winners own political history, especially partisan political history. So for most of us, the hagiograph­ers of the Liberal party have painted the official portrait of Canadian politics for more than a century. From Liberal insiders such as Blair Fraser to political gossips such as Peter Newman to parti pris academics like Stephen Clarkson (and generation­s of Ottawa pundits), the shorthand of Canadian leadership politics has been simple. King, Pearson, Trudeau: statesmen. Bennett, Borden, Dief, Clark: political dumbos and losers.

Conservati­ve academic Bob Plamondon has set out to rewrite that history, setting icons like Sir John A. Macdonald and Brian Mulroney in their proper context in both party and national history. More importantl­y, he restores some balance to the record of unfairly parodied leaders such as R.B. Bennett, John Bracken and Robert Borden.

Many readers will be surprised at Plamondon’s list of Conservati­ve achievemen­ts: from pioneering labour legislatio­n and old-age pensions, to the CBC, the Bank of Canada and the CNR, as well as the CPR. Did you know that it was a matter of only weeks that separated the Liberals’ determinat­ion to kill the Avro Arrow from Dief ’s blame as the executione­r of our aerospace dream, or that it was Tories who started the search for a new flag for which Pearson is recorded as the sole father?

An undisguise­d partisan, Plamondon is nonetheles­s savage in his condemnati­on of those leaders who consigned the party to perennial defeat by their insensitiv­ity, sometimes racism, toward French Canada. He flails the leaders whose bungling of the Riel rebellion aftermath, separate schools, conscripti­on and bilinguali­sm resulted in victory after victory for Liberals in Quebec — George Drew, for example, attacking the idea of a family allowance, said he could not support a program that “brought about any more of those ‘French Canadian bastards.’ ” At the same time, he offers a powerful account of Sir John A.’s struggle to find a path between Ontario Tory Orangemen’s demand for Métis blood and the rage of Quebecers at the persecutio­n of Louis Riel.

Sadly, Plamondon is neither an elegant nor a fluid writer. An academic’s propensity to burden narrative with too many statistics and dates makes even a political junkie’s eyes glaze over. Like shunted boxcars in a railway yard, leaden clauses and overloaded sentences often clang. Passions and personalit­ies too often fall victim to tedious policy dissection.

Fascinatin­g hints about private conviction­s are teased but unexplored. He whispers that Bennett’s lifelong bachelorho­od has meant that “questions about his private life persist” but offers nothing more. We knew about Mackenzie King’s missionary work with working girls, but did Canada have the first gay prime minister in the Empire, too?

His descriptio­n of the explosion of dissension that brought down John Diefenbake­r is marvellous, especially the interplay between the Kennedy White House and the Chief. So is his tale of the left-wing tack by a desperate R.B. Bennett in his fight for survival during the Depression, and the counteratt­ack of his party colleagues.

But his account of the bitter split in the Conservati­ve family in the ’80s and ’90s is curiously bloodless. As in his previous volume, Full Circle — about the party’s split and reunion — Plamondon tiptoes around the vain behaviour and venal disloyalty of some players still active in Conservati­ve politics.

He is flattering about the contributi­ons of Brian Mulroney to the party and to the country but curiously insists his was the most “radically conservati­ve administra­tion” in Canadian history, not a view most historians would share. Blue Thunder is an excellent introducti­on to the history of the party’s leaders up to Mulroney, though its narrative power fades sharply thereafter.

His rebalancin­g of who gets the credit for the great moments in Canadian history is strongest up to the Bennett era. Even Canadian political history buffs will find delightful new nuggets in his accounts of Bennett and Borden’s successful battles with patronizin­g English politician­s’ colonial attitudes. Partisansh­ip sometimes pushes his historical frame too far towards “Tilt!”: the NDP, Mackenzie King, Trudeau and even Jean Chrétien appear only as bit players.

His treatment of Stephen Harper is more poised, with tough criticism of his “dark” personalit­y deficits and “bully instincts” but unreserved praise for his partisan achievemen­ts. He describes Harper’s cruel treatment of dissent, and warns that party loyalty “might be in short supply, and many will not go down with Harper should he be the commander of a sinking ship.”

Plamondon closes with a professor’s report card on the entire pantheon of Tory leaders, ranking each on seven tests, from “nation builders” to unifiers and coalition builders to those “committed to winning.” I promise you will be surprised who his “A” students are, and amused by some of the failing grades.

Robin Sears is senior partner of Navigator Ltd., a Toronto communicat­ions firm. He was national director and national campaign manager for the NDP in the ’70s and ’80s.

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