“Political History Through Biographical Studies”

Great men, great politics, and the progress of the nation since confederation – that is the best way I can think to describe Bliss’ Right and Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from MacDonald to Chretien .  Bliss describes the book as “political history through biographical studies of Canada’s most important prime ministersand as a non-political historian I was intrigued as to how this approach would work.  I assumed it would be a throwback to traditional Canadian history – exactly what Granatstein wants so badly – and was not disappointed.  I am still not convinced biography is a useful mode of historical analysis in the twenty-first century or that there is much to be gained from a general overview of Canadian politics through only the leaders and I am still perplexed by Bliss’ ranking of the most important prime minsters.
Let’s start with biography.  As an approach to the past, biography reeks of a time when the field was small enough that it was possible to gain a solid overview of the past through the life and times of one person.  It celebrates as often as it condemns and is always so caught up in the main character that the the intricacies surrounding them are simplified to the detriment of the topic.  Additionally, it subjugates the individuals whose actions, ideas, and relationships shape the past and assimilates their contributions into those of the main character.  In Right and Honourable Men these tendencies are amplified because it is not a biography of one prime minister but 10.  The incestuousness of the political system means that MacDonald pops up in the Laurier chapter and vice-versa, but a chapter is barely enough to cover how a given PM came to power and the trajectory of their political career let alone provide significant evidence to justify the author’s interpretation.  The exception might be Mackenzie King because he gets two chapters – but that is something to return to.  It is interesting that for each politician Bliss finds a way to situate himself as the voice of descent in how they are understood.  He is adamant John A was no worse a drunk than most of society (and given his personal life was sort of justified in his heavier drinking days).  Similarly, Mackenzie King is not to be viewed as the confirmed bachelor with an unnatural attachment to his mother and pet dogs, dabbling in the occult, and chasing prostitutes in his younger years because Bliss can see no evidence aspects of his personal life impacted his political life or choices. Yet, the character descriptions of the PMs are one of the highlights of the book and despite Bliss’ attempts to refashion the most familiar PMs in new garb MacDonald still comes off as having a drinking problem and MacKenzie King as having some issues that would have benefited more from a good psychiatrist than a Ouija board and seance.  This illustrates the greatest pitfall of using biography to understand politics – the individuals overwhelm the story.
The biographies produce a necessarily general image of Canadian politics.  If this was someone’s first introduction to our politics, and the author intends it to be as useful to high school students as it is to senior undergraduates and the general public, I am not convinced it would tell them all that much.  Sure they would know who the first PM was and get the general rally between the Conservatives and Liberals for control of Parliament, but beyond that most of the PM come off as more lucky than intelligent because despite all their shortcomings and ineptitudes they managed not to completely mess things up.  (Messing things up in this context would be letting, or causing, Confederation to dissolve by losing Quebec.)  The other issue is the general narrative means the Canada that emerges is once again dominated by the bi’s of bilingualism and biculturalism.  The west barely exists – except when a PM lived there – and the same is true of the Maritimes.  The entire story is about keeping Ontario and Quebec  happy, perpetuating the sentiment that “Canada” means the eastern time zone.
The overall sense of Canadian politics that is gained from Right and Honourable Men is our PMs were all smart men, with visions for the future that were sometimes vague and sometimes definite, who were products of their times and experiences, alternated between alienating Quebec and bringing Quebec back into the fold, and were too often just lucky not to break-up Confederation.  It is a political history because all the men were politicians and it talks about the things that happened on the Hill.  Yet, I am not convinced that biography is the best, or even a useful, way to understand political history.  Bliss admits he ignored anyone and any party that did not form government – this writes off the CCF-NDP, Bloc, and now the Green party as unimportant and their role in shaping Canadian history minimal.  This is true of the Green Party, but would Trudeau done half of what he did with out Tommy Douglas and the CCF constantly prodding him?  Would the reaction of Chretien to the 1995 Referendum been as extreme in rhetoric and action if the Bloc hadn’t been about to form the official opposition?  Probably not, yet this is all down played making the party in power appear to function in a near vacuum where the tensions with other parties – mainly the marginal parties – are deemed irrelevant in comparison to the perpetual tensions between Liberals and Conservatives.

I am slowly getting over an old aversion to political history so Bliss was a welcome opportunity to re-engage the arguments I usually avoid.  Hopefully this interest sustains me through the rest of the “Confederation” section.  Addressing the ranking of PMs will have to be a separate post because this one is getting too long.

About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
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