The Truth about Conservatives
from Macdonald to Harper
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by Bob Plamondon
Key Porter Books, Toronto, 2009 $34.95
Bob Plamondon’s Blue Thunder is an easy, enjoyable read for anyone interested in Canadian politics, particularly for those who identify with the Conservative Party. However, it should be noted that this book is about Conservative Party leaders, rather than the party per se — unlike the last authoritative work on the party, by John Williams, which was published more than half a century ago.
The book is divided into ten sections, beginning with Sir John A. Macdonald and ending with Stephen Harper and a look to the future. Within each section there are anywhere from two to seven chapters, depending on the era. In addition, there is an excellent statistical appendix, an appendix assessing the leaders against a variety of criteria, and a comprehensive bibliography.
The book is somewhat puzzling in that its first half is full of errors — some serious, some minor; some of commission, some of omission — but it is error-free in its second half.
The minor errors are irritating. They include spelling Nickle two different ways in three lines, calling Sir John Rose Canada’s first minister of finance when he was the second, making statements in the text that are contradicted in the author’s own appendix (Mackenzie King won a majority in 1921), as well as dating errors.
The errors of omission are annoying. For example, Plamondon provides a full description of the party’s first convention in Winnipeg in 1927, but he ignores the fact that this was
the first convention of any Canadian party where women attended as voting delegates and the fact that it was the first to be broadcast by radio.
The major errors relate to policy rather than to politics. The National Policy — arguably the most significant economic policy of any Canadian government of any stripe at any time — is not in the index, although there is room for the National Products Marketing Act. Nor is there any reference to the decisions at the Quebec City Conference that made currency, banking, and insurance federal functions, decisions that have been so important in ensuring that Canada did not experience the sort of “credit crisis” the United States has been suffering.
Something happens when the author reaches Section V, which deals with John “Dief the Chief ” Diefenbaker. His analysis of both the Avro Arrow and the Coyne crisis are excellent. For those who have said Diefenbaker was not a true Conservative, Plamondon points out Diefenbaker’s libertarian streak. Chapter 19 is the best chapter in the book and his summation of Diefenbaker is excellent.
In the next-to-last chapter, he sets out seven criteria on which to judge a prime minister and then proceeds to perform a critique of current Prime Minister Stephen Harper.This is interesting but premature. He concludes with a chapter on the evolution of Conservative leaders, rather than that of the party as a whole.
Plamondon provides a useful contribution to Canadian political history, particularly in regard to the much neglected and maligned R. B. Bennett. Blue Thunder is a book long on politics and short on policy. In spite of the many errors in its first half, it is a good political read.
— Joe Martin (Read bio)
Joe Martin is the Albany Club historian and author of Relentless Change: A Casebook for the Study of Canadian Business History.