Thursday, March 24, 2011

Brooke Jeffrey, Divided Loyalties: The Liberal Party of Canada, 1984-2008

As I write this review, Canada appears to be on the eve of an election call. It thus seems fitting to reflect on elections and campaigns past. For the past two weeks, I’ve been making my way through Divided Loyalties, Concordia political scientist Brooke Jeffrey’s account of the internal dynamics of the Liberal Party of Canada from the end of the Trudeau era to the selection of Stéphane Dion as leader in 2008. Unfortunately, there is little being written these days by academic historians about party politics, particularly with regards to the most recent decades, and so Jeffrey’s account is a welcome addition to the literature.

In some respects, Jeffrey’s account echoes Stephen Clarkson’s The Big Red Machine which effectively chronicled past Liberal success at campaigning from the left, and governing from the centre or centre-right. In detailing the internecine warfare of the Liberal party during the years of the Turner-Chrétien and Chrétien-Martin feuds, Jeffrey, a former research director for the party, is clearly sympathetic to the Trudeauvian left-wing camp of social liberals in the party, and generally critical of the business liberal camp that followed Turner and Martin. Yet despite this bias, she generally provides an engaging and perceptive account of why the party has encountered its various difficulties in the past three decades – and why it succeeded when it did. Although this is a weighty tome (at 621 pages), it is written in a largely accessibly manner, and is filled with proverbial palace intrigue to sustain reader interest.

Perhaps the most interesting analytical angle put forth by Jeffrey is that the split within the Liberal party was not only the highly publicized business vs. social one, but that the more important, and perhaps less easily reconcilable, division was over conceptions of federalism. In her view, the party has succeeded most when it endorsed a Trudeauvian centralist approach to federalism and put forth a vigorous defence of national social programs as a central aspect of its nation-building program. It is during these periods, she argues, that the party is closest to the beliefs of its core supporters, and that it fares best at the polls. However, she is dismayed at a growing trend, often endorsed by the business liberal camp, and particularly under Martin and his followers towards decentralized and asymmetrical federalism. Jean Lapierre, the Liberal-turned-Bloquiste-turned-Martinite is subjected to particularly vigorous criticism – and not undeservedly, in my opinion. It’s noteworthy that she believes both current party leader Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae to fall within the asymmetrical federalism camp – one which she believes does not tend to lead to a sufficient degree of Liberal voter engagement and support.

There is much in Divided Loyalties for the policy wonk. A former researcher for the party, it is not surprising that Jeffrey devotes such attention to the development of various party platforms and policies. At points, the level of detail regarding key personalities may become moderately overwhelming for those not intimately familiar with the party, but these sections are nicely interwoven with the overarching narrative of major constitutional and political events. Implicit in her argument is the idea that the party desperately needs a strong set of well-articulated and presented policies to maintain voter support, which she contends has been lacking since the end of the “Red Book” era.

There are some frustrating elements to the book. Jeffrey had access to many party insiders, MPs and Senators, and these interviews inform much of her analysis. However, many interviewees insisted on confidentiality, with the result that the book has as many anonymous “senior party officials” and “caucus members” as a series of Jane Taber columns. These insights are valuable, but the lack of attribution is frustrating for the historian. Although most of the book is incredibly detailed, this level of detail and analysis tapers off sharply almost immediately after Martin’s departure. After reading detailed analyses of the conventions won by Turner, Chrétien and Martin, it was surprising that the 2006 leadership race was scarcely touched upon, and the roles played by Ken Dryden, Scott Brison and Martha Hall Findlay barely mentioned. Given that the book was published late in 2010, it is also somewhat disappointing that the 2008 federal election was relegated to a footnote. Although academic publishing timelines may partly explain this omission, it was particularly upsetting given that the footnote referred to Jeffrey’s own published work with another press.

After 621 pages of detail and analysis, I had also hoped for a more satisfying general conclusion and broad-based reflection, rather than the two paragraphs that Jeffrey provides. That said, her contention that the party requires a more concentrated effort at regrouping and rethinking its priorities and policy directions, and that it needs to stop fighting and tearing itself apart in public, is highly instructive. Alas, if the polls don’t turn around quickly, I fear we will soon see a repeat of the electoral campaigns described in Divided Loyalties, with Liberal insiders, caucus members and “senior party sources” calling publicly for the leader’s head, rather than trying to pull together for the duration of the election.

I hope to be proven wrong.

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At 6:02 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand the book ends with Stephane Dion taking over as leader, but wouldn't its argument be demolished by the results of the 2008 election? Wasn't Dion from the centralist wing of the party? Or would Jeffrey consider him a decentralist because he supported Meech?

Jeffrey's formula seems to suggest that Gerard Kennedy ought to be the new liberal leader. In my non PhD opinion, it would an UNMITIGATED DISASTER.

For what it's worth, I think Chantal Hebert's (among others) explanation for the Liberal decline is far better. 1982 (or more precisely 1990) was a "1917" like moment for the Lib. party. By opposing Meech, Trudeau et. al. made sure the Liberal Party would be dead in francophone Quebec. Yes, there was the 2000 election blip, but Diefenabaker won Quebec too in 1958.

Anyway, until the Liberal Party regains a foothold in Quebec (or the right splits for a second time), it will never form another majority government again.

At 6:23 pm, Blogger Matt said...

Kennedy did come across in glowing terms in this book. I'm less certain - my last up-close-and-personal experience with him was at the Ontario Liberal convention when McGuinty became leader, and back then, he was a highly divisive love-him-or-hate-him figure. I don't know if that has changed over time.

As for Dion, Jeffrey didn't really place him on the centralist-decentralist continuum. But having read and assigned sections from Dion's Straight Talk, which contains many of his late-90s writings, he certainly is not a hard-core centralist. My own take is that Dion got sunk in the 2008 election because of the environmentalist platform that didn't have much backing within the party (and was perhaps rather ill-timed in terms of voter strategy, even if the policies were well-founded).

As for the state of the Liberals in Quebec, I don't see 2000 as an aberation - there was steady growth in both seats and, more importantly, in popular vote share during the Chretien years. But Adscam set them back and they are still reeling from that - especially since political scandals have been dogging Charest for the past few years, which keeps the issue of political scandal alive. I agree that without a return to viability in Quebec, a majority isn't in the cards for the Liberals.

At 8:46 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Politics is an art not a science, so we can never really know what would have happened had there been no Sponsorsgate. Still, the fact that it had such a devastating impact on the Liberals (11% in today's CROP poll!!!) suggests that the foundation for returning to pre-'84 majorities in Quebec was fragile. (BTW, had Martin called the 2004 before the sponsorship revelations and won the QC majority that you seem to predict, wouldn't that also undermine the book's thesis?)

Today, I can't imagine that the Liberals would come back in francophone Quebec without a commitment to take concrete steps recognizing the "Quebec nation". As it stands, Gilles Duceppe makes a strong case that the choice is between status quo federalism or the BQ. If that doesn't change, I expect QCers will continue to choose the BQ.


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