Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Paul Wells, Right Side Up: The Fall of Paul Martin and the Rise of Stephen Harper's New Conservatism

I had been incredibly patient about reading Paul Wells' first book. I put it on my Christmas wish list, and then dutifully resisted several urges to buy and devour it before the holidays. But when my copy arrived in the mail as a Christmas gift from my sister a few days before the 25th, I could resist no longer. Which is why, at 7 AM on December 25th, I was contentedly sipping my morning coffee and reading its middle chapters on the couch in my in-laws' living room, while the rest of the family was still comatose.

On the whole, Right Side Up is a very enjoyable, entertaining and informative read. Macleans' columnist Paul Wells has set himself an ambitious goal: to chronicle both the collapse of the Liberal party and the concurrent rise of the new Conservative Party. In many respects, his book is like a work of old-school political history - the fates of both parties, in Wells' estimation, are intimately tied to the strategies and foibles of two white men: a cold and calculating Stephen Harper and an ambitious, but bumbling, Paul Martin. Wells constructs an entertaining narrative, drawing on his own observations as a journalist, those of his colleagues, and a host of political insiders, both named and unnamed. We, his readers, are treated to a rather sarcastic, yet highly insightful analysis of the careful planning which led to the reinvention of the Conservative parties' approach to federal politics, contrasted against the blind ambition for power that drove Paul Martin and his supporters to stage a their coup to take over the Liberal party.

It is often said that journalists write the first account of history, and this is certainly true when it comes to political happenings. Right Side Up might be considered a first-and-a-half account, written shortly after the events it chronicles - indeed, Wells includes initial observations about the Liberal leadership race which had not yet been concluded when the book went to press. This brings many strengths to the book, including current impressions about the motivations of the various players, and a very detailed blow-by-blow of the election campaigns of 2004 and 2005/6.

In other respects, his book can be frustrating. The intense focus on the Liberal-Conservative dynamic necessarilly leads to the marginalization of the roles played by the NDP and the Bloc. For example, the fall 2005 decision of the NDP to throw the Liberals to the wolves and end their temporary support of the government was not the subject of any analysis. There is also little detail on the policies of the Martin and Harper governments - once bills are passed through Parliament, they largely disappear from the narrative, with little follow-through on their implementation (or lack thereof).

Wells is very strong when analyzing politicking, and the manner in which the various parties tried to construct their voting coalitions among the various demographics of Canadian society. Future accounts of this period (should this turn out to be a more profound shift in Canadian politics), will need to ask the question of whether a more fundamental shift in Canadian political values and demographics is also occurring. Wells suggests that perhaps a change in lower middle-class and working-class voter allegiances is underway, similar to the shift in white middle-class male voting patterns which helped the Republicans rise to power after the Democratic 60s in the United States. This analysis will need to be followed up by other political scientists and historians.

Historians are always faced with the dilemma of deciding when to end their story. In this respect, I think Wells was poorly served by his editors. The last several chapters of his book deal with the events of summer 2006, dealing with unresolved (and sometimes minor) political spats and bills that had not been resolved. By the time the book was published (or almost immediately after), the dynamic had shifted. In particular, the Liberal leadership race should have been left out of this book. This chapter was dated by the time I read the book - less than two months after publication. Indeed, given the way that Gerard Kennedy, who turned out to play the role of kingmaker, was overlooked, this chapter seemed particularly weak.

These observations, it must be noted, reflect my own biases as a historian. It is the task of my own profession to go through the archival and journalistic record with a fine-toothed comb to flesh out some of these minor (or arcane) details, and to perhaps construct an alternative narrative (or narratives) to accompany these events. The political junkie in me greatly enjoyed this book, and found that Wells' analysis largely coincided with my own observations and recollections of the past three years. His wit and dry humour are always enjoyable, as are his equitable skewering of both Martin and Harper. Liberals in particularly would be well-advised to take his observations to heart, perhaps coupled with the analysis of Stephen Clarkson's Big Red Machine (my Christmas read last year).

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