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  • Politics is about Winning:Stephen Clarkson on the Success of the Liberal Party of Canada
  • David Collenette (bio)

For those who are obsessed with the inner workings of Canadian politics and its political parties, The Big Red Machine is a must-read in order to understand the complexities facing the Liberal Party, especially in the post-electoral environment of 2006. Stephen Clarkson has given us the last of the trilogy on the Canadian Liberal Party, following very well in the footsteps of high standards set by Reg Whitaker in The Government Party: Organizing and Financing the Liberal Party of Canada, 1930-58 and Joseph Wearing in The L-Shaped Party: The Liberal Party of Canada, 1958-1980. He goes beyond these two volumes, however, which largely devote themselves to the techniques of party organization and policy development. Clarkson gives the reader a racy, almost breathless ride through the last 30 years of the more than century-long Liberal hegemony, positing that Liberal success can be attributed to periodic dramatic policy reverses in the quest for power. Interspersed with painstaking research from a myriad of sources, Clarkson, in an unscholarly way, comes to many subjective conclusions, based, I suspect, on his own deep love of the political game.

Few people can manage Clarkson's ability to capture the essence of Liberal Party life, for he is very much a liberal at heart, if not technically a member of the party, although I suspect he has voted Liberal more often than not. I got to know Stephen in 1969 when, as a young party official, I worked on his mayoralty campaign. He is very much a Rosedale patrician, yet incurably idealistic. To him, politics was about the noble pursuit of democracy and the implementation of progressive principles for the greater societal good. I do not think he believed that he would win the 1969 race to preside at Toronto City Hall, but the race itself, the ideas debated, and the chance to inculcate one's values upon the electorate were more important than winning.

As Clarkson points out in the preface of the book, however, the Liberal Party's main credo was the joy of winning, no matter what the cost to the party's intellectual self-esteem or financially to the country. Clarkson, like many of us young idealists at the time, believed that politics could be different, new ideas could dominate. As a party staffer in the minority government period of 1972-74, I remember challenging Senator Keith Davey at one Ontario Campaign Committee meeting about our strategy, which was obviously Ontario-centric. Would it not be better to have a minority government that represented all regions, particularly the West, where we had almost been shut out, rather than a majority overwhelmingly based in Central Canada? Davey without a blink of the eye [End Page 239] declared that he was glad the prime minister had named him the campaign chair, and not someone like me. "Politics," he said, "is all about winning," and by extension, at all costs, using all of one's guile and incision. Without winning big—a majority—you cannot put into place your policies and ideas. In The Big Red Machine, Clarkson meticulously chronicles the application of this tenet, which has made the party so indomitable; yet often what comes through in the book is how offensive the strategy is to Clarkson's principles and intellect.

By the 1974-79 period, following the restoration of majority government that had been interrupted by the 1972 election, Clarkson's balloon of intellectual idealism obviously had burst. He talks about inertia in the government from the prime minister on down and is particularly critical of the policy reversal on wage and price controls and the establishment of the Anti-Inflation Board; however, he does not seek out the electoral rationale for doing this from Davey or the prime minister's principal secretary, Jim Coutts. He does not acknowledge that to win in politics, as with everything else in life, timing is everything. Progressive Conservative Leader Robert Stanfield may have been prescient when he advocated the imposition of wage and price controls in the 1974 election, but obviously the conditions...


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pp. 239-243
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