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Reviewed by:
  • Angus L. Macdonald: A Provincial Liberal
  • Bill Parenteau
Angus L. Macdonald: A Provincial Liberal. T. Stephen Henderson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. Pp. 368, $75.00 cloth, $35.00 paper

Biographies of important twentieth-century provincial and federal politicians from the Maritime provinces are few and far between. [End Page 188] In Angus L. Macdonald: A Provincial Liberal, Stephen Henderson has provided a well-written, meticulously researched, and carefully considered portrait of one of the most colourful and important political leaders in the region, who served at a transitional juncture in the history of the nation. He was premier of Nova Scotia for most of the 1930s and from 1945 until his death in 1954, overseeing the genesis of modern governance in the province; during the Second World War he served as minister of national defence for Naval Services and played a important role in the internal debate within the federal Liberal Cabinet over the conscription issue. The liberalism of Henderson's 'Angus L.' was defined by faith in individual self-realization, bolstered by indirect and very limited direct government involvement in the economic life of the province and nation. He was, Henderson suggests, an 'infrastructure liberal' who believed that a modern, state-sponsored transportation network and educational system would provide the necessary climate for individual Nova Scotians and the province to reverse decades of declining economic fortunes. Additionally, he was a staunch defender of provincial autonomy against postwar federal jurisdictional encroachments, and the architect of the tartan motif as the dominant touristic paradigm in postwar Nova Scotia. Ultimately, as Henderson acknowledges, Macdonald was a political giant at the provincial level, never failing to secure a comfortable majority of the seats in the Nova Scotia legislature in any of his elections; and his postwar programs paved the way for modern economic development and tourism. However, Macdonald had only limited success as a federal politician, which Henderson attributes to a falling out with Mackenzie King and a failure to connect with the national liberal press. Moreover, Henderson argues, Macdonald's staunch defence of provincial rights and reluctance to support direct state intervention in the economy also played a part in stalling the advent of the regional development initiatives that began in the years after his death.

Inevitably, Henderson's interpretation on some issues will invite quibbling. There is a tendency to focus too much on demonstrating how the policies of the Macdonald governments followed a consistent philosophical position, and too little on how Nova Scotia, essentially, followed along the same path as the other Maritime provinces and, eventually, Newfoundland. In the postwar period, for example, the 'infrastructure liberalism' of Macdonald does not seem materially different from the policies followed in Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. All three provinces were far behind the rest of the nation in paved roads, adequate educational facilities, electrification, and other [End Page 189] basic preconditions that were seen as necessary for a modern industrial economy.

Based significantly on the wartime experience, when lack of federal assistance to Maritime industries was justified on the basis of a poor infrastructure, all of the provincial premiers from 1945 to 1960 accepted the notion that projects like the Canso Causeway were a required first step. It was practical needs rather than ideology that distinguished indirect from direct intervention in the economy. It was the first phase of modernization liberalism, which Macdonald embraced, and it is difficult to believe either that Angus L. stalled the development of more direct state investment in the economy or that he could have maintained such a principled position when ARDA, the ADB, and FRED transformed the political/constitutional landscape a decade later.

Overall, Angus L. Macdonald: A Provincial Liberal provides a significant boost to the emerging scholarship on the postwar political economy of the Atlantic Region. Henderson's contribution to the national historiography is twofold: He provides a first-rate portrait of the inner dynamics of the war Cabinet and a compelling case study of the difficulties high-profile provincial politicians had in making the transition to federal politics. It is one of the best Canadian studies of how the mix of personal ambitions and rivalries, ideological differences, and divergent constituency...


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