- Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King, and Canada’s World Wars by Tim Cook
A good book can have a bad title. Neither Robert Borden nor William Lyon Mackenzie King could rightly be called warlords, at least not without expecting laughter. Title aside, though, Warlords is a very good book. Well-researched, drawing upon a wealth of complex scholarship, the book synthesizes a host of ideas. It succinctly summarizes complex debates, all the while making you want to read more. This is not a monograph of narrow specialization.
Warlords is a double biography of Canada’s two wartime prime ministers, Borden and King. Cook is sympathetic, but often critical. He is judicious, but not naïve. What kind of account of Borden and King do we get?
On Borden, Cook makes the case that, on at least some fronts, his reputation should be resuscitated. Robert Borden was an ‘unlikely leader’. After starting his legal career in the small town of Kentville, Nova Scotia, he was spotted by Sir Charles Tupper, the Conservative cabinet minister, and brought to Halifax to join the Tupper’s Law firm. Drawn into public life and into the work of the Conservative Party, Borden eventually went to Ottawa as an MP in 1896, though he was not especially happy in the capital. He kept planning to leave, but never did. When Borden was tapped by Tupper to be the next leader of the Conservative Party, many including Borden himself were surprised. ‘Even in an age when cronyism was the rule,’ Cook writes, ‘to choose his law partner to take his place seemed beyond the pale.’ (p. 14) Borden stayed on, only to keep losing. He offered to resign after the party’s loss to Laurier again in 1904 but the Conservatives, seeing no other viable alternatives, kept him on.
The Great War both saved and ruined Robert Borden. After winning the reciprocity election of 1911, his party struggled through the next several years. The economic depression that began in 1913 did not help, nor did the tricky issue of Canada’s contribution to the British Navy. In the Great War, Borden saw a clear cause—as did, initially, most Canadians. Britain was at war, and so was Canada. What Cook does exceedingly well in this book is to trace several different narrative threads through the wartime years. He shows how the progression of the war complicated many initial assumptions and hopes. If this is clear in retrospect, it can also be complicated to show and explain. Cook traces the growing tensions in Canada over the extent of the Canadian contribution. Perhaps surprisingly given that Cook is known for his military history, it is his account of the domestic politics that really shines. We get the riveting story of the growing jingoism on the home [End Page 801] front, on the criticism of the government from many different angles. We also get the incredible accounts of the important year of 1917: the formation of a Union government, the gerrymandering elections acts that allowed the government to turn the 1917 election into ‘trial by a jury of its own choosing’ (p. 112). Cook’s account of the aftermath of the imposition of conscription, including the tense Easter 1918 violence in Quebec is excellent. Set alongside this tale of domestic disharmony is the growth of a Canadian nationalism in the country, amongst the soldiers, and in Borden himself. Cook tells this familiar story convincingly.
Many have subsequently seen Borden as ‘coming down on the wrong side of history in pressing for conscription.’ (p. 356). Still, the reason Borden made this decision, his sympathy for the troops, his concern to make the nation’s contribution to the war as equitable and efficient as possible, are reasonable. ‘Borden made his choice,’ Cook concludes, ‘and it was the right one.’ (p. 357)
Oddly, as the book moves over to the Second World War, and to the next warlord, Cook then proceeds to also justify the actions of the King government, a government which took a very different course. Warlords summarizes a host...