HILLMER, J. L. Granatstein Norman. Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada’s Leaders. Toronto: Harper Collins, 1999. 234p. COUCILL, Irma. Canada’s Prime Ministers, Governors General and Fathers of Confederation. Markham, Ontario: Pembroke Publishers, 1999. 180p. Resenha de: GLASSFORD, Larry A. Canadian Social Studies, v.36, n.1, 2001.
What makes a great prime minister of Canada? What makes a poor one? What are the key factors that determine success or failure? For that matter, what do we assess, or measure: – length of time in office? – deeds accomplished? – disasters avoided? – popularity with the public? – accolades from political peers? – respect from subsequent historians?
The premise of the book by J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer, two eminent Canadian historians noted for their contributions in the fields of national political, military and diplomatic history, is that the collective judgment of academic scholars is a sound means of determining the success of our country’s prime ministers. In 1997, they conducted a survey of 26 Canadian scholars – political historians mostly, with a couple of narrative political scientists thrown in – to determine a comparative ranking of the 20 individuals who have served as Canada’s prime minister. The respondents were asked to rate the PMs on the familiar scale of 0 (for total failure) to 10 (for enduring greatness). The results of their survey were published as a leading article in the April 21, 1997 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Granatstein and Hillmer then expanded that article into this 200-plus-page book, with individual chapters for each prime minister except the four immediate successors to John A. Macdonald, whose combined service from 1891-1896 is disposed of in one chapter.
Although actual point totals are not produced in either the original Maclean’s piece or this followup book, the authors tell us that the consensus of their panel of experts (which included themselves) pointed to William Lyon Mackenzie King as the top-ranked Canadian prime minister. Apparently 14 respondents placed King either first, or tied for first. The other two leaders earning their Great rating (an A-plus surely) were John A. Macdonald (2nd) and Wilfrid Laurier (3rd). A fourth PM, Louis St. Laurent, was awarded a near-Great grade, perhaps the equivalent of an A-minus. The High-Average (B?) leaders were Pierre Trudeau (5th), Lester Pearson (6th) and Robert Borden (7th) respectively, followed by the average (C?) prime ministers: Brian Mulroney (8th), Jean Chretien (9th), John Thompson (10th), Alexander Mackenzie (11th), R.B. Bennett (12th) and John Diefenbaker (13th). Two prime ministers, Arthur Meighen (14th) and Joe Clark (15th) scraped through with a Low-Average (D?) Rating. Those PMs adjudged to be failures (F for sure) were Charles Tupper, John Abbott, John Turner, Mackenzie Bowell and Kim Campbell.
How did this panel of professorial pundits arrive at their collective judgment? According to the Maclean’s article, they were not given precise criteria, but were asked to consider electoral success, national unity, success in achieving domestic or foreign policy goals, and leadership in cabinet, party and country. (p.35). These ratings, the authors report at the beginning of their book, were then averaged to form a ranked list. In addition to the numerical scores, each scholar was asked to write a commentary, justifying his or her rating (both p. 9). The comments of the academics were utilized throughout the five-page Maclean’s spread to buttress the authors’ own remarks. The book, while adhering to the prime-ministerial ranking of the earlier article, is more clearly the authors’ own creation, although an occasional panelist’s quote finds its way into the chapter-length biographies.
How did the experts do? The absence of actual point-totals tells us that this is not meant to be a scientific survey meeting rigid statistical criteria. Furthermore, upon what basis was the so-called panel of experts chosen? The authors are silent on the point, other than to note that five are relatively younger scholars, and that together, the panelists represent the several geographic regions of the country. An actual list of 25 names was appended to the Maclean’s article, indicating the presence of five female scholars amongst such luminaries as Michael Bliss, Craig Brown, Desmond Morton, Blair Neatby and Peter Waite. Seeing these names, we might ask where are the Greg Kealeys and Veronica Strong-Boags? Were representatives of the new Canadian historical establishment not polled in significant numbers or did they refuse to answer? We are not told. The lesson is clear. This is not rigorous social science analysis. It has been written as much for enjoyment as for enlightenment – and why not? Who said history should be so stuffy anyways? The joy of the reading is augmented by the inclusion of 27 political cartoons – some famous, some not – distributed throughout the book.
Surprisingly, a number of the better chapters are devoted to lesser PMs. Joe Clark and John Turner, frequently savaged in the popular press, merit full-length chapters that are evenhanded, leaning to sympathetic. Pierre Trudeau, still alive at the time of publication, and Jean Chretien, not yet a three-time election winner when the book went to press, receive the back of the authors’ hands, by comparison. Lester Pearson is praised; John Diefenbaker is, if not defamed, certainly panned. The chapter on R.B. Bennett is remarkably positive, given the panel’s low rating, but Robert Borden is, at best, damned with faint praise. Clearly, too, the authors expect Brian Mulroney’s eventual rehabilitation. The panel was harsh on Kim Campbell, but the authors less so – pointing out that the novelty of her gender first helped, then hindered her national political career. The one really bizarre rating by the expert panel was to place John Thompson tenth. He served scarcely more than 2 years in office, and never won an election as leader. Even the co-authors seem dumbfounded. In the Maclean’s article, they attribute his surprising showing to the recent appearance of a fine, modern full-length biography. (P,35). That professional historians could be so easily swayed casts more than a little doubt on the validity of the whole exercise.
One prominent aspect of the ranking must be challenged. William Lyon Mackenzie King was not our greatest prime minister, contrary to the panelists and co-authors. That honour must be reserved for John A. Macdonald. Both had flawed personal characters – King with his seances, ouija boards and crystal balls, Macdonald with his weakness for the bottle. Neither might even have made it to the office of prime minister in the current era of fishbowl journalism. Both built a great political party; Macdonald, however, also built a country – one which King admittedly helped to preserve. It is quite possible, though, to picture Macdonald managing the political crises faced by King. One cannot imagine King managing to pull off Confederation. He lacked the vision, and the personal charisma. King is deservedly among the top three leaders, on a par with his idol, Wilfrid Laurier. But one has only to consider the remarkable accomplishments of King’s successor, Louis St. Laurent, during his first half dozen years in office, to grasp the what- might-have-beens of Mackenzie King’s lengthy time in office. In describing St. Laurent, the authors note his one deficiency – an absence of deviousness. This quality King held in spades. King’s other specialty, as he mentioned once to an apprenticing Lester Pearson, was to focus on avoiding bad actions – no small achievement, but not the full measure of a truly great prime minister. The existence of the Canadian federation itself is John A. Macdonald’s legacy to us. He is still Number One.
The other book under review here, authored by Irma Coucill, is not in the same league as that by Granatstein and Hillmer, judged on the basis of the written content. The author presents one-page thumbnail sketches of Canada’s 20 prime ministers, 25 governors-general since 1867 (excluding Adrienne Clarkson, who had not yet been appointed), and 36 Fathers of Confederation, defined as those colonial politicians from British North America who attended at least one of the formative conferences in Charlottetown, Quebec or London. The first edition of this work appeared in the lead-up to Centennial year, which explains something about the boosterish tone of the mini-biographies. Unfortunately, the pages added for subsequent editions are sometimes marred by inaccuracies. Nunavut is mis-spelled on page 46, for example. However, the great strength of this book is not its print, but its visuals – that is to say, the marvellous full-page, black and white portraits of each leader, all drawn by the author, herself.
Read the first book for the challenge of critiquing Granatstein, Hillmer and friends’ assessments of our prime ministers. Browse the second one for the pleasure of Irma Coucill’s portraits.
Larry A. Glassford – Faculty of Education. University of Windsor. Windsor, Ontario.