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The Friendly Dictatorship

by Jeffrey Simpson

Jeffrey Simpson, the national affairs columnist for the Globe and Mail, is an oddity amongst Canadian journalists. The author of several books on national politics, he also closely studies the latest academic literature. The Friendly Dictatorship, an analysis of the Chrétien Liberals’ total political hold on the country, is not his best book, however, in spite of his clear understanding of the subject.

Simpson can still turn a devastating phrase – Joe Clark “had developed a reputation as an astute tactician, although just why remained unclear,” while Stockwell Day was “an intellectual flyweight”– but this study is heavy going. What readers get is a dry but thorough analysis of the weaknesses of the opposition parties, the Canadian electoral system, and Parliament. All very useful, but all very academic.

Still, Simpson has a shrewd eye and understands just why the Grits dominate Canadian politics. As he says, “Procrustean politics do not work in Canada. Parties that try to shape the country to their message rather than shaping their message to the country – the whole country, not just elements of it – are going to lose.” Reform and the Alliance pandered to the anti-abortionists and religious conservatives; the Bloc had one policy only; the NDP posited solutions to our problems that only the 12 remaining diehard socialists wanted; and the Progressive Conservatives relied on hereditary Tories in the Maritimes to vote the way grandpa did. Only the Liberals, the party without a single fixed principle, understood the secret of Canadian politics. This was the same secret that Macdonald, Laurier, and King all learned: rigid-principled politics don’t work in a country of many races, regions, and religions.

Simpson’s analysis is correct. Canadians live under a friendly dictatorship formed by the Government Party because middle of the road works, and the Alliance and the NDP will keep heading into the ashcan until they realize this.