Book Review: The Agony Of Defeat

Politics are rough and failure is never celebrated. Conservatives choose a new leader May 27. The party lost 235,000 votes in the last election. New leadership may bring great change, or none at all. George Drew, John Bracken, “Fighting Bob” Manion – all were intriguing characters with rich biographies whose federal party leadership ended in failure, and today are forgotten even by Conservatives.

“I am not the only Conservative (or former Conservative) who believes that our party (or former party) has betrayed both its own best traditions and the Canadian people by practicing a quality of politics unworthy of the country,” writes former MP Tom McMillan. “Interviews and correspondence I conducted with a large number of my former cabinet colleagues and ministerial and political staff for this book revealed to me, in private, a shocking level of discontent with the party.”

McMillan’s memoirs are agonizing and intriguing at the same time. This is how teammates talk in the locker room after a championship loss. “I myself believe a once-great national institution is in ruins, or will be if the Conservative Party membership at large does not soon come to its senses,” writes McMillan.

“A broad swath of the party is progressive but went underground during the Stephen Harper leadership years,” he says. “They were intimidated to the point of paralysis by the power that the prime minister and his tight inner circle ruthlessly wielded over both the party and the government and, ultimately, the country. Many Tories just gave up.”

Not My Party: The Rise and Fall of Canadian Tories is part memoir, part score-settling. It reveals the emotional investment politicians make in their party and its methods. It details the glory of victory and despair of defeat. It is personal.

McMillan describes John Diefenbaker as mentally unhinged and Reformers as bigots. McMillan met Stephen Harper once, but says the ex-Calgary MP “corrupted what it means to be a Conservative”. McMillan is angry, not least of all with media. “The internet – such a force for good in many other ways – has rendered politics a murderous killing field for people’s reputations,” he writes.

“A lot of the scrutiny is unfair and unbalanced or just plain wrong,” says McMillan. “By the time offenders are exposed and taken to task – if that happens at all – the public, with the attention span of a hummingbird, has already flitted to the next hyped ‘BREAKING NEWS’ story, the next faux exposé, the next manufactured scandal, or whatever else is in line to feed the rapacious ratings beast. And the ‘news’ cycle continues. Perpetually.”

Politics are stressful and hard-bitten and sometimes venomous, and Not My Party bares it all. Very successful politicians typically keep these team secrets to themselves. Voters have their own troubles.

Perhaps what Conservatives need is not a snarling, slashing score-settler but a character like Leslie Frost. As Ontario premier in the 1950s, Frost was so tyrannical he once went six months without calling a caucus meeting, and could cuss cabinet members like a WWI infantryman. Frost was a combat veteran. He knew how to bark orders.

Yet in public, Frost projected the warm image of a small-town Rotarian who served homemade sandwiches to reporters and campaign staff. “The Great Tranquilizer”, one opponent called him.

“I come to you as Leslie Frost the man, with no trappings of office – just a servant of the people,” Frost said in his last campaign. He went out a winner.

By Holly Doan

Not My Party: The Rise and Fall of Canadian Tories, from Robert Stanfield to Stephen Harper, by Tom McMillan; Nimbus Publishing; 624 pages; ISBN 9781-7710-84239; $34.95

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