Prime Minister Bennett: The Anti-libertarian Conservative

<spanlang=”EN-US”>(Key Porter Books, 502 pages, $34.95)


<spanlang=”EN-US”>Canadians arguably know less about Richard Bedford Bennett than any other 20th century prime minister. Despite the turbulent times in which he governed and the major national institutions that he helped create, Bennett has not been the subject of a single significant biography in the 60 years since his death. John Boyko’s biography remedies this deficiency, and it will surely inspire both praise and controversy in so doing. Boyko, a secondary school Dean and author of a several other books on Canadian political history, has written biography is highly readable, extensively researched and seeks to correct some long-standing misconceptions about a fascinating Canadian and his life.

<spanlang=”EN-US”>In Bennett, two consistent themes emerge about the subject. The first is that his public image masked the more complicated and interesting reality of his character. Boyko’s portrait reveals a complex individual who is in many respects admirable, yet self-defeating. Bennett’s remarkable work ethic, intelligence, ambition and ability to impress others make him something of a Canadian Horatio Alger figure. His limitations, however, are equally striking. Boyko describes a man beset by stubbornness, a short temper and a frequent inability to work with others. While Bennett was not the uncaring plutocrat depicted by the caricatures of his time, he had a great deal of difficulty expressing empathy or praise. Unlike Brian Mulroney, another self-made (but widely reviled) Tory, Bennett never learned charm. Boyko depicts a prime minister who was easy to admire but difficult to like.

<spanlang=”EN-US”>The second theme upon which the author focuses is that Bennett worked to implement a consistent political philosophy throughout his life. In addition to being a biography, Bennett is an argument for a nationalist, traditionalist and institution-building conservatism that eschews both populism and libertarianism. During his time in office (1930-1935) R.B. Bennett, as the author demonstrates, was constantly working to build such national institutions such as the Bank of Canada and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as well as strengthening the traditional ties to Empire. This traditional Toryism, which included a sense of noblesse oblige, is consistently referenced as the motive behind his policy decisions. It is offered as a contrast to both the ascendant socialist ideas of the Depression and the extremes of rural and business conservatives of the time. Bennett is therefore both a biography and a helpful history of early Canadian political ideas, and the focus on the subject’s ideology helps to explain his actions and provide context for the debates of the time.

<spanlang=”EN-US”>Bennett’s early life, a little-discussed subject in most political histories, is covered extensively. Boyko describes how the Bennett family’s strict religious upbringing and declining economic means combined to instill in the future prime minister both a strong work ethic and a serious, disciplined (he neither smoked no drank) lifestyle. One is also struck by Bennett’s overwhelming ambition and his miraculous luck. He ran for local political office and was a school principal while still a teenager. As his career progressed, he aggressively courted a series of older benefactors. He had a remarkable knack for being in the right place at the right time, meeting his life-long friend and collaborator Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook) by chance on a ferry and securing the patronage of the powerful senator James Lougheed immediately upon his arrival in Calgary. This combination of luck, single-minded determination and the ability to make powerful friends later aided Bennett in his law practice, land speculation, investments (many of which were inherited from friends) and, of course, politics.

<spanlang=”EN-US”>Bennett’s political career demonstrated his exceptional gifts and his weaknesses in interpersonal relations. The account of Bennett’s rise to power is replete with stories of Bennett speaking for hours at a remarkable pace with minimal notes, winning debates through sheer tenacity. He was one of the first politicians to make use of the power of radio to deliver a campaign message, and he was one of the first major Conservative figures to campaign in French in Quebec (this despite having only a halting command of the language and having supported conscription). Bennett’s investment in a modern party apparatus (membership lists, publications and regional offices) made him a pioneer in political operations and again demonstrated his work ethic.

<spanlang=”EN-US”>Bennett’s term as prime minister demonstrated the full extent of his virtues and flaws. Boyko depicts him as an ambitious institution-builder, laying the foundations for several Canadian cultural and economic institutions. Furthermore, there seems to have been universal admiration for Bennett’s command of policy details and the long hours that he kept. Contrary to popular belief, Bennett also fought the Great Depression with great energy; in particular, he worked tirelessly, but with mixed success, to create a system of imperial preferences (selective tariffs designed to protect Canadian industry while increasing trade among Commonwealth countries). However, Bennett’s flaws were magnified by power. His command of the issues in every portfolio meant he often failed to consult his cabinet ministers. His verbose, rapid speaking style sometimes left listeners feeling hectored rather than persuaded. His remarkable work ethic meant he was less generous with praise for members of his party than he should have been.

<spanlang=”EN-US”>The perception that Bennett was running a one-man government, as well as his inability to deal effectively with the ongoing Depression, doomed his re-election chances in 1935. Mackenzie King’s liberals, despite having few better ideas on how to rebuild the economy, were able to win a large majority. Bennett, after a few years as Opposition leader, left for England, never to return. One of the most interesting portions of the book is Boyko’s description of Bennett’s work during his last years with Beaverbrook to encourage and organize the British war effort. This final chapter in Bennett’s life is, in a sense, a microcosm of all that came before: honorable public service but personal isolation.

<spanlang=”EN-US”>Considering that this is a fairly lengthy and scholarly biography, Boyko’s writing style makes it a relatively quick and effortless read. While certain passages (railway regulation and tariff policy, for example) do not lend themselves to colourful descriptions or narratives, the author manages to avoid unnecessarily long, esoteric discussions. Boyko makes extensive use of multiple accounts and contemporary news descriptions to provide perspective on events with which many readers will have only passing familiarity. He does an excellent job of using primary sources to give details about events that may not be consistent with the conventional interpretation. For example, the resignation of H.H. Stevens from the Conservative cabinet is covered from the perspectives of Bennett, Stevens and neutral observers. Stevens, the Minister of Trade in the Bennett government, resigned over the government’s failure to implement his recommendations regarding wage and price-fixing – a resignation that has historically blamed on Bennett’s poor handing of cabinet. Boyko’s research suggests a more complex story, with blame shared among several people. Likewise, the controversy over the army-run labour camps Bennett set up during the Depression is covered from the perspectives of the workers in the camps, the federal government and the committee set up to investigate the complaints. The use of personal letters and accounts from other parties, as well as diary entries, also add colour and a degree of humour to serious political issues. A nuanced description of Bennett’s time in office emerges, one at odds with the generalized, simplistic accounts found in many history texts. This is especially true of the account of the On to Ottawa Trek, from which Bennett emerges looking far more level-headed and reasonable than either of the march leaders. Overall, many sources are used in an enlightening manner and the writing style keeps up the pace of the book.

<spanlang=”EN-US”>While Bennett is exceptional as a work of scholarship and quite readable, Boyko hints at certain ideological biases that may occasionally distract the reader. While a comparison between Bennett’s Toryism and contemporary conservatism is certainly useful and enlightening, Boyko uses the contrast almost entirely as a means to suggest shortcomings in the modern version. At several points, Boyko digresses into commentary on current politics, which is both unnecessary and may serve to date the book in future. For example, when discussing the King-Byng Affair, (an attempt by Mackenzie King to call an election in 1926 due to loss of confidence in the house) was it necessary to discuss the 2008 coalition crisis and to argue that the Harper government was “as desperate as it was wrong”? This passage may strike the reader as needless editorializing. Similarly, references to the Obama presidential campaign seem out of place when describing Bennett’s effective use of rhetoric in the 1930 election. While the author clearly prefers the older version of Toryism that is represented by Bennett to modern conservatism, and while some modern political references may be helpful, the editorializing and references to modern politics distract from what is otherwise a fascinating narrative.

<spanlang=”EN-US”>Current political inclinations aside, the other significant flaw with Boyko’s work is that he goes too far in his attempts to rehabilitate Bennett. Yes, it is true that Bennett laid the groundwork for some significant and enduring national institutions. It is further true that Bennett worked tirelessly to try to alleviate the tremendous economic pains faced by Canada during his tenure, but the author says little about the results of those effortsFinally, it may also be true that Bennett was more progressive and concerned with the conditions faced by ordinary working Canadians than either popular opinion at the time or subsequent historical accounts suggest.

<spanlang=”EN-US”>However, the inescapable conclusion, which Boyko seems to minimize, is the simple fact that Bennett’s policies failed. Empire preferential trade, as complex an undertaking as it was and as hard as Bennett worked to create it, did not lead to a real recovery of Canadian trade. The army-run labour camps, though perhaps unfairly vilified, did not prevent unrest among unemployed young men. Bennett’s last attempts at labour and social reforms, while well intentioned and not the crass, last minute political maneuver derided by Mackenzie King, were nonetheless undertaken after too much delay and with too little consultation with provincial governments, turning what could have been a popular agreement among governments into a judicial confrontation.

<spanlang=”EN-US”>While Boyko is dramatic in describing the personal isolation that characterized Bennett’s life, he underplays the political consequences and failures stemming from Bennett’s propensity to act alone. While correcting unjust personal smears and placing a significant figure in proper historical context are certainly worthy endeavors for any historian, this could have been accomplished without the whitewashing of errors that occurs in this book. These issues of balance and contemporary relevance, however, may actually serve the larger purpose of the book. They will, at the very least, provoke a debate about the meaning and significance of Bennett’s time in office and the lessons that can be drawn from it – something that had not occurred prior to this book.

<spanlang=”EN-US”>Bennett <spanlang=”EN-US”>is a useful revisionist biography of an intriguing figure. That the subject of the book has been sadly under-studied and relegated to obscurity makes the publishing of this book something of a public service. Bennett brings a Canadian figure back to life and provides a basis for discussing the meaning of his legacy. Whatever the readers may have thought of R.B. Bennett before (if they thought of him at all), this book will change their opinions.

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