Monday, April 04, 2011

Federal Election History 7 and 8, 1891 and 1896: the football playbooks

[While doing our best to ignore the current election, we're surveying the history of past elections. Scroll down for earlier ones.]

John Duffy, a backroom politico who's also an engaging writer on political history, argues in Fights of Our Lives (HarperCollins, 2002, now out of print, it seems) that the 1896 federal election was the first really consequential one in Canadian political history, the one where the future of the country really hung on the decision.

The 1891 election, Macdonald's last, he sees as less interesting.  Duffy likes football metaphors, and he argues that in 1891 Macdonald ran the Double Tribal Whipsaw play brilliantly.  In English Canada, talk about your negative advertising, he waved the Union Jack and portrayed Wilfrid Laurier as a dangerous Frenchman. In Quebec, meanwhile, his allies portrayed Laurier as dangerously irreligious, too much a radical liberal, and too anglophile. It worked on both fronts. Macdonald eked out another win and got to die in office.

In 1896, Duffy argues, with the Manitoba Schools question enflaming all sides and the violence of 1885 still festering, both parties were in danger of fracturing into English-Protestant, French-Catholic sectarian mobs, leaving the country more or less ungovernable and strengthening the impression that two ethnicities and two religions could not co-exist in one country.

The Conservatives tried to bring off Macdonald's play again, but they were managing to alienate both sides of their coalition.  Laurier, in Duffy's view, held his coalition together and ran the Quebec Bridge play brilliantly.  It turned out Laurier was not too liberal or irreligious for Quebec; just by being a Quebecker he won Quebec's support even without standing up for French in the west.  And years of cultivating a reputation in English Canada had established Laurier as a Quebecker that Anglos could love, as did the fact that he was actually more willing to overlook anti-French actions in Manitoba than the Conservative leaders.

In 1896, when lots of people thought the country was falling apart, Laurier scored a big-enough win: 118 seats in a 213 seat House.  He had founded the Liberal hegemony of the twentieth century: solid support in Quebec, and enough across the rest of the country to secure majorities.

Small technological-innovation note: for the first time the parties used the telephone extensively to get out the vote
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