Monday, October 24, 2011

Litt on Turner on leadership

Paul Litt’s biography of the ‘eighties Liberal leader John Turner (see earlier notice below) was written with the subject’s cooperation, and it is an admiring portrait based on shared values. (“Turner’s glorious opposition to free trade during the 1988 election offered Canadians an alternative to wholesale continental integration.”) But it remains judicial, appraising, and deeply-researched in the ways academic scholarship should. This is a very substantial biography.

But there is one part of the book where Litt’s language becomes violent, even extreme, in a way that might seem to go beyond the norms of dispassionate scholarship. He uses words like “putsch,” “mutiny,” “rebellion,” and “insurgency” and escalates to “treachery, “stab in the back,” and even “treason.” He is not talking about the fall of the Weimar republic or how Hafez al-Assad came to power in Syria. He is talking about how the elected representatives of the Canadian people who formed the parliamentary caucus of the Liberal Party of Canada handled their relations with John Turner during his leadership of the party. In Litt’s analysis of Canadian parliamentary process, disagreement can legitimately be called treason whenever it exists within a party caucus.

In this section, Litt’s prose sounds like the press releases that typically come from the office of an embattled leader shortly before the resignation. But the violence of his words comes not because Litt has abandoned all critical distance and come out as a reborn Turner flack from 1987. That’s not it at all, I think.

I think that on this matter Litt stands in the centre of the Canadian consensus. Like virtually all our scholars and commentators, he takes it as given that the elected representatives of the Canadian people have no right to hold political opinions other than those pronounced by the leader of their party. It does not occur to him that this quasi-fascist approach to political party leadership is a subject worth critical analysis, As a result, he has no reason to restrain the most violent and emotional terms in the political vocabulary to describe any MP who has doubts or differences with his or her leader. In Canadian political analysis, such words just do not seem extreme.

For an MP to disagree with John Turner on the constitutional future of Canada? Treason. To have different perspectives on Canadian-American relations? A stab in the back. It’s not that these issues were not matters of public debate, or that smart, well-educated Canadians did not have differing views. But John Turner was A LEADER. In the received standard version of Canadian political analysis, there is no place for MPs to have views, even on the most critical and pressing issues of national political life, when the leader has other views. In a Canadian political caucus, goes the consensus, only the leader has opinions; all else really is… treason.

That Litt, despite the violence of his language, holds conventional views, seemed confirmed this weekend by two leading journalists. Susan Delacourt in The Star, writing about Litt’s book, actually describes Turner as “an impassioned advocate of greater roles for backbench MPs.” She seems to means these words seriously, as if those “treasons” and “mutinies” of the 1980s had never existed.

In The Globe, meanwhile Gary Mason denounces as “perplexing” and “not what is needed” the current “mini caucus rebellion” of British Columbia Liberal MLAs. The leadership of the Palinesque Christy Clark may have been recently imposed against their unanimous opposition, but Mason too takes it for granted that the elected representatives can never have opinions as long as the leader does. I’ll give Paul Litt this: he is right in the mainstream. His language about leadership, for all its violence and lack of reflection, comes straight from the received wisdom. Indeed, his summation of Turner rests on the argument that “Turner’s leadership style reflected his accommodating personality… It involved consulting, communicating, consensus building, and compromising….” (p. 5)
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