PREVIEW

BACKSTAGE IN LONDON

ISSUES OF A CLOSE ELECTION They’re not many—and Canada isn’t one

BLAIR FRASER August 15 1959
PREVIEW

BACKSTAGE IN LONDON

ISSUES OF A CLOSE ELECTION They’re not many—and Canada isn’t one

BLAIR FRASER August 15 1959

BACKSTAGE IN LONDON

PREVIEW

ISSUES OF A CLOSE ELECTION They’re not many—and Canada isn’t one

BLAIR FRASER

IF CANADIAN POLITICIANS feel sorry for themselves after a long, rough session they should look across the Atlantic and he glad at least that they don’t have to fight the British election. At this embryonic stage the British campaign resembles those nightmare duels of the old Wild West, when opponents were out in the dark, each armed with rifle and revolver but neither knowing where he ought to aim.

According to a midsummer survey by the devoutly Conservative Daily Telegraph the two major parties are just about neck and neck, no more than two percent of the popular vote between them in fifty marginal ridings on which the over-all result of the next election depends. Victory will go to the party that captures the larger fraction of the undecided or of Liberal voters in the ridings where no Liberal candidate runs.

Superficially things look good for the Conservative government. Business is booming, employment is high, even the weather is unexpectedly lovely. Nobody has an obvious cause for discontent and in this peaceful situation the Conservative party’s election program is “the mixture as before.”

Across the land workmen are putting

up election posters that read: "Life is better with the Conservatives, Don't let Labor ruin it." But to people who arc alert to recent history those words have an ominous ring. Twice in the last seven years national governments have campaigned on the slogan "You’ve never had it so good,” The first were Adlai Stevenson’s Democrats in the U.S. election of 1952. the one that first elected Eisenhower. The second were Louis St. Laurent’s Liberals in 1957. Three Conservative workers one after another in a single afternoon said: "Our party is too complacent. If we don’t stop taking victory for granted we may lose.” A fourth said just the opposite, "In mv constituency we’re not overconfident. we’re working like beavers.” But the trouble was to know what they ought to be working at,

The only political issue that is getting any play in the British press this summer is an issue not between the major parties but within the ranks of Labor. The issue is what to do about the H-bomb.

Labor party policy favors a “nonnuclear club,” in effect proposes that Britain should say to the other middle and smaller powers, "We ll give up nuclear weapons if you will.’ Since France has already served notice that she is about to gatecrash the nuclear club and test an atom bomb of her own, this mild proposal is unlikely to change things much. Frank Cousins, the powerful trade union leader who heads the

Transport and General Workers’ Union, thinks Labor party policy doesn’t go far enough—he is for nuclear disarmament by Britain whether anyone else follows the example or not. In July he persuaded his massive union to agree with him, and opened a split in Labor ranks that the Conservative press greeted with shrieks of joy.

But Conservative professionals don’t need to be told that the split is more apparent than real; Labor has always done its arguing in public and nuclear disarmament is something on which reasonable men may differ without acrimony. Also, it is something about w'hich the average man doesn’t get terribly upset. According to the Daily Telegraph’s poll, two thirds of all voters think Britain should continue to have nuclear weapons as long as any other country has them — including presumably the United States and the Soviet Union. Only one in eight agrees with Frank Cousins in favoring unilateral disarmament. But the official Labor party policy has even less support; only ten percent of those who intend to vote Labor are in favor of the Labor party’s “non-nuclear club.’’

Yet in spite of all this lack of support for Labor's stand in the only issue now being discussed, Labor's share of the popular vote is still only two percent behind the Conservatives.

Why? That’s the question that puzzles Labor politicians as much as Conservative. What changes exactly does the opposition vote want to see?

Some observers think the safest line for Labor is the standard opposition line in Canada. Offer everybody a little

more of everything, but mainly offer a new set of people to carry out the same policies. Others want a slam-bang campaign on the conventional socialist platform for more nationalization of industry.

One important matter that hasn't yet emerged as a clearly defined issue between the parties but will certainly be a major concern of the next British government is the question of the “New Commonw'ealth.” Next year the new Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland will confer with the government of Britain on a new constitution and status. Is it to become a full and sovereign member of the Commonwealth? If so, on what basis of internal political organization? If the federation were to become independent with its present laws and customs unchanged it would differ slightly if at all from the Union of South Africa, with a black majority held in subjection by a small white *elite.”

Sir Roy Welensky, the one-time locomotive engineer and boxer who is prime minister of the Rhodesian federation, paid a visit to London in July and talked not only to the government but to groups of MPs from both parties. The meetings were private, and only secondhand reports got into the press, but Welensky seems to have had a cool reception from both, though cooler perhaps from Labor than from Conservative members.

But so far as the leadership is concerned, in either party the rejection of color prejudice and “white supremacy” is unanimous and sincere. Whether that is true of the rank and file is another matter. The steadily growing Negro

population, made up mostly of poor immigrants from the West Indies, makes a steadily growing social problem in the poor districts where they settle. No respectable political leader has yet lent his name to the campaign to “Keep Britain White,” nor is any likely to do so. Nevertheless the color question and the “New Commonwealth” may be lively issues beneath the surface of the campaign.

What about the “old” Commonw'ealth? What if anything has Canada to do with British political opinion in tins election year? Nothing at all. So far as a casual observer can make out, no difference of attitude is perceptible between the two major parties.

What the visitor does notice is a sharp drop in Canada’s popularity in all shades of the political spectrum in contrast to the upsurge of Canada consciousness two years ago. "It’s not exactly hostility,” one London-based Canadian said. “The honeymoon didn’t last very long. As soon as the British realized that the Canadian government didn’t really mean anything by its talk about diverting fifteen percent of our trade to Britain and all that, they just forgot about it. The businessmen in particular now recognize that Canada has a protectionist government and that in those circumstances Britain has got off rather easily with only a few Canadian tariffs increased.”

But if it’s not hostility, it’s not exactly approval either. Except in ihe Beaverbrook press, public references to Canada in Britain nowadays are fairly consistently acid.

Not only mass-circulation papers, like The People with its warnings to intending emigrants, but even the august Times sounds a rather sardonic note. After a Times editorial last spring about "inexperienced” Canadian cabinet ministers who had “made no great mark,” a private but nonetheless official protest was made from Canada House. It was good-naturedly ignored.

In July a review of McGregor Dawson’s biography of W. L. Mackenzie King appeared in the mildly Conservative weekly, The Spectator. It was less a review of the Dawson book than an essay on King and on Canada. And it wasn't flattering. “Gandhi and Smuts imposing their images on their creations (of India and South Africa) imposed a certain greatness — the splendors and agonies of a coherent national idea. King imposed his image too and, as Canadian journalists have said until it is a cliché, Canada remains a country in search of its identity, an indeterminate aggregate, innocent alike of agony or splendor, groping toward selfconsciousness ... (At the end of King’s career) the radical future was still unborn. Canada, ho longer a colony, had become only the world’s first example of welfare capitalism, the old order mitigated by hire purchase and enlightened millionaires. Every issue whose debate might have articulated a national character. King had reconciled. Every conflict which might have forced a national choice, he had averted. Himself the sole unity of his artfully poised balance of interests, he sat in Ottawa with his mother's portrait above his desk, believing that through mediums he communed with her spirit and thus with the mighty will of Mackenzie, which was his justification and Canada's destiny—so justified it scarcely mattered precisely what that destiny was nor why it never arrived.” ★