Dead Prime Ministers, the Politics of Nostalgia, and Lucky Jim

20 03 2010

In other posts, I have spoken about the opening of a new think tank in Ottawa called the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. The institute’s website suggests that it favours a return to Canada’s “founding values” and praises Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first post-Confederation Prime Minister.  I said that the first policy paper it produced was plausible but that the name of the institute is inappropriate for an organization that wants to publish recommendations in such areas as immigration and Native policy. Macdonald’s governments imposed some racist policies, although I suspect that the institute’s creators were not aware of this when they choose the name. Most Canadians  remember Macdonald as just a jovial drunk.

Sir John A. Macdonald, 1883
Image from Library and Archives Canada

Anyway, this got me thinking about the ways in which the social memory of Macdonald and other early Canadian Prime Ministers continues to be used in Canada today.  Selective social memory is an interesting topic. David Orchard, a onetime candidate for the leadership of the PC party, continues to venerate Macdonald. In the Fight for Canada: Four Centuries of Resistance to American Expansionism, Mr Orchard pays plenty of attention to Macdonald, as well as the famous free trade elections of 1891, 1911 and 1988 and Avro Arrow. Mr Orchard uses the social memory of Macdonald to lend credence to his own protectionist ideas. I suppose he needs all the ammunition he can get, since the overwhelming majority of academic economists support free trade. Economists differ on many issues, but this is something on which they agree.


Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien appears to venerate Wilfrid Laurier.  In 2008, he wrote this statement about Laurier for an essentially celebratory website called

“He was close to a secular saint in our household.  As a young man, my father, Wellie, had shaken Laurier’s hand – an experience he cherished for the rest of his long life,  For me, a young boy growing up in rural Quebec, a unilingual francophone growing up in a country whose power structure was decidedly – and almost uniquely English-speaking – Laurier was an inspiration and ideal,  Much in the same way that the election of Barack Obama is inspiring all young children to dream today of exciting and unlimited opportunities, Laurier, a rural francophone, who rose to lead an overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon Canadian society, was an example to me… Laurier truly believed in the promise of Canada, and he inspired Canadians to make that promise a reality by calling on them to look beyond their particular region, language, or religion. Laurier believed that Canadian unity could be built on diversity, rather than sameness… From 1993 to 2003, the desk in my office on Parliament Hill was Laurier’s own. His portrait hung on the wall. I often found myself wondering, when facing the difficult questions of the day, how to apply his lessons and wisdom. Many of Laurier’s ideas remain as relevant as ever to today’s politics. His wisdom, now a century old, is surprisingly modern.” Chrétien went on to praise Laurier’s belief in “liberalized trade” and efforts “to bring down the walls and fences of protectionism.  He understood that Canada’s true economic promise could only be achieved by opening itself to the world”. Chrétien also extolled Laurier for being “a fierce and courageous advocate of Canadian independence.  For a young country, still very much in the shadow of the British Empire, that was a daunting and audacious stance,  In his time many – if not most – English-speaking Canadians felt themselves more British than Canadian. But Laurier resisted attempts, both at home and abroad, to weave Canada ever more tightly with the Empire.   He put it simply, clearly, unmistakably: ‘Canada first, Canada last, Canada always’ “. Chrétien concludes that “Laurier imagined Canada as a strong, independent country whose voice would be heard on the international stage, and the first modern nation to celebrate diversity, tolerance, and generosity. He built a country in this image through his four terms as prime minister.”

Mr Chrétien’s sentiments are fine indeed, although Laurier’s belief in trade liberalization and Canadian nationalism was only intermittently in evidence. Mr Chrétien’s belief in open immigration is commendable. I note that it was left to one of his successors to issue a formal apology for the Chinese Head Tax.

Robert Borden with Winston Churchill

Robert Borden was a very complex figure, a man who embodies many of contradictions embedded in the words “Progressive Conservative”.  It is therefore somewhat disturbing that political extremists in Canada have adopted Borden as a hero because they admire that racist immigration policies that Borden and most other politicians in Canada (and indeed, the United States as well) supported in the early twentieth century. However, I can understand why they might admire Borden, although I have found evidence in my own research in Borden’s correspondence that Borden was somewhat less racist in thought than his public deeds might indicate. (Part of this research was published in an article in JICH). Anyway, the video I’ve posted below is not for viewing at work (or right before dinner).

As I said in a recent post on nostalgianomics, I have very little time for nostalgia. Some types of nostalgia are essentially benign (e.g., old men admiring vintage cars). However, when nostalgia is translated into the political realm, things are different. The politics of nostalgia are good for neither the discipline of history nor present-day politics. Invoking the memory of past glorious accomplishments, historical heroes, or alleged “golden ages”  really serves no useful purpose. The serious study of history is a powerful tool for making decisions about public policy. But pining for an idealized past is not helpful.

Whenever I see the politics of nostalgia in action, I think of the great comic novel Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. The novel follows the exploits of a very junior historian at a small British university in the early 1950s. Jim Dixon is asked by his superiors to give a lecture that is an annual event in the history department. Local dignitaries will be in attendance. The central character has been instructed by the more senior historians to speak on the theme of Merrie England. He is supposed to argue that life in England before the Industrial Revolution was blissful and idyllic. Professor Welch tells Lucky Jim that this talk will determine whether his job at the university will be made permanent. For better or worse, the protagonist gets very drunk and delivers a rambling lecture in which he attacks the senior faculty and the thesis he is supposed to argue. He declares that life before the Industrial Revolution was bloody awful for most people and that it is only the “homemade pottery crowd” who think otherwise.

I share Jim Dixon’s sentiments.  I’m damn glad that I was born when I was and that I grew up in an age with Thai restaurants, antibiotics, inexpensive air travel, multiculturalism, cheap toasters from China, and universal healthcare. It’s just common sense!