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Michael Ferrabee

My Dear Legs ... Letters to a Young Social Democrat, Alex MacDonald, New Star Books, Vancouver, British Columbia, 187 pages.

Alex MacDonald Q.C. has spent more than 25 years at the centre of the CCF and later NDP politics in British Columbia. He has acted as Attorney General, Minister of Industry, as well as assuming the responsibility for the Department of Energy. He is now the longest serving member of the British Columbia Legislative Assembly.

My Dear Legs ... is a series of letters written by Mr. MacDonald beginning in 1983 to his young squash partner and friend Hugh Legg, examining the current status of the Social Democratic movement in Canada. MacDonald's witty prose and irreverent style takes the reader on a critical examination of the New Democratic Party and digs to the roots of many of the problems the social democratic movement faces, not only in British Columbia, but in Canada as a whole. Since at one time Mr. MacDonald was secretary to CCF Leader M.J. Coldwell in the late 1940's, and served a brief stint as a Member of the House of Commons the year prior to the national Diefenbaker sweep of 1958.

In his letters MacDonald deals directly with the many issues and problems facing the NDP in the 1980's. On the question of Medicare and fee-for-service doctors payed for by the state, MacDonald proposes a novel approach of local clinics staffed by doctors who are paid to keep people well instead of simply providing services. Throughout the letters, he refers to the need for an Incomes Policy that will affect the party's relationship with both business and labour, however, an explicit plan or method of implementation is never proposed. On issues such as Energy and Human Rights, MacDonald draws on his experience as a Minister to suggest modest changes in the current party position.

On the issue of "electioneering' Mr. MacDonald seems to have his greatest trouble with the party, reflecting uncertainty among others within the party about the basic objectives of the NDP. He is concerned that the NDP is 'beginning to quack, waddle and gabble like any other party for whom winning elections is the goal". He reluctantly accepts, by the end of his letters, that "there are two strains in the CCF-NDP movement, one idealistic; the other pragmatic, and we need some of each."

MacDonald also comments frequently on the need for policy alternatives proposed by his party. After numerous examples he concludes "the lesson for us, Legs, is to have enough policies in our wardrobe so as not to go naked when some are stolen". Yet aside from the few suggestions above, MacDonald does not have many tangible proposals to fill this gap.

As well as a serious political examination of the NDP, My Dear Legs ... is a thoroughly readable, witty and sometimes irreverent series of political stories and foibles. In describing the end of a session in the British Columbia Assembly, MacDonald remarks; "historically Canadian Legislatures wind up their sessions when the bores begin to bore the bores ... I prefer girls.'

MacDonald also cannot resist an opportunity to shoot at a classic NDP target when describing his recovery in hospital in a later letter: "When I came to from the anesthetic, there were nurses and flowers all around me I thought I must have died and gone to the Senate."

Alex MacDonald's letters are genuinely readable and amusing. MacDonald himself emerges as likeable and witty. Most people, I would guess, would leap at the chance to hear more or share a good cigar and a nice bottle of wine with the author at the Union Club in Victoria. The book itself in the years to come, regardless of the fortunes of the NDP, may prove to be the best insight into the present state of the social democratic movement in Canada straightforward and honest, but with some serious fundamental questions unresolved.

Michael Ferrabee, Ottawa

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 9 no 1

Last Updated: 2020-03-03