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David LaBallister

The Road Back, J. W. Pickersgill, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1986, p. 255.

Despite the spate of political books on the nation's bookshelves jack Pickersgill's The Road Back should be required reading for Liberal Leader John Turner and his parliamentary caucus. In addition it will also be welcome reading for political junkies of all faiths. As suggested by the title the Road Back is a highly readable chronology of the Liberal Party in opposition during the Diefenbaker years from 1957 to 1963.

Pickersgill has lost none of his partisanship and this is clearly illustrated in his description of the issues and personalities of a turbulent period in Canadian politics. This is particularly evident in the description of his political nemesis, John Diefenbaker. Time has not changed Pickersgill's views of the man, who in turn once described the author as "the only Member I've known who could strut sitting down". In turn, Pickersgill states ' 1 welcomed every chance to clash with Diefenbaker and even created a few".

The events as outlined during the minority Conservative government in 1957 and the massive 1958 Diefenbaker landslide, while partisan, provide an enlightened view as seen through the eyes of one of the members of the small band of Liberals who survived.

The book begins with the surprise victory of the Prairie populist over Uncle Louis St. Laurent, the Chairman of the Board. Pickersgill leads us through the Liberal Leadership Convention which selected their new leader, Lester Pearson. The author provides some interesting insights into the convention particularly as it relates to Pearson's fateful decision to ask the new Conservative administration to 'submit their resignation forthwith". This action led to what many observers claim was Diefenbaker's best political oration and the opening shot of the 1958 election which, up until the Mulroney sweep of 1984, was the largest majority in Canadian history.

Pickersgill then chronicles what he calls the three periods in the life of the Diefenbaker government and the Liberals in opposition - the "popular phase", the "ebbing tide" and the "disintegration of the government in 196Y. We have an opposition frontbench seat as Pickersgill recounts the events and personalities of the time -including the RCMP and the loggers' strike controversy in his native Newfoundland, the James Coyne Affair, the eventual collapse of the Diefenbaker government over the nuclear weapons issue and the election of the Liberals under Lester Pearson on April 8, 1963. The author also takes us through the first legislative session where he served, in addition to other responsibilities as House Leader.

Pickersgill's use of short titles throughout the text rather than individual chapters heightens the diary-like effect of his work. This reader also found the use of political cartoons a refreshing change from all those political photo opportunity pictures which usually find their way into so many political recollections.

As far as comparing the Liberals in opposition in 1957 with 1984, circumstances, personalities and events are of course never constant, especially in politics! However, as Pickersgill notes "the Liberal defeat in 1984 was as crushing as had been our defeat in 1957'. He comments on certain similarities between those days and the present and offers advice to his Liberal colleagues currently in the trenches.

Pickersgill gives credence to the adage that Governments are not defeated, they defeat themselves. He gives Diefenbaker 70% of the credit for the collapse of his government in 1963 and rates the Liberals at 30%. He cites the Liberals performance in the House, their rejuvenation of the party organisation and the creation in the minds of Canadians that there was indeed a credible alternative as successful ingredients on the road back. Some of Pickersgill's views should be closely examined by those who presently serve in the Official Opposition.

I hope Jack Pickersgill does not wait another decade to write a sequel. His writing abilities are absorbing and interesting and while highly partisan (which one must keep in perspective), one hopes he might give us the benefits of his insights into the political 'life of our country since 1963. Until then, The Road Back, is a must read for anyone interested in what continues to be a fascinating period in our political history. For the Liberal Party, The Road Back might give some hints on their road ahead.

David LaBallister, Ottawa

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Vol 10 no 1

Last Updated: 2020-09-14