Last weekend I have made a breakthrough that I have been waiting to make all my life. I voted in an election, and for the first time in my voting life which began in 1949, everyone I voted for got elected.
Is this what Christian people would call a miracle? The occasion was the election for Mayor and councillors in Montreal. A pleasant-sounding woman called Valerie Plante opposed the blowhard, one-term Mayor Denis Coderre, who had been a Liberal MP in Ottawa before tackling municipal politics. His affiliation with the Liberal Party itself would have been enough to disqualify him in my eyes, so I decided to vote for Plante’s team, Projet Montreal, and they all won.
The irony is that my vote was based on probably the least information I have ever had about someone I voted for.
I think back to that first vote I made, in 1949. It was in the national election in New Zealand, and it took place in dramatic circumstances. The Labour Party had been first elected in 1935, in the depths of the depression, and had been in power ever since. During those years I had never read a word favorable to that government in any newspaper or magazine, and as I grew through my teens I developed a detestation for the sort of people who owned the media of information, and for all their values. That government had been composed mostly of working-class unionists, self-educated, and for my money they were the best government I have ever lived. They made our country the pacesetter in the English-speaking world in constructing a solid welfare state, their creation of a National Health Service in 1935 being a good ten years ahead of any other such scheme in the so-called Commonwealth. In addition, they carried on the relatively progressive attitudes towards government of the indigenous Maori people that had become habitual in previous decades.
The drama came from the fact that our Prime Minister Peter Fraser, who had first been elected to Parliament in 1917, when he was in jail for opposing conscription for New Zealanders in the First World War, had returned in 1949 from an Imperial Defence Conference in London convinced that to confront the menace of Soviet aggression we needed to introduce conscription. Talk about an apostate! He thereafter stumped the country arguing the case for conscription in a referendum, appearing alongside the hated leader of the National (Conservative ) party, to make his case.
I was working as a journalist in one of the daily newspapers, which, like all others, represented the conservative interest. But that didn’t stop me from joining a band of outraged leftists who gathered around a progressive bookstore in the centre of the city of Dunedin, to stuff letterboxes with pamphlets arguing against the warmongers, as we thought of them.
In the event, Fraser won his referendum --- it was more or less a foregone conclusion, given the Prime Minister’s ruthless control of the information environment for the occasion ---- but it also had the peripheral effect that it split he New Zealand Labour Party right down the middle, making it a sitting duck for the National Party who ended the 14 years of Labour government in the election held towards the end of the year.
Disgusted, following the defeat, I got married to my girl-friend, and we headed off for Australia, where a colleague had fixed me up with a job on a small daily newspaper in the town of Mackay in northern Queensland.
I didn’t stay in Australia long enough to be confronted with a vote, but if I had been there I would have voted for sure against the detestable Robert Menzies, an old-style British-type Imperialist, who was kept in power in Australia for 18 years. Talk about going from the fat into the fire!
It wasn't until I arrived in Britain late in 1951 that I had a second chance to vote. I was just in time for the election in which Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who had been elected in 1945 with the biggest swing ever known in British politics, and had been narrowly re-elected in 1950, when his party lost 90 seats to Winston Churchill’s Conservatives, chanced his arm again. I went around to my local Labour constituency office, joined the party, signed up to be a local election worker, and set off towards the expected smashing victory. That euphoria lasted only until the evening I went to hear Attlee speak, when I was so disgusted immediately lost interest in the election, withdrew from my stamp-and-envelope-licking job on Labour’s behalf, and watched in dismay as the dreadful Churchill, always an enemy of the working man, was swept back into power. He had a narrow majority, but it was enough to keep his party in power until the next election in 1955. By that time I had quit the United Kingdom and taken up residence in Canada. Here, I supported the CCF, which became the New Democratic Party, but it always lost whenever I was around to vote for it.
I was sent back to England in 1960 by The Montreal Star, to find Harold Macmillan as the Conservative Prime Minister. Now, as a working journalist, I had the pleasure of attending the House of Commons regularly, and I also was present at the annual conferences of the major political parties. By this time Labour was in the hands of Hugh Gaitskell, who was never my idea of a leader of the working class. Of course, I never liked Macmillan, but, with the benefit of hindsight, I have to say he wasn’t half as bad as I always thought him. He is the only person I had ever seen who, when making a joke of the kind usually called a tongue-in-cheek joke, he actually stuck his tongue in his cheek. He had a certain sangfroid: for example, on the occasion when Khrushchev took off his shoe and banged it on the desk for emphasis at the United Nations, Macmillan asked, “Could we have it in translation, please.” I was always amazed at the effrontery of the Tory leaders who talked of their attitude in terms only of duty, as if no one else could pretend to leadership of the nation because only they, after being specially educated to the job, were ready to face up to the heavy duty imposed on them by their birth and upbringing.
I was never high on British life, having been appalled by its class structure on my first four years in Britain, from 1951 to 1954. But I was witness to some stirring events during my eight years as a correspondent in London. For example, the only really democratic debate ever held on the question of nuclear power and its horrendous dangers was held at the annual conference of the Labour Party when it came to discuss the idea of unilaterally renouncing nuclear weapons. The left took the lead, and I will never forget a five-minute speech by Michael Foot, standing on a lecturn in front of the assembled leaders of his party lined up behind him, his long hair bobbing up and down as he turned furiously, his finger jabbing in contempt at the leaders as he reached a peroration that sent the conference out for lunch abuzz with excitement. The argument, and the vote, was won by the left: in theory this should have committed a future Labour government to renouncing nuclear weapons, but in practice, it had no effect whatever, because the next Labour government, headed by its new leader Harold Wilson, simply ignored the wishes of its assembled members. Britain has the American-made trident missile with its nuclear armament, until this day.
Come to think of of it, one hardly ever hears a debate in which he result is not known in advance, the result depending on the skill of its practitioners, and it is on that observation that I have come to the conclusion that the idea of a democratic government, of the people for the people, and by the people, is as myth.
I don’t think I had a vote in the two elections held while I was living in Britain, but if I had had the vote I would have been on the winning side once, and the losing side the next time around.
When I returned to Canada in 1968 I was in my traditional mode --- I could never vote either Liberal or Tory, and whoever I did vote for lost. I suppose, given that I have hardly ever been represented in the political discourse of the nation, it is not surprising that I have never much cared to which nation I was attached. I lived in Canada, or was domiciled here, for 26 years before deciding to apply for Canadian citizenship, and when challenged as to why it took me so long I always said, “I vote every day.” I guess that was my slightly flip way of saying that I took a full part in the nation’s affairs, through my work and other activities.
I cannot describe myself as politically active, although I am a sort of political junky. I joined the NDP again in order to vote for its new leader recently, but once again I was on the losing side. My only action was to turn up for a meeting to be addressed by the candidate of my choice, but when she had failed to turn up 45 minutes past the advertised time, I quit in disgust, asking the fellow at the door how, if she couldn’t get to a meeting in time, she could ever hope to run the government of Canada?
I can say now, of course, that I am eagerly awaiting proof that I have made the right decision in supporting Projet Montreal, about whose programme I have only the most minimal knowledge. But even if that proof is not forthcoming, it will hardly make any difference, one way or the other, any more than my one vote in their favour has had any influence on their accession to power.