Michael Ignatieff

On 4 September, the night of the Canadian Election, friends of mine were gathered around the live radio-feed listening to the results in Canada House, cackling as the tumbrils bore each Liberal Cabinet Minister to the electoral guillotine. By about four in the morning, the dimensions of the Liberal catastrophe had revealed themselves: expelled from its Quebec bastion, reduced to a small-town Ontario rump with only two seats between Thunder Bay and Vancouver. It is difficult to say which pebble set off the landslide: reaction against Trudeau’s high-minded highhandedness, the prospect of change without risk, the attractions of a Tory leader who grew up in an iron-ore town on Quebec’s north shore and had a popular touch in either language. For many people, however, it was the stink of the pigs in the trough which finally did the Liberals in. Trudeau, ever the master of the contemptuous parting gesture, had forced his successor, John Turner, to approve over a hundred and fifty patronage appointments among the bagmen, hangers-on and courtiers of his reign. Cabinet Ministers accused of influence-peddling were pensioned-off as ambassadors to small unwilling nations and loyal apparatchiki were raised from obscurity under the garden stones of politics and given the Canadian equivalent of life peerages. Patronage is the gift ritual which binds together the tribal alliances of modern states, but this potlatch was gross, the last straw. At Canada House the pleasure of the night was more in punishing the losers than applauding the winners. The choice before the electorate was uninspiring: one high-priced lawyer with a lantern jaw and a hand on the ladle of the public trough, versus another. When the new man, Brian Mulroney, appeared on the screens in the small hours, waving in ragged colour from a hockey auditorium in his home town, Baie Comeau, Quebec, there were ripples of mockery in Canada House.

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