This week, a quarter of a century ago, Jean Chrétien won the Liberal Party leadership. On June 23, 1990, he defeated Paul Martin at a convention in Calgary, while back in Ottawa the Meech Lake constitutional accord hung by a thread.
A lot of people dismissed Mr. Chrétien as "yesterday's man." He had been in and around politics for most of his adult life before becoming leader. It was said that he had lost touch with his native province, Quebec; that he was a terrific handler of files that someone smarter than himself had crafted; that he was corny, folksy and likeable but lacked the gravitas to be prime minister.
Not enough people understood that, as one of his female cabinet ministers once said (privately of course), he had "balls of steel." Cross him and you paid a price. He had been underestimated politically throughout his career, and had not been accorded the respect of intellectuals and senior strategists in the Liberal Party. It was asserted that he did not know enough about the world; that he did not read his briefing notes; that complexity was his enemy; and that in due course all these alleged weaknesses, and others, would do him in.
Instead, he proved to be the last enduring Liberal prime minister, leaving in 2003. His successor, Paul Martin, flamed out quickly, done in by many factors, including the sponsorship affair in Quebec that had been in operation while Mr. Chrétien was in power. Mr. Martin was gone by 2006. The Liberals have struggled ever since.
One of the enduring books of British political history, for its grand themes and elegiac writing, is George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England, about the decline and fall of the British Liberal Party before and after the First World War.
Could it be that, post-Chrétien, we are witnessing the strange death of Liberal Canada?
It is much too early to predict the outcome of the Oct. 19 election. Polls today could be quite different a month from now. Canada is not remotely like post-First World War Britain, one of many reasons being the existence of a vast Canadian middle class that has always been, and to some extent remains today, a place where Liberals and liberalism have flourished.
Dangerfield's book brilliantly depicted how one of the dominant parties of Britain, the Liberal Party of William Gladstone and Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George – the party that had fought for so many noble, progressive causes – as the 20th century unfolded could not understand or withstand social, economic, demographic and nationalistic forces (Ireland) eating away at Liberal support and changing the structure of British politics.
In this respect, today's Liberals are confronting forces at work for many years, including during Mr. Chrétien's three mandates, when even while winning elections the party did not capture more than 39 per cent of the popular vote.
Quebec, the federal Liberals' bastion from 1896 to 1980, has not voted a majority of seats for that party in 35 years. Quebeckers spent many years and six elections refusing to think about participating in governing Canada, or even being much interested in federal affairs by voting for the Bloc Québécois. When they ditched the Bloc, francophone Quebeckers did not return to the Liberals, but voted en masse for the New Democratic Party, which remains their preferred federalist option.
The Prairie West had departed the Liberals more than half a century ago. Voters that comprise two other elements of the Canadian political mosaic split more recently from what had been the grand Liberal coalition.
French-speaking minorities outside Quebec in New Brunswick, northern and eastern Ontario and Saint Boniface in Manitoba used to be the most faithful of Liberals. Most of the ridings with these minorities have not voted Liberal in many elections.
Similarly, Liberals used to dominate Ontario's industrial cities (or parts thereof): Windsor, St. Catharines, Hamilton, (the east part of) London, Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Cornwall. They don't hold these seats any more, in part because private-sector union presence has dwindled. Liberals, not New Democrats, used to win a majority of these voters.
And now, the Conservatives have decided to contest, with some success, the Liberals' previous dominance among certain ethnic groups.
Putting back the pieces that have been falling away from the Liberal coalitions of yesterday will not be easy, and perhaps will prove impossible.