Manitoba History: Review: John Kendle, “John Bracken: A Political Biography”
by V. Nelles
The secret of John Bracken’s political success was that he started at the top. When he had to work his way up by his wits he failed miserably. That is one of the conclusions that emerges from John Kendle’s splendid new biography of the long-time premier of Manitoba (1922-1943) and brief leader of the federal Conservative opposition (1943-1948).
Bracken’s political career began dramatically with a midnight phone call in July of 1922. On the other end of the line a complete stranger asked the sleepy principal of the Agricultural College if he would be willing to accept the premiership of Manitoba. The caller, W. R. Clubb was inquiring on behalf of the leaderless United Farmers of Manitoba who had just won 24 of the 55 seats in the recent election and as a result were required to form a minority government. Bracken, who had barely settled himself in his new job after coming from Saskatchewan in 1920, had no previous political experience, had not taken the slightest interest in Manitoba politics, in fact, he had been too busy to vote in the general election. Nevertheless he spent the next day in a church basement with T. A. Crerar and Bob Hoey being interviewed by the UFM caucus, and got the job in part because the other two turned it down. Overnight Bracken vaulted from nowhere to become Premier of Manitoba. (In a rare slip Kendle jumbles the dates here and has him being announced as Premier before Clubb’s invitation.)
Voters in The Pas ratified the United Farmers choice of Premier on October 5th by a 4 to 1 margin and in January 1923 the neophyte premier and equally inexperienced government met the legislature for the first time. Although unsteady in the saddle at first, Bracken remained firmly ensconced for the next 20 years.
John Bracken was a man of few words and even fewer letters it would seem. The two collections of Bracken Papers consist mainly of official documents, clippings, and incoming correspondence. His personal papers were destroyed in the Winnipeg flood of 1950. Virtually nothing by Bracken himself survives in the more than 300 boxes that bear his name in the PAC and PAM. “All letters or memoranda by Bracken of value for this biography would fill no more than two slim file boxes.” Kendle sadly reports. Consequently, Kendle has been compelled to write a public life. Nor was Bracken the kind of man who spawned legends. A quiet, teetotal, retiring family man who suffered from a nervous stomach, he didn’t carouse like Mitch Hepburn, strut like Duff Patullo, dominate like Maurice Duplessis, dictate like William Aberhart, or get to know the boys in the back room like Howard Ferguson. He was a man as colourless and bland as the russet dust jacket on this book. That was an important element in both hissuccess as Premier and failure as leader of the opposition.
“Brackenism,” Kendle explains, consisted of not much more than cheese paring to balance the budget in a poor and bankrupt province. Bracken was not the product of the party system nor the leader of a party. His shrewdness consisted of antagonizing his opponents as little as possible and then expanding his non-party administration to embrace them. He never depended exclusively upon the UFM for cabinet ministers. From the very beginning he reached beyond his own ranks to pick ministers first from the Conservatives and then from the Liberals. In the depths of the depression crisis he was able to negotiate a coalition with the Liberals and thus stay alive in the emergency by broadening his supporta not inconsiderable accomplishment bearing in mind the number of provincial premiers who survived the depression. Bracken believed all reasonable men should be able to reason together about cutting expenditures or asking Ottawa for more money, and he was always willing to take such reasonable men into his cabinet when the prospect arose. Brackenism, then, consisted of reducing politics to administration within a culture of poverty and limited opportunities. It is inconceivable that Brackenism would have worked for so long in any other province, except perhaps Prince Edward Island.
All of which leads us back to a consideration of the particularism of Manitoba politics. What Kendle does not explainit lies outside a biographer’s frame of referenceis why the party tradition was so weak in Manitoba. Why did the Farmers not cast up their own leadership? Why did the movement allow key cabinet posts to be given to the very people it was directed against? How could a hand-picked premier govern virtually without regard for the platform of the party he nominally headed. (The UFM, for example took a quite different position from the government in the Seven Sisters affair). A politician like Bracken could only operate in a situation where the boundaries between political parties were rather weak. Why this was so in Manitoba requires further examination. Kendle’s thorough documented, sure-footed narrative should now serve to stimulate further research into the social and economic matrix of politics in Manitoba.
Because parties were clearly defined in the Federal arena, Bracken not only failed to repeat his Manitoba success, he could not even understand the situation in which he found himself. His party, it would appear from Kendle’s account, spent most of his term lamenting its choice and trying to get rid of the naive, ineffectual, featureless non-politician. In these three last chapters on Bracken’s hapless performance as leader of the opposition John Kendle demonstrates great deftness and integrity. In recent years it has become the fashion for a biographer to become an advocate for his subject. When he is right and things work it is taken as evidence of genius. When he is wrong or ineffective, that turns out to be explained by the spirit of the time. John Kendle does not belong to this school. Neither is he Stratcheyesque in his treatment of this eminent Manitoban. Instead, Kendle understands and explains the conditions his subject’s success. He appreciates Bracken’s strengths: his integrity, dedication and his basic common sense. But he also knows and makes no attempt to hide or explain away the limitations of John Brackenwhich were numerous. When Bracken gets drawn in over his depth, Kendle frankly says so. In the process, he sets new critical standards for biography in Canada.
Few readers will be excited, enthralled or entranced by this Horatio Alger tale which turns sad near the end. Bracken did not himself elicit such a response. Instead, Kendle’s John Bracken will be read with admiration and respect, especially by other members of the historical guild. Bracken, though not an outstanding figure, has attracted a first rate biographer who has made about as much of his public life as possible, and no more. John Kendle has written an authoritative, well crafted book, worthy to stand beside W. L. Morton’s Manitoba.
Page revised: 19 November 2023