Manitoba Historical Society
     Keeping history alive for over 144 years

Manitoba History: Review: David E. Smith, Decline of a National Party: Liberals on the Prairies

by John Kendle
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 5, Spring 1983

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

Please direct all inquiries to

Help us keep
history alive!

This is a broadly researched, clearly written analysis of the demise of the Liberal Party as a political force at the federal level on the prairies. The author, David Smith, a political scientist at the University of Saskatchewan, has previously published Prairie Liberalism: The Liberal Party in Saskatchewan, 1905-71, one of the very few studies available of prairie provincial politics. His new book reflects his sound grasp of not only the political but also the socioeconomic and cultural history of the region. He has had direct access to the papers of the Liberal Party and to those of Senator Richard Stanbury, a former President of the National Liberal Federation, which have enabled him to provide us with the most detailed treatment yet available of federal Liberal policies and organization over the past twenty years.

The book is organized into three sections. The first dealing with “The Region” is a first-rate account of the structure and texture of life on the prairies since the turn of the century. Shrewd, sensitive and clear-headed, it stands as one of the best introductions to the region available. The second section concentrates on the policies and organizational strategies of the Liberal Party and provides much fresh information leaned from the party archives. The final section, “The Nation,” explores the evolution of the federal system in Canada and explicates the dominant stance of the centre to the region.

The primary theme throughout the book is, of course, the failure of the Liberals to retain their hold on the West. Between 1908 and 1958 the Liberals dominate the federal sphere, winning 78% of the prairie seats at stake in general elections. Since 1958 the party has fared badly having, as of 1981, been wiped out in Alberta and Saskatchewan and barely managing to stay alive in Manitoba with two urban seats.

Gildas L. Molgat
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Robert W. Bend
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Professor Smith convincingly attributes this dramatic slump in fortune to the Liberal party’s insensitive policies ranging from “C.D. Howe’s refusal in the fifties to make cash advances on farm-stored wheat, through LIFT in the sixties, to bilingualism in the next decade.” On each occasion the policy seemed more attuned to the interests of central Canada and Westerners came to view the federal government—and thus the Liberal party—as working in opposition to their interests. This conclusion was reinforced when the Liberals in the aftermath of the disastrous electoral results of 1957 and 1958 decided to revamp their internal organization. In place of the traditional “ministerialist”—and thus vertical—contacts with individual provincial organizations and interests, the Liberals adopted pan-Canadian structures which it was hoped would by-pass the old provincial arrangements now considered parochial. Contingent with this was the promotion of a so-called mass party encouraging individual participation. Both Keith Davey, national organizer from 1961 to 1966, and Senator Stanbury, party president from 1968 to 1973, pushed these policies enthusiastically. Professor Smith systematically demonstrates how these policies failed to work in the West and how their failure led to the isolation of the federal party from its grass roots. Participatory democracy within the party did not result and horizontal linkages proved insensitive to local needs. Dr. Smith might be inclined to overemphasize the failure of organization in his analysis of the future of the party, but there is no doubt that misguided organizational strategies were inextricably entwined with the mishandling of policy.

Throughout his analysis Professor Smith gives appropriate space to developments in each of the prairie provinces and students of Manitoba political life will find much here to whet their appetite. Nevertheless, the combination of Liberal failures in Manitoba at both the federal and provincial level and the dearth, until recently, of readily available manuscript sources has made it difficult for Dr. Smith to explore the Manitoba response as deeply as he does that of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The recent acquisition by the University of Manitoba Archives of the Liberal Party of Manitoba’s papers will enable future students to broaden the analysis for this province and to elaborate upon his conclusions.

This is an excellent book and should be read by all those interested in twentieth-century Canadian political, economic, and cultural life.

Page revised: 27 October 2012

MHS YouTube Channel

Back to top of page

For queries on the above page, please contact the MHS Webmaster.

Home  |  Terms & Conditions  |  FAQ  |  Contact Us  |  Privacy Policy  |  Donations

© 1998-2023 Manitoba Historical Society. All rights reserved.