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Manitoba History No. 89
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No. 89

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Manitoba History: Review: J. Terence Morley, Norman J. Ruff, Neil A. Swainson, R. Jeremy Wilson and Walter D. Young, The Reins of Power: Governing British Columbia

by Thelma Oliver
University of Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 10, Autumn 1985

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The Reins of Power: Governing British Columbia. J. Terence Morley, Norman J. Ruff, Neil A. Swainson, R. Jeremy Wilson, Walter D. Young. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1983. x, 342 pp. ISBN 0-88894-388-1

The Reins of Power is a comprehensive text on British Columbia government and politics, the collaborative effort of five University of Victoria political scientists. It is the first publication of the B.C. Project, whose purpose is to uncover patterns of stability and change during the decade in which power passed from W. A. C. Bennett through Dave Barrett to Bill Bennett. The playful title accurately reflects the dual theme of the book: it is a study of Leviathan, where premiers reign as uncrowned kings; it is also an analysis of a complex modern political economy in which horse-and-buggy institutions are being adapted to attempt to control powerful new organizational forms. Although it is aimed at a popular audience, this is an important academic work. Combining a fine sense of historical context with a thorough knowledge of structures, Reins of Power is reminiscent of the old tradition of Canadian scholarship. It is informed by political science but written with the elegance of the historian, with clarity, imagination, wit and, despite the many pens at work, remarkable unity of language, style and approach. Scope and format are also traditional. The legislature, the premier and cabinet, political parties, the judicial system, municipalities, and federal relations are treated in separate chapters, while the public service earns more extensive consideration in two long chapters. Superb brief descriptions of structural principles are woven neatly into the detail of political events; the pedagogical hand is never heavy. This work is interesting and provocative for the specialist in provincial affairs, but it is also fully accessible to the novice. We need such a book for Manitoba.

Spaniards admonish strangers, “Espana es diferente,” with tireless regularity. They are convinced that this is a fundamental truth about their country, and soon the visitor believes it as well. So, too, British Columbians, and for many of the same reasons. There is a pugnacious quality to the culture of Narcissus-on-the-Pacific, where civil war is normal and the bullring, tastefully disguised as a legislature, provides the sport that keeps people happily divided. But this notion that British Columbia is special can induce myopia. For example, there is a tendency in these essays to take the big boys, Ottawa, Westminster, and Washington, rather than other provinces, as a comparative base. I would like to see more cross-province comparisons. Simply from the point of view of method, this might open up some avenues of inquiry that are blocked when provinces are treated as total societies and compared with other “nations” on points of divergence. Looking at practices in other provinces qua provinces may reveal patterns that can be described in something other than the “exception” mode.

Since Reins of Power was published, major changes have taken place in B.C. politics. Norman Ruff says in his Introduction that, despite the war between right and left in the province, “... neither would begin an entirely new game.” This is certainly true for the left, but Bill Bennett’s zeal for his new-found theory of government has changed more than the rules. In many ways he is changing the game itself, accelerating the centralization of power and putting it at the service of particular private enterprises. When the premier says, “B.C. means business,” he is marking a structural change in the disposition of power in the province. And when it comes to method, Bennett takes his comparative base strictly from the big boys: only Westminster and Washing-ton provide appropriate models for the nation-building plans of Mr. Bennett, whose rebirth in 1983 began a process in which the “Good British Columbian” was to find definition. It is significant that he is no longer referred to condescendingly as “Miniwac.” The New Bill Bennett is determined to transform B.C. into Taiwan-East, a principality in which, as Founder, he will expect to reign unhampered by socialist hordes or even old-fashioned liberal democrats.

The B.C. Project will have its hands full describing, much less interpreting, the new dawn on the Pacific Rim. To do the job, these in charge of it will have to pay attention to political culture, especially the role of the culture-makers in the communications media. Also missing from their current work is commentary on the extra-parliamentary opposition that became Solidarity after the New Reality budget. Sadly, the member of their group most able to write on these matters has passed away. Walter Young will be missed, by the group and by us all. Reins of Power is a testament to his excellence as teacher, scholar, and colleague. It is also a fitting legacy of what is best in Canadian political science.

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