That best political book contest: but what about real influence?

There are good reads, and there are game-changers

It’s was fun watching the contest that Samara and the Writer’s Trust of Canada held to anoint the best Canadian political book of the past 25 years. The winner announced yesterday—selected by the gold-standard method of online voting—is Ezra Levant’s Shakedown: How Our Government is Undermining Democracy in the Name of Human Rights, which I haven’t gotten around to but I gather is about how our government is undermining democracy in the name of human rights.

No offence to fans of Shakedown (or any of the other finalists in the contest, which spotlighted some superb books), but when I scanned down the short list, something seemed to be missing. Not fine writing —Ron Graham’s One-Eyed Kings, for example, provides plenty of that. Not polemical verve—Andrew Cohen’s While Canada Slept is your ticket there. Not journalistic timeliness and historical insight—other books in the running offered these virtues.

But what I wondered is whether any of them could claim to have directly influenced Canadian politics beyond being good reads. Vanishingly few books ever have that sort of impact. When I reflect back on the past quarter-century of books on Canadian politics, I can only think of a couple of possibilities, and only one that strikes me as especially interesting in the Harper era.

That would be Peter Brimelow’s The Patriot Game: National Dreams & Political Realities. I remember how the book resonated around the time it appeared in 1986. Back then, Canadian right-wingers of my acquaintance were feeling a bit left behind by the goings-on in Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s Britain. Brimelow offered a bracingly of-the-moment conservative critique of Canada, albeit from the perspective of a British journalist who’d landed in Toronto in the 1970s. Not surprisingly, he saw government as Canada’s problem—far too big, and way too beholden to Quebec.

Among the young conservatives who fastened on The Patriot Game was Stephen Harper, who had quit the Tories the year the book appeared to join Preston Manning’s Reformers. In Stephen Harper and The Future of Canada, William Johnson quotes Harper’s friend John Weissenberger on how the two of them persuaded a book store in Calgary to sell them ten copies at a discount so they could give extras to friends. No other book seems to have grabbed the future Prime Minister quite the same way.

That’s influence of a very particular sort. Now, whether the book deserves to be on any best-of-the-quarter-century list is quite another matter. (It wouldn’t make mine.) Still, I think if we’re in a mood to reconsider political books that demonstrably mattered, The Patriot Game must be near the top of the heap. It seemed to give shape to the thinking of Canadian conservatives who would, with Harper, rise to run the country.

Has there been a book in the past 25 years of similar importance to the Canadian left? I’m not at all sure, but I do remember John Ralston Saul’s Massey Lectures, The Unconscious Civilization, being unusually widely read and enthusiastically embraced by progressive types after it appeared in 1995. Yet I don’t think Saul’s book, for all its popularity, galvanized a core group of eager, ultimately powerful true-believers the way The Patriot Game did.

By the way, Brimelow didn’t stay on in Canada. He moved to the U.S., where he writes about hard-core conservative bugaboos like the evil of teachers’ unions and the dire threat immigration poses to America.

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