Thursday, April 28, 2011

The lost art of compromise

There's a new book out about a Canadian politician.

Yeah, I know that has to rank right up there with Worthwhile Canadian Initiative for most boring headline of all time, but bear with me.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier
, by André Pratte, is a biography of one of Canada's great prime ministers.

In his book review, Jeffrey Simpson writes, “If Canada still exists today, it is because there have always been Canadians who felt that Laurier was right, that compromise is not surrender or cowardice, but rather daring and courage.”

Oh! Who are they? Will they please make themselves known to us.

Compromise in today's politics is construed as weakness by both supporters and opponents. Supporters refuse to let their guy yield an inch of ground, and opponents interpret any willingness to compromise as a sign that the other guy is weak and vulnerable.

Laurier faced challenges that were, if anything, even more intractable than those we confront today.

English-French divisiveness, Protestant-Catholic conflicts, problems with the economy, free trade with the U.S., regional feuds, immigration fears, disputes over federal vs. provincial jurisdiction, funding of religious schools, conscription for England's wars, foreign interference in Canadian affairs --- all were in the headlines.

Nonetheless, he served in the House of Commons for 45 years, led his party for 32 years, and was prime minister from 1896 to 1911.

He achieved that by being a master of the art of compromise, willing to climb down from positions that were going nowhere (including free trade) in order to advance the principal strategy of building a nation. Of course, the corollary is that his opponents were also, at the end of the day, willing to compromise.

Laurier evolved from politician to statesman, now an endangered species, possibly extinct.

And, oh yeah, he took the streetcar to work.

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