Reading Donald Smiley

I’m rereading Donald Smiley’s The Canadian Political Nationality (1967). What a master Smiley was! I miss him. We need him. (And now, he’s lost his “prize” status with the Canadian Political Science Association. Pity.) Here he is on parliamentary government.  Note the second paragraph, especially.

“Stable, majoritarian democracy is incompatible with the existence of permanent minorities. If a self-conscious group is always outnumbered and if its members perceive that most of the issues resolved by government are decided contrary to its vital interests, it will almost inevitably regard democratic institutions as the instrument of oppression and strive to undermine and eventually to replace them. But established democracies are not like that at all. They are sustained under circumstances in which there are a great variety of actual and potential cleavages (majorities and minorities) in society and where public policies are the resultants of struggles between various combinations of sentiment and interest, some of them relatively stable and others forming and reforming as particular issues arise.

“As a citizen I am in the minority today, tomorrow it may be otherwise. Certain aspects of my interests are badly attended to by the public authorities, in respect to others I do well. Those I oppose on this issue, I join as allies on that. In my political behaviour I am pulled in one direction by the traditional loyalties of my family and in the other by the dominant sentiments of those with whom I work, and I end up by not feeling or acting positively in one way or another. In brief, democracy proceeds by the rule of “tolerable” because ‘varying” majorities.’”

John A. put it this way: “In all countries the rights of the majority take care of themselves, but it is only in countries like England, enjoying constitutional liberty, and safe from the tyranny of an unbridled democracy, that the rights of minorities are respected” (Canadian Legislative Assembly, February 6, 1865). As I’ve said before, by “minorities,” Macdonald means the groups and interests on the opposition benches.

Smiley was thinking about constitutions, political institutions and the tradition of constitutionalism in the decades when the majority of political scientists were in flight from constitutional studies and were trying to turn themselves into sociologists. I thought of heading this note “the defeat of Donald Smiley.” But he’ll be read long after the would-be sociologists are forgotten. Well, he’ll be read if there remain copies of the book.  The Canadian Political Nationality is typical of many from Canada’s centennial decade: the paper’s yellowing – browning, in fact; the ink’s fading; in the paperback version the spine’s cracking. My copy is held together with elastic bands – like my old copy of Lord Durham’s Report (Craig’s 1963 edition, and G.P. Browne’s Documents of Confederation.


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