Flashback Friday – Robert Stanfield

Today’s Flashback Friday post is dedicated the man many have referred to as the “greatest prime minister Canada never had.” Robert Stanfield was painfully close to becoming prime minister in 1974, but he simply could not lead his PC party to victory. Despite admiration from his colleagues and opponents for his sensibility and kindness, he did not have the political clout necessary to topple the Trudeau machine. As such, his name is forever lost in the history books, and he perhaps does not receive the attention he deserves.

Born in 1914, Stanfield grew up in Nova Scotia. He was born into a wealthy family, that earned its money from a textile company. He attended Dalhousie University, where he studied economics and political science. He then went on to study law at Harvard. He was a very well educated man, and that became evident in the political career that would follow. After he finished his education, he returned to Nova Scotia, the province that he truly loved. He spent some time managing victory bonds during WWII before he entered provincial politics.

Stanfield’s family was quite wealthy, and held quite conservative values. As such, they were well known amongst the Nova Scotia PC party membership. Stanfield himself espoused common sense conservative values, and was well liked in the province. The Nova Scotia PC party was in a sad state when Stanfield took over. The Liberal party had dominated the province for years. The situation was so bad, that the party did not even have a seat in the provincial legislature. Stanfield became leader in 1948, and by 1956 he displaced the Liberals and won himself a majority government, the first for the PC party in decades. Stanfield then went on to be premier for eleven years, winning four successive majority governments. He was enormously popular in the province, and when elected he was a spry 41, making him the youngest premier in Canada. One of Stanfield’s most admired qualities was his moral and social conscience, which served him very well.

By 1967, the PC party in Nova Scotia was extremely strong. However, the same could not be said for the federal PC party. John Diefenbaker’s death grip on the party leadership had caused the caucus to split, and the party was dangerously close to a major meltdown. When a leadership convention was called for 1967, few knew whether Dief would put his name forward to continue as leader. Stanfield’s supporters in Nova Scotia urged him to run. He had excellent credentials from which to run. He had taken the PC party in Nova Scotia, which was non existent, and turned it into a dominant governing party. Many believed he could do the same for the federal party. On paper, it appeared he was more than capable. The current Liberal prime minister was aging, and had failed to win a majority government. Stanfield was much younger, and poll numbers showed he could easily defeat Pearson in a general election. With that in mind, Stanfield tossed his hat in the ring to lead the PC party, along with ten other candidates, Diefenbaker included.

Stanfield entered the convention with most of the momentum. He was well known, and had made several well received speeches. His closest competition was the controversial Manitoba premier Duff Roblin. It took five ballots for Stanfield to finally secure the leadership. Each time, he finished first with Roblin second, but never received enough votes to take the nomination. When Stanfield accepted the nomination in 1967, there was enormous optimism from the PC party about their chances in the next federal election. They stood united behind their leader, ready to take on the Liberal party. Unfortunately, the Liberals did something nobody in the PC party expected. They selected Pierre Trudeau as their leader.

Next to Pearson, Stanfield looked younger, cooler and more refreshing. But when Stanfield was placed next to Trudeau, he looked old, tired and out of date. While Trudeau was a smooth, confident speaker, Stanfield was folksy and monotone in his delivery. Trudeau dressed in designer suits, while Stanfield wore frumpy suits. And the most costly to Stanfield was the fact that he did not look nearly as good as Trudeau on television, which now dominated media coverage of politics.

The two new federal leaders were immediately thrust into an election in the spring of 1968. As we all know, this was when “Trudeaumania” swept the country. Stanfield blundered on the campaign trail, which only compounded the problems he faced as a result of the support for Trudeau. When Canadians voted, the PC party lost seats, and was particularly hurt by low support in Quebec. Stanfield settled in as opposition leader, and proved to be an effective policy watchdog, but his voice was often lost amongst Trudeau’s.

After four years in government, many Canadian believed the Liberals under Trudeau had attempted too much and the effects of “Trudeaumania” had largely worn off. Hindsight shows us that this was Stanfield’s best chance at becoming prime minister. The economy was begging to slump, which never bodes well for the incumbent government. The PC party decided to play up Stanfield’s plain, common sense image, to convince Canadians that he was the sensible option to lead the country. Trudeau openly mocked many of Stanfield’s campaign ideas, especially with regards to the economy. When Canadians voted on election day 1972, the results were devastating for Stanfield. The Liberals won just two more seats than the PCs, forming a minority government. Stanfield watched as Trudeau was returned to 24 Sussex Drive, but only by the narrowest of margins.

Concerns were growing within Stanfield’s party, that perhaps he wasn’t the best man for the job. The optimism that had been present at the 1967 convention had been dashed by two electoral losses. Without a dramatic change in fortune, Stanfield’s days as leader could be numbered. The irony of Trudeau’s minority government from 1972-1974 was that they implemented some of the campaign proposals put forward by Stanfield. Throughout his time as PC leader, Canadians acknowledged that Stanfield was a smart and decent man. They respected his values and generally trusted him. Unfortunately, he did not have the skills necessary to compete in the new television based political world.

The federal election of 1974, effectively derailed the remainder of Stanfield’s political career. The close finish in 1972 made him hopeful he could finally become prime minister. Unfortunately, one image came to define a campaign that was a disaster for Stanfield. An image of Stanfield dropping a football thrown to him on the tarmac of an airport was flashed across the front page of almost every newspaper. It made Stanfield look weak, old and clumsy, three things that a potential prime minister does not want to be viewed as. Stanfield once again touted his party as the smart choice against the lavish Liberals, but could not match Trudeau’s wit and charm. The party lost seats, and the Liberals won another majority.

After suffering his third electoral loss since becoming leader, it was evident to all that Stanfield’s time as leader was nearly over. He stepped aside in 1976, and the younger and feistier Joe Clark took over. Clark was better equipped to take on Trudeau and the Liberals. After stepping down as leader, Stanfield retired from politics, and remained fairly quiet. The only real issues he spoke out on were free trade, and the Meech Lake Accord. He died in 2003, at the age of 89.

In his personal life, Stanfield endured several tragedies. His first wife Joyce died in a car accident in 1954. He then remarried, but his second wife Mary died of cancer in 1977. He then remarried for a third time to Anne, who he remained married to until his death. Stanfield was also father to four children.

As noted earlier, Stanfield is regarded as the “greatest prime minister Canada never had.” He was a smart man, with good moral guidance who simply couldn’t play the political game. Had he been leader before the television revolution, he perhaps could have done much better. It is ironic to think that someone viewed as highly qualified for the job of prime minister, was undone by his dowdy appearance, and folksy speaking style. One would think it would be the content of his words, not the delivery and package. But as we all know far too well, image plays an important role in politics, if not the most important. In his memoirs, Trudeau spoke very highly of Stanfield, but felt he was out of his element in Ottawa.

What are your thoughts on Robert Stanfield? Is he the great prime minister Canada never had? Is his legacy over enhanced due to his success as premier of Nova Scotia?



About Chris James

A student of political science at a Canadian University sharing stories of interest on Canadian and American political and social issues.

Posted on February 11, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I think he had alot of potential, but if he had won then we would not likely have had Trudeau as PM. I think that Trudeau was the right man at the right time for Canada (his line “Just watch me” to the tv reporter is fantastic). I feel bad for Stanfield, but if you look who he was running against, it is no surprise why he lost

  2. If Stanfield had won over Trudeau, then Canada would have become something very different then it is today. Whether that is good or bad largely depends on who you ask, I think…

  3. Very true D.I.D. I totally agree with you. I think they both had different visions for what Canada should have been. I just think the charisma and energy of Trudeau was important for getting Canada through some pretty tough times (i.e. FLQ crisis)

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