Let me tell you about Canada. No, really, it's very interesting
Date: Tuesday, January 10 2006
Saturday January 7, 2006
There is an episode of Seinfeld in which George is reading the newspaper in Jerry's Manhattan apartment. Suddenly he looks up and asks: "When is the New York Times ever going to realise that China is simply not a page turner?" As so often, Seinfeld gets it right. We all know that China is the biggest this, the most important that and the fastest-growing the other. But in the end, a lot of us just don't want to read about it very much.
At least in the case of China we feel uneasy about this lack of application. We know that skipping the big read on China is taking the easy option. We know we ought to try harder because China so obviously matters. Give us China, Lord, we say, but not tonight. But what about a country where no penalty attaches to not turning the page? What about Canada?
But here's a story that I know to be true. Flying to Vancouver with his wife for a Commonwealth conference, the late Sir Denis Thatcher drifted down the plane to hobnob with the press. Standing in the aisle, a generous gin and tonic in hand, and looking out over the prairie below, the First Husband turned to the hacks and pronounced: "Y'know what Canada is? Canada is full of fuck all." Needless to say, no one reported a word.
Canadians have to live with this sort of thing all the time, especially from the British and the Americans.
When I worked in Washington, American friends expressed surprise when we went to Canada for a holiday. Americans, you quickly realise, don't go to Canada in much the same way that the British don't go to Ireland. And they have the same tin ear for their less powerful neighbour too. I don't know why we don't just annex Canada, said our neighbour when I asked her to feed the cat while we were away. She wasn't joking either.
But we Brits are no better. Here is Canada, indisputably an important nation, a big economic player, a foundation member of the G8, its political system closely modelled on ours, grappling with its own special relationship with the US and its own multicultural issues, a major force in world peacekeeping, and a country where they (mostly) speak English. Yet how much do you ever read about what's happening in Canada? How much are you ever told? What is the name of Canada's prime minister?
This Canadian general election is interesting. We need to know about it. Not just because there is likely to be a change of government in a major country, but because the trajectory of recent Canadian politics has strong echoes for Britain.
There are some good colourful aspects to the Canadian election too. For one thing, it is taking place in the midst of a Canadian winter, and Canadian winters aren't funny. Prime ministers who call midwinter elections in Britain tend to lose - Gladstone in 1874, Heath a century later - and that looks increasingly like Martin's fate too. That's one reason why the would-be successors are gathering, including the writer and TV commentator Michael Ignatieff, who is running for parliament explicitly to offer himself as Martin's replacement.
Do I make myself clear? I'd say that these are events worth a few minutes of any serious person's attention. But even if our press is not paying much heed to what's happening there this month, it's a fair bet that for our political parties Canada has for once become a page turner.
[Proofreader's note: this article was edited for spelling and typos on January 11, 2006]