Digital Research and Canada's "Natural Governing Party"

Have you ever heard of Canada's “natural governing party”? It's a common phrase used by journalists and politicians, most often describing the Liberal Party. Sometimes it's an affirmation of the Liberal Party's time in power or as a prophecy for their coming return. Other times it's used with scorn by Conservatives or the NDP to mock the Liberal arrogance in presuming their place as the governing party of Canadians. Recently the Conservatives under Stephen Harper have tried to claim their own place as Canada's natural governing party. The expression is so common that few ever question its origins. Today, politics and history lovers alike can follow our journey in answering this question through today's post!

Ten or twenty years ago, answering this question would have required many, many hours of research.  So many that we would not have even tried to do it.  Perhaps this is why no one has answered this question (well, at least as far as we have read).  Today, we have amazing digital tools that can at least help us guess the origins and reasons for this phrase. 

One is Google Ngrams, an online tool that allows you to search for the appearance of a word or phrase in all of the books that Google has indexed, which is estimated at around 30 million.  So roughly somewhere just above the amount of books a typical PhD student will read, which means it is a well-suited tool for our purposes today.  There are a variety of ways to search Ngrams, some increasingly complicated and useful, but even its most basic function can reveal interesting trends for words and phrases.  Well, it can suggest interesting trends – Ngrams charts will never replace actual research and a close reading of sources, but for a blog post it gives us an answer to our casual historical questions. 

So if we plug into Ngrams the phrase “natural governing party” we get a nice little chart of its usage:

We can see somewhere around 1963 it jumps into use and remains popular for the next few decades.  Popular being a relative term – even at its height it appears in 0.000000253% of indexed books that year.  This suggests that the phrase came into common use in the 1960s.  What are the books that are using it though?  We can click through to Google Books and find out!  Let's look at its appearance in books from 1800-1972.

We quickly see that many of these references are to books about Germany or Britain and not useful for us, though interesting that it first appeared in Britain.  Once we add the term “Canada” to our search though, we are left with two books from before 1972. One is again from Britain, and the other says it's from 1904 but if you look closer, it's from 1996.  Hardly helpful.  Let's return to our search terms but for the entire 20th century. Organize it by date and go to the very end and we see a lot of books from the 1980s using the term. One of the first being Allan Fotheringham's Malice in Blunderland, Or, How the Grits Stole Christmas in 1982. Fotheringham, a long time writer for Maclean's magazine, seems to have popularized the Canadian use of the term in the early 80s during the final years of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau's government.  It was applied to the Liberals, we can guess, because they had been in government for nearly twenty years at that point (except for a brief interruption from Joe Clark).  Looking back at the Ngram, the peak is 1984, so this seems to line up with the vague data we've found so far.  (Of course, I discovered when you google “natural governing party” and “Fotheringham,” all of this is immediately clear without the research we just did!  At least we have evidence.)

Let's go a step deeper though.  Using the Globe and Mail online database for their archives (available through my university, sorry non-students!) we can search again for the phrase “natural governing party.”  We now find it used as early as 1976 in a February 10 article by William Johnson, who notes that Conservative party leadership candidate Brian Mulroney calls the Progressive Conservatives “the natural governing party in Canada” in his brochures.  Jeffrey Simpson also uses the phrase on December 14, 1979, and again on March 2, 1981, using it once championing the Liberals and once attacking the failed Conservatives.  Even further down the rabbit hole, a Google search lists an article interviewing Fotheringham that implies that the term predates the early 80s to his time writing for the Vancouver Sun in the late 60s. But that could be just poor writing. 

After all that, it's unclear where the phrase was first used.  Here is where Ngrams and Google books and online databases fall far short of replacing actual historical knowledge. Surely the idea of Canada's natural governing party has been around far longer than Fotheringham's sarcastic barbs even if they weren't using that phrase. Fortunately, unlike our digital friends at Google Ngrams, Google Books and Google Scholar, Ican review lots of complex sources of information to answer a question, rather than just applying a collection of search terms.

As a Canadian History PhD Student who has read somewhere below 30 million books, I can intuitively guess that the idea may have been raised in the late 50s or early 60s.  The decades after the Second World War saw a generation of Canadian historians endeavour to what H.J. Hanham called the “simultaneous creation of a national chronicle and the exploration of national character and the only half-conscious development of national myths.” New nationalist historians of the 50s and 60s, like Donald Creighton, A.R.M. Lower and J.M.S. Careless, defined a generation inside and outside of academia.  Believe it or not, there was a time once when most Canadians were actively interested in their history outside of classrooms.  Some of these historians alluded to a set of natural characteristics that smoothed out Canada's journey from “colony to nation.”  Having read a lot of these historians, I suspected one of them was a likely candidate who may have popularized the idea of what Canada's natural governing party looked like before it became a moniker used by political pundits.  I remembered one instance that stood out for its popularity and wording - something I had come across by chance.

I was probably at an airport bookstore when I picked up a book titled More Lost Massey Lectures: Recovered Classics from Five Great Thinkers. Being a Canadian historian, it's the sort of book you pick up to read on a 7 hour flight or “one day in the future.”  Luckily for us, it was on that flight where I read the 3rd Massey Lecture given by historian Frank H. Underhill in 1963, called “The Image of Confederation.”  The Massey lectures began in 1961 and are named after former (and our first born-in-Canada) Governor General, Vincent Massey. Underhill's contribution to the series was given in the shadow of the debate over placing nuclear missiles on Canadian soil that led to the defeat of the British-oriented Conservative government of John Diefenbaker by the American (or at least, North American) focused Liberal, Lester B. Pearson. Alongside it, a growing Quebec nationalism emerged after the Quiet Revolution and in 1963, the Front Liberation de Quebec (FLQ) had begun a terrorist bombing campaign throughout the province.  The confederacy of provinces seemed to be at a turning point. Underhill, a committed leftist and by then a Liberal as well, addressed the “the feeling of defeatism in the air.”  It was an appropriate moment, he argued, “to review what Canadians, from time to time, since 1867, have thought about their nationhood, its purpose and significance.”

In the lecture called “French-English Relations in Canada,” Underhill lauds Liberal leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier as the greatest of all Canadians – and, unlike many in the audience, since Underhill was born in 1889, he actually remembered Laurier as Prime Minister.  He told the crowd that Laurier embodied what had made a long list of Canadian politicians successful, both before and after Confederation. Eventually he summarized what made them work so well in the Canadian system, saying:

These successful bi-racial governing parties are marked by certain characteristics.  Whatever their name, they are really coalitions of the moderate men in each of the French and English communities. Above all, their leaders are moderates.  The extremists after 1854, the Grits and Rouges, never quite succeeded for a long time in forming a nation-wide party that was a going concern.  The Diefenbaker and Duplessis groups have been equally unsuccessful in our day.  The successful party is based on the men of the centre.

Now, this is no smoking gun to say that Frank Underhill invented the concept of a natural governing party. There could easily be references to this idea before him.  Still, the Massey lectures were hugely influential, and throughout his speech he paints a picture of successful Canadian governance that is time and again linked to what (to this day) we often identify as formative aspects of the Liberal party: Moderate, centre, bi-racial cooperation between French and English (bicultural might be a better term), and concern with national issues, not regional ones.  Underhill is describing the natural governing party of Canada of his lifetime, the Liberal party. 

Only recently has the Liberals' role as a natural governing party been called into question (or at least, only recently has an alternative been feasible), but its longevity is a matter for political scientists and soothsayers. Today, I think we can be satisfied that we've tracked down some answers to our historical questions and revealed some of the strengths and weaknesses of the digital tools historians have at their disposal.  They are a useful starting point, but they do not yet replace being widely read.

And, of course, we have proven that historians are better than robots.

Post Script 

Here are some interesting Ngrams I discovered after playing around with the tool. They are not really enough for a blog post, but I wanted to share them.

Video killed the Radio Star - and the next killer might be the internet. 

The Console Wars - The rise and fall of video game systems.

Are we getting more self-obsessed? 


A new term becomes unfortunately more relevant than an old one.

As with our original searches, these are far too variable to really tell us anything concrete about the world - plus the inconsistency of Google Books means we don't know how reliable the dataset is - but they certainly suggest interesting things!