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Neil Cameron

Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian. He served as a member of Quebec's National Assembly from 1989 to 1994.

Max Aitken and the limits of unidirectional power

The Canadian who did most to change the world in the first half of the 20th century did so as a a British tycoon. Max Aitken, First Baron Beaverbrook (1879-1964), a small pixie in appearance, was a phenomenon of energy. Son of a Scottish clergyman, growing up in New Brunswick, he made his first fortune in Canada as a bold and adventurous company promoter and stockbroker, becoming a millionaire before he was thirty. He left permanently for Britain in 1910 and became a Commons MP less than a year later. He then set about becoming the richest and most politically influential of the British press barons. He built the Daily Express, from a circulation of 40,000 when he acquired it, into a giant, with hundreds of thousands of readers by the end of the 1920s; after 1945 it reached daily sales of almost 4 million, highest of any newspaper in the world. By then, he owned as well a large string of other newspapers and businesses, and maintained a dozen luxurious homes in England, France, Canada, and the U.S., famous as well for his many affairs and for the lively conversation of his dinner table. Aitken was both a whirlwind business expansionist and a writer of real talent. Near the end of his life, over eighty and dying of cancer, he still sometimes telephoned orders to his employees, barking “You gotta gotta say...” I knew some Daily Express reporters in London in the early 1960s; an otherwise irreverent crew, they all held "the Beaver" in awe. They recognized his astuteness about what readers wanted, and his own literary gifts. His many books included three brilliant ones about British politics in the First World War. He also hired other first-class writers, including Evelyn Waugh, who lampooned him in two of his… Read More

The soldier president and the conservative philosopher

We know more than we can tell. - Michael Polanyi Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it. - Dwight Eisenhower Historical amnesia began reaching new proportions in the 1960s, especially in the United States. Baby boomers in their salad days felt the impact of network colour television and its depiction of the Vietnam War. Among many of them, even the major two most destructive wars of all time in 1914-18 and 1939-45 and the first decade of the Cold War were almost consigned to oblivion. This supercharged amnesia extended to the eventful eight-year Republican Presidency of Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969), a balding grandfather replaced by the dashing young Jack Kennedy. Yet Eisenhower had appeared splendidly qualified when he was elected in 1952. He had been the Supreme Allied Commander who had defeated the Nazis in Western Europe in 1944-45; had written an impressive book about it; and had proved a successful postwar president of Columbia University. His earlier background also held surprises. A rebellious West Point student, he had nonetheless been so talented in calculus that he introduced a novel proof still used, and he spent years as a skillful poker player. His 1952 campaign used posters and buttons showing his winning smile and the "I like Ike" slogan. Adlai Stevenson, twice his Democrat opponent, once ruefully reflected, “What was I doing, running against George Washington?” By his second term, however, Eisenhower was frequently viewed as a disappointment, even a failure: both too bellicose and not bellicose enough as a Cold Warrior; doing too little to resist the demagogy of Senator McCarthy; too slow to respond to the 1954 desegregation decision of the Supreme Court, even though he sent National Guard troops into Arkansas to enforce school integration.… Read More

History’s Slow Dance of the Seven Veils

The past is not dead; it’s not even over. -William Faulkner Voltaire once joked that historians are more powerful than God, “as even God can not change the past.” But sometimes no revisions by historians are necessary to make the world view the past differently; profoundly important public events can accomplish that directly. The great year for that was 1956, when three such events arrived. The first was the leaked “secret” February speech of Nikita Krushchev to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party; the second, in October, was the aborted British-French military intervention in Egypt, intended to protect the Suez Canal from Nasser’s new “pan-Arab” nationalism; and the third, at roughly the same time, was the outbreak of revolution in Communist-controlled Hungary. All of these, surprising enough in themselves, led to the instantaneous collapse of three concepts about domestic and international politics that had held sway in all quarters since the end of the Second World War. Krushchev was attempting a narrowly qualified admission of the terrible oppression and mass murder of the Stalin years; he thought it unavoidable in responding to the Soviet Union’s economic failures, especially in agriculture. He was also consolidating his own power against rivals like Molotov. But the publication of the speech in Western news outlets like theNew York Times had a far broader worldwide impact, beginning the disintegration of the dogmatic and united edifice of Marxism-Leninisn, culminating in its total collapse just over three decades later. As it was, his candour did not just stun his Poliburo colleagues, but Communists and fellow-travellers worldwide. They were overwhelmed by this demolition of what had been for them an unquestioning and quasi-religious faith. It was a major factor in beginning a permanent split between the Soviets and Mao’s Chinese Communists, with all the international effects… Read More

The long and twisting path to Brexit

I. Romance and Courtship Winston Churchill, in the years immediately following World War II, out of office but still hugely influential, sometimes then sounded like the herald of a 'United States of Europe', at least of its non-Communist components. But when he returned to power in the early 1950s, he never entered into any practical negotiations with the original six-member European Economic Community, and his successor, Anthony Eden, showed no enthusiasm for doing so. However, when I was living in London in 1960-61, it looked as if Harold Macmillan's Conservative Government was going to take the U. K. into the EEC. I was in favour, influenced by persuasive arguments I was reading in the literate political monthly, Encounter. I was unimpressed by the opposing populist views ('Empire Free Trade!')regularly thundered by Max Beaverbrook and his minions in the Daily Express, which had over four million readers in those days. I was also little moved by hostile fulminations I heard from radical orators in Hyde Park. As a mathematics student at Queen's, I had not been very interested in politics of any kind, but Britain rapidly drew me in. I began, like many of my generation, with an illusory enthusiasm for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which I imagined as having far greater importance than the European economic question. I was unconvinced of the necessity of nuclear weapons for Britain or Canada, and I attended numerous CND rallies, listening attentively to Bertrand Russell. But I soon acquired doubts. 'Unilateralism' looked to me too much like a dangerous unreciprocated favour to the Soviets, and the more I read about atomic weapons, the more I understood the grim logic of maintaining them. In any case, the CND Trafalgar Square crowds were having little impact on the House of Commons. Like the Conservatives, the… Read More

Arithmetic divinity

When I was in England decades ago, researching the history of the British scientific elite, I loved visiting Trinity College, Cambridge, although I was green with envy of its students. It was, and is, a matchless centre of mathematical and scientific achievement. It has also produced half a dozen prime ministers, and many great writers and poets. But it was above all the college of Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, Ernest Rutherford (and 31 other Nobel prize winners), and the mathematician-philosophers, Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead. Trinity was also attended by trio of gifted mathematicians in the early 1900s: two Englishmen, G. H. Hardy, J.E. Littlewood, and the even more talented, physically frail Indian, Srinivasa Ramanujan. Their friendship and close collaboration in the years 1913-1920, especially that between Hardy and Ramanujan, is a remarkable story familiar to mathematicians for many years, and Ramanujan is a national hero in India, but their tale was little known to the general public before the appearance of a good 1991 biography of Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel, The Man Who Knew Infinity. Now Matthew Brown has made a film based on the book. I went to see it as soon as it opened at the Forum multiplex, not sure it will be around for long. Despite a good script, fine performances by the three leading actors, and an important story, I doubt if this film will compete in grapevine buzz with the more melodramatic portrayals of brilliant mathematicians in A Beautiful Mind and The Imitation Game. Both of these used a reliable mythic formula, the tale of suffering and misunderstood genius on the borderland of saintly madness, set against the backgrounds of World War II and Cold War cryptography. Brown's film is set in the years of World War I, but that war has only occasional relevance… Read More
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