Thursday, 18 November 2010

What's Up with British Columbia? Or, the Strange but True Story of our Second Premier "Amor de Cosmos"

Amor de Cosmos, born William Alexander Smith (1825 - 1897), Second Premier of British Columbia (1872 - 1874)

The Province of British Columbia is presently embroiled in a heated, nay, sizzling political conflict -- details of which are quite possibly too nasty and vicious for the Idle Historian to detail here. The present troubles, however, are but the latest installment in the long-running bizarre, and sometimes downright absurd, cavalcade that is BC politics. We possess a reputation for having the craziest politics in the nation, and indeed we do work extremely hard to maintain it. Almost all our Premiers since the early 1990s have resigned in scandal -- if, that is, they were not sacrificial lambs leading their respective parties for a few months to ignominious decimation at the polls. Recently, however, there had been a multi-year stretch of relative quiet (by BC standards), leading one reporter on the CBC to liken the Province to a "dormant volcano" that was simply waiting to blow. Another posed the question: "What's up with British Columbia?"

We got an early start with eccentric political figures in the person of our Second Premier, a man perhaps charitably as "iconoclastic" -- this was a man who changed his legal name to Amor de Cosmos on the mistaken impression that it meant "lover of the universe." It was the name with which he would enter politics and lead the Province after an eclectic series of jobs and ventures stretching from California to his final city of residence, Victoria -- the Provincial capital. He entered politics as an opponent of Sir James Douglas and his allies. His short tenure as Premier ended, as so many have tended to, in scandal, alienation from his friends and colleagues, and de Cosmos being declared insane (well, not all ex-Premiers are declared insane, though at times suspicions do arise regarding their sanity). And it is wondered why all the best and brightest candidates to run for the Premiership at present seemingly do not wish to touch it with the proverbial 10-foot pole.

There are certainly many positive things that can be said about Amor de Cosmos. He was an intrepid journalist who founded the newspaper that still exists as the Victoria Times-Colonist. He also shook up the political establishment, pushing for reforms and responsible government, and was reputed to be a man of great eloquence and intellect. In his theatrical eccentricity he epitomized a type of politician that will not likely come again -- a type that flourished in 19th and early 20th century British and Canadian governments. Grand figures such as Winston Churchill who, with his mood swings, impetuousness, and fondness for brandy, would be deemed "unelectable" today. But in their eccentricity they often held dogged ideals, grand national visions, and proposed invaluable new ideas even if they were daring and risky. Our modern politicians may be unhinged in their own ways, but they must seemingly always be scripted, telegenic, and play by the rules of soundbyte and focus group. Maybe there is something to be said for Amor de Cosmos and his like. At the very least, he certainly set the ball rolling for offbeat politics in our Province, and we have been on the ride ever since.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 


James said...

I have often wondered how FDR would have survived in today's media frenzy. He certainly would not have been given a pass on his disability today. Not to mention his alcohol, tobacco and women. Many of history's great leaders would have been eaten alive in our short attention span society.

IdleHistorian said...

Certainly many politicians from US/British/Canadian history! Our first Canadian Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, was often openly intoxicated in Parliament but always managed to get the best of his frustrated opponents. Once, when he really had imbibed too much, managed to even make a joke about the opposition's policies causing him to lose his lunch. I can think of many figures from British history that fit the bill as well. Duff Cooper, who resigned from government over appeasement with Hitler, had a trifecta of vice -- alcohol, gambling debts, women. Not that any of these traits are desirable of course, but perhaps in punishing politicians so severely for these lapses, we let other vices flourish instead (greed, corruption, ego, what have you).

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