Maggie, me and the CWB

My grandmother always referred to Margaret Thatcher as “that horrible woman.”

That attitude prevailed among many of my British relatives, at least the dedicated Liberal party ones, because she just wasn’t their cup of tea: too nasty; too brutal; too ruthless; too mean.

This was always a bit awkward for me because I was a big fan of Maggie, back in the day, and admired most of what she did, and was trying to do. That hasn’t changed with time.

Just look at this pic from the Western Producer Winnipeg bureau, looking out across Rorie Street to the Grain Exchange Building, or the “Reuters Winnipeg Building,” as Rod Nickel calls it.


That poster of HMS Hermes surging towards the Falkland Islands is one I’ve had in various forms since I snapped it up off the newstand way back in 1982, when I was an impressionable teenager. At first I just ripped the cover off the Newseek mag and stuck in on the wall of my room at home, then did the same thing for the next 15 years as I moved around the country. Eventually, fearing that the cover was getting raggedy and likely to disintegrate before I died of old age, I took it to a local Winnipeg copy shop and got them to expand it and shoot it onto low-acid paper – so I could enjoy it for the rest of my natural lifespan. Perhaps my corpse will have it draped across its chest.

To me as a teenager, very connected to my British roots, the Argentine invasion was just another humiliating disgrace in the string of disasters that seemed to be overwhelming everything British, and I remember being very morose and despondent that a crappy little fascist-type who seemed to come right out of Woody Allen’s film “Bananas” could humble and ridicule – and prove powerless – the homeland of my family and Canada’s mother country.

Until Maggie sent the fleet. Against the advice of most of her military staff, who thought victory was nearly impossible. And won. That moment, oddly and perhaps pathologically, is when my overall psychology in life turned from pessimism to one of hope, which is why I haul that mag cover/poster around with me. Decline and decay aren’t necessarily permanent. Things can be reversed and restored.

From that triumph onwards she seemed to take-on all the crippling problems that had beset Britain and she mostly resolved them one way or another. The stranglehold of absurdist and Marxist trade union leaders upon the country’s economy? Broken within a few years.  (On family trips to the U.K. in the 1970s I, as a kid from dinky little Regina, Saskatchewan, used to smirk at how screwed up Britain was, with the power going out unpredictably, the trains not working, grime, decay and lethargy everywhere. A general feeling of futility. I felt I came from a vastly superior place and used to impolitely point this out as a kid.) Ridiculously inefficient state enterprises, producing garbage goods at high prices? Chopped away. That overwhelming sense of futility? Purged.

She did lots wrong. Seemed to take too much joy in beating up people who didn’t agree with her. Didn’t seem to care about the millions displaced by her economic renovations of the state. Had too much of that glee in provoking near civil wars that seems common among American Republican types. In the end, even most of her supporters got tired of the feeling of permanent revolution, and since the Lady was not for turning, she got turned out.

But the revival of Britain since her time – yes, I know, it’s crappy over there now, but that’s true of everywhere in Europe except Germany and its vassals during the present crisis – is mostly due to her re-engineering of the country to get back to the free market basis that once made it the world’s greatest power and the base of the greatest empire in human history. She freed much of the economy from state and vested interest control, and the place flourished. She didn’t know how revival would happen, just had faith that if you cleared the impediments out of the way, the myriad people and players in the free economy would find some way to make a pound, and that would create the growth that would support everything else.

This is how I finally revolve around to some sort of connection to prairie farming and agriculture, specifically the CWB situation. During the era of the monopoly Canadian Wheat Board I was always an agnostic on the question of “Wheat Board: Good or Bad?” I always thought that if the CWB made more money for farmers than they would get from an open market, then it was OK and just a minor crimp on liberty. But if it cost them more, in terms of both grains and other crops and costs to the efficiency of the grain handling and logistics system, then it wasn’t a good thing and should be scrapped. I never thought the question was ever really answered because the left-wing and right-wing pugilists just wanted to joust on ideology and didn’t seem to care much about what it all meant to farmers’ bottom lines.

But throughout this winter, the first since the scrapping of the monopoly, I have marveled at how well the Canadian grain system has made the transition to an open market. It’s gone far better than I would ever have imagined, because I would expect any major transition to a new system to cause some implementation problems, and yet there have been few of those.

And at the Canada Grains Council meeting recently I heard multiple accounts of the flood of investment money pouring into the prairie elevator, rail and Pacific port system as all parts of the grain chain move to boost their ability to move crops through the system. Everyone seems to be expanding something right now. Just yesterday Richardson got the go-ahead from Port Metro Vancouver to boost its port terminal by 80,000 tonnes. The investment floodgates appear to have burst open.

Why is this so? What I heard at the CGC meeting from a few folks was that the companies now involved in the system feel in control of their assets, so they feel confident that if they invest their money in new capacity they’ll actually be able to use and benefit from it. While the CWB monopoly was in place, apparently, they didn’t feel this was the case, so they held back from a lot of investments that might otherwise have been made, especially in the context of the grain market super-rally we’ve been in since 2007. But now with the CWB monopoly out of the way, they have much greater confidence that they can benefit from investing their money, so they’re investing it. That’s the story I heard at the CGC, anyway.

To me this seems to match what happened in the British economy once Thatcher scrapped some of the impediments to investment and made it possible for people to make money again. Resignation and a sense of futility, or at least lethargy, were purged amongst many and some people once more felt confident that they’d be rewarded for their efforts. So they started trying again and stopped believing that their sad-sack present reality required them to have a sad-sack future.

The Harper government often seemed mean, ruthless and quite brutal in dealing with the CWB file, something which made a lot of people like me uncomfortable. I had the attitude of my Liberal British relatives towards Thatcher when I looked at some of the strong-arm tactics used by the Conservatives to slam through the CWB changes and force the changes. I was also dismayed by the seeming contempt some Conservatives seemed to have for anyone who didn’t share their opinion. That just didn’t seem very nice.

But maybe – and the preliminary signs are good – they were right on the issue, and maybe the apparent brutality was necessary to make monumental changes like they did in anything less than geological time. Or perhaps it’s just a side effect of the kind of aggressive righteousness that drives revolutionaries, reformers and radicals. Either way, it will possibly be viewed by historians of the future as forgivable sins in pursuit of a worthy end. That, of course, all relies upon whether things continue to work out well.

When the Harper government eventually goes out of power – it happens to everyone in politics, except in Alberta – no doubt some of the farmer victims and those spurned by the government will be singing some form of the “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead!” song that Thatcher’s enemies and victims are now voicing in the U.K.

But just as the Labour governments that followed the Conservative Thatcher/Major governments changed virtually nothing that she achieved, prairie farmers are unlikely – no matter the shade of the next federal government – to see anyone expand the control of the state back into agriculture in any way similar to the CWB.

Some changes, in retrospect, are hard to argue with. Even if you don’t like who made them.







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