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Desperate measures for desperate times: Eighty years ago today, Bible Billy had a plan to pay …

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William Aberhart

Today is the 80th anniversary of the sweeping election of Social Credit in Alberta.

No one can say it wasn't the start of an era!

It's hard to imagine now how big a deal this election victory was in 1935 – but then, it’s not been since the 1930s that Alberta or anywhere else in Canada has experienced times quite as desperate as the Great Depression.

This fortunate and long-lived state of affairs is thanks in significant part to the prevalence of the ideas of English economist John Maynard Keynes, who prompted a revolution in economic thinking through the 1930s that arguably saved capitalism from itself. Today, the modern neoliberal movement seeks to undo Keynes's ideas to the great peril of people everywhere on the planet.

Certainly the election of Premier William Aberhart's Social Credit League was a bigger story than the election of a New Democratic Party majority government in the same place nearly 80 years later, as important a development as that was, because the times were so desperate and Social Credit at that moment by comparison was so radical in approach.

If the occasion is marked at all today, though, it will most likely be celebrated as the beginning of a long period of small-c conservative rule.

But as retired Athabasca University Professor Alvin Finkel, who really did write the book on Social Credit, noted in a Facebook post last night, it's a mistake to read history backwards and assume that because Social Credit turned into just another conservative party, it started out that way under Mr. Aberhart, the evangelistic Calgary radio preacher and high school principal known as Bible Bill.

No, that happened under the leadership of Ernest Manning, who took over Social Credit after Aberhart’s death in office in 1943.

In 1935, when Social Credit swept 56 of the 63 seats in the provincial Legislature, completely wiping out the previous United Farmers government, Alberta was broke and Albertans were hungry if not starving.

Plenty of them were ready for desperate, even revolutionary, measures to improve their fate. And Aberhart promised to deliver dramatic change -- most popularly the payment to Albertans of social credit, that is, the people's share in the province's wealth and potential, in the form of scrip. To desperately poor people, this promise of $25 a month was more powerful by far than the appeal today of a $15 minimum wage!

Aberhart got this idea from the founder of Social Credit, the Scottish engineer Clifford Hugh "C.H." Douglas, an anti-Semitic crank with little economic knowledge and utterly incomprehensible theories. Aberhart was not a bigot -- though many of his followers were -- but, as Finkel noted, "he also knew beans about economic theory."

Just the same, and unconstitutional though it may have been -- and so ruled the lieutenant governor in 1937, putting an end to that idea -- Social Credit had hit upon a fiscal stimulus plan not so far removed from Keynes's proposal, as Keynes himself noted in his diaries. It probably would have worked, though not for the reasons Major Douglas and Aberhart imagined.

While his more radical schemes, good and bad, like issuing scrip, replacing wholesalers with government warehouses, controlling the banks, and putting government censors in newspaper offices all came a-cropper, Aberhart did succeed in protecting farmers from some predatory banking practices, recognizing collective bargaining rights, and establishing Alberta Treasury Branches, giving the province an influential toehold in the banking industry.

Over time, the economic impact of a world war, the Keynes-inspired policies that followed the war, and Alberta's fortune in the oil lottery in 1947, led the province to a different future than the one that seemed likely in 1935.

Still, there are similarities between those times and these. Then as now, the economy had gone south and the new government argued it was the responsibility of the state to do something about it to protect Albertans, not just leave it to the whims of the magical mystical market.

Eighty years ago, Social Credit promised not to let bankers seize citizens' farms and homes. Eighty years later, New Democrats led by Rachel Notley promised not to let low oil prices and an economic slump harm citizens' health care and education. Both were rewarded with victory at the polls.

It will not be such a bad legacy for Albertans … if it turns out the NDP, like Social Credit, is granted some worthwhile successes beyond election day.

Social Credit remained in power until Aug. 30, 1971, when the Progressive Conservative Party led by Peter Lougheed was elected. The PCs lasted until May 5 this year, when Notley and the NDP took over.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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