PAUL MARTIN was virtually the last survivor of a distinguished line of politicians - men like Mackenzie King and Lester Pearson - who, over a period of four decades, guided Canada to a measure of thriving stability severely tested in the past 25 years.
Martin's political hero was the late prime minister Louis St Laurent, known in his Fifties heyday as 'Uncle Louis'. There was much of the avuncular about Martin too, with his grandiloquent style (possibly reflecting his French-Irish descent) and his air of magisterial competence. Like many of the line, he was deeply attached to Britain, part of his university period having been spent in Cambridge. Though his ambition to be prime minister went unfulfilled, he derived immense pleasure from his last appointment - that of Canadian High Commissioner in London from 1974 to 1980. He brought a flair to that job which, along with the glamour of Pierre Trudeau, served to brighten, at least temporarily, Canada's lacklustre image in Britain.
Martin's prime ministerial aspirations were finally dashed by the wave of pop-like enthusiasm that swept Trudeau to power in 1968. Ordinarily he would have had much to recommend him that year as a veteran of both domestic and international politics, however old-fashioned he seemed at the age of 65 to the protagonists of 'Trudeau- mania'.
As a rising lawyer in the car-making city of Windsor, Ontario, Martin was first elected a Liberal MP in 1935 and soon was helping to represent Canada at the League of Nations. But his reputation grew mainly by reason of his domestic political skills. He fashioned one of the most efficient constituency organisations in the country before graduating to the key job of Health and Welfare minister in 1946.
In Windsor, he was dubbed 'the Honourable Paul'. As one commentator remarked, 'no hand stayed unshaken, no distant name forgotten, no baby unkissed' by this tireless vote-getter. Long after his retirement, a taxi driver, asked to take a visitor to Martin's home, insisted that he didn't need the address of the man he called 'the Duke of Windsor'; everyone knew it. There the Maple Leaf flag of Canada fluttered high over the spacious grounds while the elegant house was crowded with photos of Martin and his sprightly wife Nell in the company of members of the British royal family and other celebrities. The shiny curved staircase was dominated by an oil portrait of Nell Martin painted by Wyndham Lewis during that British artist's stormy exile in Canada during the Forties.
As Health Minister for 11 years under King and St Laurent, Martin emulated the welfare reforms then being instituted in Britain and was lionised in some needier parts of Canada as 'Mr Baby-Bonus' for his family allowance programme. But all along he kept one foot in diplomacy as a dynamic chairman of Canadian delegations to the UN and in 1963 he began a five-year tenure as External Affairs Minister in the cabinet of Lester Pearson. In that capacity, he worked to set up the UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus, with Canada a major contributor of troops, advocated China's entry into the United Nations and carried on the conspicuous Canadian role in world affairs pioneered by Pearson, a Nobel Peace laureate.
However, after his eclipse by Trudeau at the 1968 leadership convention, Martin had to content himself with being government leader in that knacker's yard of Canadian politicians, the Senate. Yet even there his was an energising presence and it was no less so on the London diplomatic scene after he became Canada's High Commissioner. His London Diaries, published in 1988, showed the active role he played in the manoeuvrings towards an independent Zimbabwe. The book also contained cutting references to Princess Margaret and to David Owen as Foreign Secretary, revealing also a kidnap threat to Martin himself by opponents of Canada's seal fishery.
Martin was not a man to understate his own achievements. But it may well be his businessman son Paul, recently regarded as a potential saviour of the opposition Liberals, who will achieve the top post Paul Sr sought in vain. 'He has the bug, I am afraid,' his father once said of young Paul. The elder Martin certainly had 'the bug', to Canada's advantage, all his long life.