The disasters of the Laurier railway policy—or rather lack of policy—must always weigh heavily against the undoubted achievements of the Laurier regime. A period of marked national expansion gave rise to all manner of railway ambitions and schemes, and Laurier lacked the practical capacity, foresight and determination to fit them into a general, well-thought-out, practicable scheme of development. Again it was a case of letting the pressure of events determine policy, in place of policy controlling events. He could not deny the Grand Trunk’s ambitions, but he obliged it to submit to modifications demanded by political pressure which turned its project, perhaps practicable in its original form, into a huge, ill-thought-out transcontinental enterprise. Equally he could not hold the ambitions of Mann and McKenzie in check. The advisability of a merger of these rival railway groups was obvious at the time, but Laurier let them each have their head, dividing government assistance between them, with resulting ruin to both and bequeathing to his successors a problem for which no solution has yet been found.
During the years of his premiership Laurier rose steadily in personal power and in prestige. It is in keeping with the genius of our party system that the leader who begins as the chosen chief of his associates proceeds by stages, if he has the necessary qualities, to a position of dominance; the republic is transformed into an absolute monarchy. In the government of 1896 Laurier was only primus inter pares; his associates were in the main contemporary with him in point of years and public service. Their places had been won by party recognition of their services and abilities. In the government of 1911 Laurier was the veteran commander of a company which he had himself recruited. Of his 1896 colleagues but few remained, and of these only Mr. Fielding had kept his relative rank in the party hierarchy. All his remaining colleagues had entered public life long subsequent to his accession the Liberal leadership. Not one had been in parliament prior to 1896. Their entrance into public life, their steps in promotion, their admittance to the government were all subject to his approval, where they were not actually due to his will. To Laurier’s authority they yielded unquestioning obedience, and with it went a deep affection inspired and made sure by the personal consideration and kindliness that marked his relations with them. Under these conditions, men of strong, individual views and ambitions, with reforming temperaments and a desire to force issues, did not find the road to the Privy Council open to them; different qualities held the password.