Pages from the Conservative Handbook

A Liberal strategist reveals a Conservative’s secrets.

Growing up in Calgary, and attending the University of Calgary as I did, I can state that Professor Tom Flanagan was regarded on campus as a cool, cerebral teacher of political science, and not one to be trifled with. He was not, for example, the sort of fellow who would tolerate intellectual laziness or too many papers handed in late. Although I did not know it in those days, Flanagan was also a conservative’s Conservative. He was a true believer. As one of the six actual Liberals in Alberta in those days, I regret not enrolling in his class.

In this engrossing 336-page book, the good professor remains a Conservative, to be sure. But he also reveals himself to be considerably less fearsome, and less intimidating, than he did so many years ago. Most notably, Flanagan is refreshingly candid about the mistakes that his team—the team of Conservative leader Stephen Harper—made in its rise to federal power. Harper’s Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power provides us with an honest and (to the denizens of political backrooms, at least) exceedingly helpful handbook on how to win elections.

It is more than a captivating book—it is an important work, too. Unlike most political scientists—who have never stuffed an envelope, never knocked on a door in a canvass and never done any of the other grunt work that makes or breaks political campaigns—Flanagan knows whereof he speaks. He, unlike many who breathe the rarefied air of academe, has practised what he preaches. He has fundraised, he has answered phones, he has worked in the grimy political trenches. He’s done it all. As such, his book stands head and shoulders above the books of most of his academic colleagues—the ones who preach but seldom practise, who talk a lot about that which they have never done. This one is the real deal.

Flanagan’s book provides a significant amount of detail about every aspect of running leadership campaigns, and general election campaigns too. From tour to policy to media to fundraising to speechwriting, it is all here, and useful to every politico, irrespective of political affiliation. And, to Flanagan’s credit, he recalls that lessons are to be learned from campaigns that win, as well as the ones that don’t. As such, Flanagan meticulously dissects the Conservatives’ 2004 election loss, analyzing what went wrong and why. From my point of view, he accepts far too much of the blame for that narrow defeat. In so doing, however, he goes up in the estimation of the reader. He certainly did in my eyes.

Now, before you start to wonder overmuch why this exiled federal Liberal is so impressed by Conservative Tom Flanagan and his book about Conservatives, some disclosure is in order. I have not told many people this story until now. During the early days of the Reform Party—a fledgling political party in which Tom Flanagan was intimately involved—there were many problems. Most notoriously, these problems included a plan by white supremacists and neo-Nazis—most of them involved in the Heritage Front, and most of them in the greater Toronto area—to infiltrate and take over Reform Party riding associations. It was the subject of many newspaper reports and even an investigation by Canada’s Security Intelligence Review Committee.

Around that time, I published a book with HarperCollins called Web of Hate: Inside Canada’s Far Right Network. It was the result of a decade-long investigation into Canada’s racist right. And, around that time, I was also special assistant to one Jean Chrétien, leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. Notwithstanding where I worked—and notwithstanding the fact that we Liberals were much despised by the nascent Reform movement—one day Tom Flanagan and another man contacted me. They wanted to speak to me about a pressing and sensitive matter, the story that the neo-Nazis were seeking to infiltrate and control the Reform Party from within. Flanagan and his friend wanted to know if I would look at the names of new Reform members in the Toronto area and tell them if those people were racists.

It was an astonishing request, given the viciousness of partisan politics and the infrequency of genuine bipartisanship. But the request impressed me a great deal. Flanagan and his colleagues were serious about expelling neo-Nazis—so serious, in fact, that they were willing to contact me, then working in the lair of their sworn political enemy. They were willing to take a political risk to rid themselves of racists.

With Chrétien’s approval, I assisted Flanagan and his friend. And, over the course of a few conversations, I was able to confirm the neo-Nazi or white supremacist involvements of several new Reform members. All were expelled by then-leader Preston Manning.

In the intervening years, I have often wanted to tell that tale. Whenever I encounter a hot-headed young Grit or Tory—the Grit convinced that the Reform Conservatives are a front for extremists; the Tory convinced that Liberals will never hesitate to depict them as bigots to win power—I have wanted to tell that story. Now that Tom Flanagan has written his warts-and-all book—revealing, as it does, my own previously secret unwillingness to participate in a Liberal plot to smear Flanagan and his conservative cohorts—I can tell my own little story about why I think it is unfair to dismiss Flanagan (as some have done) as an anti-aboriginal polemicist. Or someone who is not worth listening to.

Tom Flanagan is worth listening to. Although no longer part of Stephen Harper’s inner circle, the good professor has provided readers with candid and revealing insights into the Conservative rise to power. And, along the way, he has shown himself to be a very fine teacher, indeed.

Harper’s Team is, I think, the best book written to date about the new Conservatives—the ones who wrested power away from the old stalwarts like Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark and the aforementioned Preston Manning, and have in the process crafted a political movement that will be more enduring. If you want to understand the new Conservatives—and if you want an excellent primer on how political campaigns work—this book is invaluable.

It also makes me rue my decision never to join the other students in Tom Flanagan’s class!