Political Inheritance

The nationalist blurring of “Left” and “Right,” from Scotland and Ireland to Quebec

What, it seems reason-able to ask, is really conservative about the present incarnation of the Conservatives? Given their near-religious commitment to laissez-faire economics, their fondness for massively expensive military projects and their Thatcher-esque sense that publicly sponsored collective action is indefensibly coercive, shouldn’t they find another name? Aren’t they really, in essence, right-wing liberals?

I realize this is something of a caricature. Nevertheless, it gives some sense of the degree to which terms like “liberal” and “conservative” have become desperately confused in recent years. The simultaneous appearance of two very different books on Quebec history brings this to the fore. Jean-Marc Piotte and Jean-Pierre Couture’s Les Nouveaux Visages du nationalisme conservateur au Québec is a fairly short counter-attack against a group of Quebec historians and sociologists who have been publishing work that is sharply critical of the legacy of the Quiet Revolution. Piotte and Couture see this group’s work as nationalist, and thus part of a fairly broad consensus among Quebec historians writing in French, but also conservative, and thus unforgivably heretical. Again, I caricature, but only barely. James Kennedy’s book Liberal Nationalisms: Empire, State and Civil Society in Scotland and Quebec, on the other hand, posits that the building blocks of contemporary Quebec nationalism—basically the Henri Bourassa–led debates at the turn of the 20th century—were defined at their very core by a kind of liberalism that you could also see in the budding Scottish movement of roughly the same period. Kennedy and Piotte and Couture are thus coming from more or less the same place: an assumption that Quebec nationalism, like other forms of non-totalitarian nationalism, is basically about a society becoming more liberal.

This will seem familiar to most people with any interest in modern Quebec. The dominant narrative of the Quiet Revolution has la belle province emerging from the reign of Maurice Duplessis’s Union Nationale (in power from 1936 to 1960, with a brief period in opposition during World War Two) and becoming the opposite of everything that period had embodied. Overnight, it seemed, the place went from being backward, priest-ridden, xenophobic, dominated by an anglo-capitalist elite and defined by an utterly lumpen francophone majority, to being a metropolitan, worldly and intensely statist society boldly defining a new kind of French-speaking North Americanness. Contemporary Quebec nationalism, the dominant historical narrative has it, essentially grew out of this. So did renewed visions of Quebec’s place in Confederation. Thus we have the two brothers of the Quiet Revolution, eager to proclaim their difference from one another but both born of the same mother, whose name is Secular Modernity: René Lévesque and Pierre Trudeau.

One of the pleasures of Kennedy’s book is -seeing the degree to which all this had a preview in the Scotland of the early 20th century. Throughout Liberal Nationalisms he focuses on comparisons between the Ligue nationaliste canadienne and the Young Scots’ Society. The YSS was an offshoot of the Scottish Liberal party that advocated for Scottish Home Rule; it never had a large membership, but it did publish several influential handbooks defending this position. In the 1910 general election, YSS-affiliated Liberal candidates did very well, largely because the society shed its image as an Edinburgh debating club and, through greater support in the west, became genuinely national in scope. Kennedy writes that “something of a reversal in the Society’s political centre of gravity had taken place. Policy concerns were now concentrated on the achievement of Scottish Home Rule and a radical social agenda.” That does indeed sound like Quebec nationalism, the story of a movement that starts among a small number of educated idealists but gradually spreads to the hinterlands, finally scoring some crucial electoral victories that make the movement not only truly national but also inseparably wedded to the march of progressive values.

What this vision of progressivism necessarily excludes is the deeper fissures in Scottish society that hide a more complicated political tale. There are hints of this in Liberal Nationalisms, but in passing. Early on Kennedy mentions how a customary view of nationalism as being about linking culture and state “better fits the linguistically based nationalism of Quebec than Scottish nationalism, where language demands are largely absent.” Gaelic is only mentioned in one paragraph, and that is fair enough given the focus on the turn of the 20th century here. But linguistic concerns were absent from this period of Scottish nationalism because of the success of the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th century. This aristocracy-imposed replacement of people with sheep shattered the Gaelic-speaking culture of the highlands in a more or less permanent way. What vanished was not only a language but also a distinctive form of European radicalism, simultaneously rooted and outward-looking, non-conformist and intensely communitarian.

That was also true in some ways of the culture of the Patriotes, which is quite difficult to describe in 20th- or 21st-century terms of liberal and conservative. The lasting influence of that forced emigration/shattered culture is a big part of what makes Quebec nationalism as politically complex as it is. Les Nouveaux Visages has a lot to recommend it, but it does seem strangely hostile to the basic idea that an ideology like nationalism is inevitably made up of a number of political positions.

Although it is much shorter and more pointed in its argument, Les Nouveaux Visages is also a more general work than Liberal Nationalisms, being a survey of recent rethinking of Quebec history and identity. It has chapters devoted to Joseph Yvon Thériault, Jacques Beauchemin (both sociologists at the Université du Québec à Montréal), Éric Bédard (historian at the Télé-Université du Québec), Marc Chevrier (political scientist at UQAM), Gilles Labelle (political scientist at the University of Ottawa) and Stéphane Kelly (sociologist at the Cégep de Saint-Jérôme). Piotte and Couture’s basic argument is that together, these figures represent a movement in nationalist intellectual work that they sum up as being defined by a conservative critique of modernity, an idealistic way of seeing things and the tendency to look back (“un passéisme”), to reject or forget the contributions of social sciences and to euphemize a conservative outlook.

This sense of “euphémisation” is especially vexing for Piotte and Couture, and with good reason. They concede in the book’s introduction that you can find certain social-democratic tendencies in Thériault and in Bédard (whose 2011 Recours aux sources: Essais sur notre rapport au passé is a collection of his most recent essays and a pretty good introduction to this terrain). Piotte and Couture also acknowledge that the others offer critiques of such problems as the bureaucratization of the state apparatus and of the corporatist tendencies of unions. They devote a chapter to Marc Chevrier’s republican view of Quebec nationalism (as in liberté/égalité/fraternité, not George W.), which they see as elitist in no small part because it is overly francophilic and thus generally hostile to multiculturalism and educational reform (and even, quelle horreur, reliant in some ways on Allan Bloom). In short, these “nationalist conservative” intellectuals may be intellectually connected to such bad guys as Leo Strauss (who was, it is worth recalling, also a hero of George Grant’s, on whom more later), but they are not exactly on the hustings for Stephen Harper. They generally sound left-of-centre, but not in quite the right ways.

The problem, really, is that these six bêtes noires and their “hegemonic intellectual network” (illustrated by a spider-web–like diagram) are all sharply critical of the Quebec that the Quiet Revolution has built. Piotte and Couture come back to this again and again, emphasizing positively the degree to which the Quiet Revolution shattered the Catholic church’s stranglehold on the Quebec identity and created what is, essentially, the Quebec that we know and love today: a place that is vibrantly multicultural, more urban than rural, possessed of the most ambitious welfare state in Canada, and now overseen by a pluralist and largely French-speaking elite. Who could possibly find fault with that?

The answer is something like “quite a number of Quebec’s most innovative and rigorous writers and artists.” To Piotte and Couture’s roll call we could, for instance, add the critic Éric Martin and the filmmaker Bernard Émond. The fall 2012 issue of the Quebec intellectual magazine Liberté (not a bad candidate for a sister journal to LRC) had emblazoned on its cover the question “Que conservent les conservateurs?” Martin’s contribution, titled “L’Empire contre-attaque,” concludes by answering with the weary “ils ne conservent pas grand chose” and marvelling that a party so named could oversee “la transformation de l’Alberta en Mordor à cause de ses sables bitumineux.” This interest in the chasm-like difference between the actual meaning of the word “conservative” and the actions of the political party called “Conservative” is an extremely welcome political development. That Martin does not use the word “conservative” as a euphemism for “undesirable” in the fashion of so much academic writing in both French and English probably places him in the same camp that Piotte and Couture are criticizing, but it does make it clear that there is more than one political grouping defined by euphémisation. Émond’s films (including his recently released Tout ce que tu possèdes) are coming as a critique of Quebec modernity from a similar place on the left, wondering if the presentism, individualism and atomization made possible by a modernity dominated by liberalism and secularism has really been good for the people of Quebec, or whether it has instead mostly been good for global capitalists and their friends in the state apparatus.

The form of strongly communitarian socialism that Martin and Émond embody gives the lie not only to infuriating assumptions like “those on the left may as well vote Liberal,” but also to more philosophical but just as problematic assumptions like “those on the left are liberals.” Not everybody on the left is a liberal. Many people on the left believe in the kind of group rights that were anathema to, say, Trudeau. Many on the left believe that one of the reasons to rail against global capitalism is that it threatens the autonomy of family life, and the interests of children along with it. Many on the left believe that cultural traditions (including religious traditions) are a pretty decent bulwark against the homogenizing forces of globalization. I am not trying to say that people holding these positions are therefore conservatives. But there is no inherent connection between holding these kinds of positions and being a liberal.

So while I think Liberal Nationalisms is very well written and researched and overall quite convincing, I think there is a better analogy for Quebec’s political complexity, one that clarifies the degree to which “liberal ≅ left” is not a formula that holds everywhere: Ireland. Ireland is a place whose politics have long flummoxed conventional notions of liberal and conservative, and that is highly visible in the political landscape of the Republic. It is something of a cliché to say that two centre-right parties dominate Irish politics: Fianna Fáil (now out of power after dominating the post-independence state) and Fine Gael (currently in a coalition government with Labour). But that hides a deeper truth about the nature of each one’s support. An unflinching adherence to laissez-faire economics does not stop Fine Gael from being thought of as the party of schoolteachers and urban professionals, just as the fist-of-iron–like hold that the Quebec Liberals have over even the most progressive sections of anglo Montreal is not at all shaken by their also being the party of Quebec’s corporate elite.

What anglo Montreal shares with Irish schoolteachers and middle class urbanites, of course, is an all-consuming fear of nationalism, something that both the PLQ and Fine Gael have been very skillful in marshalling to their benefit (and that is obviously even more intensely true of the unionist parties of Northern Ireland). Similarly, Fianna Fáil is a mirror image of the Parti Québécois. The PQ is basically a social-democratic party with some surprisingly strong conservative elements. The conservative pull can be seen especially in small-town ridings such as Gaspé or its neighbouring côte-nord ridings, ahem, René-Lévesque and Duplessis, all currently held by the PQ. This influences the party’s positions in unpredictable ways, but that is just part of the cost of maintaining the “big tent” of Quebec nationalism. Fianna Fáil, whose official name is “Fianna Fáil: The Republican Party,” is a basically conservative party with some strongly social-democratic elements. Just to add to the mirror-image aspect, those elements are often present in the rural constituencies, which in Ireland are often strongholds of the cooperative movement. This is true of Donegal for instance, home to the long-serving Fianna Fáil man Pat “The Cope” Gallagher (the nickname refers to his long history with cooperatives, and it is on all of his campaign signs).

This kind of ideological diversity is quite typical of the “big tent” of Irish nationalism. Sinn Féin has started to suck away some of the left-nationalist support that Fianna Fáil once enjoyed in those rural constituencies, and they are taking some of the hard-core trade unionists of Dublin and other cities along with them. Québec Solidaire is slowly doing something similar with the PQ and nationalist activists and intellectuals on the left.

A useful comparison here is with Simon Jolivet’s Le vert et le bleu: Identité québécoise et identité irlandaise au tournant du XXe siècle. Jolivet, like Kennedy, sharply focuses on the early years of the 20th century, and, like Kennedy, finds there complex debates about the role of “small nations” within a changing imperial framework. And Jolivet, like Kennedy, presents Bourassa as a pivotal figure, in no small part because of the way that he embodied both conservative and progressive tendencies. Kennedy acknowledges this fact, even though it pushes pretty hard against his overall position that Scottish and Quebec nationalism were “liberal” in some fundamental way. Surveying the importance of the press in all this he discusses how the Glasgow Herald and The Scotsman contributed to the formation of the Young Scots’ Society and how important was the foundation of Le Nationaliste and L’Action sociale in Quebec. But explaining the importance of the Quebec paper that currently enjoys the status of The Scotsman, he writes that “in contrast, Bourassa’s Le Devoir was a much more conservative affair. It received support from the Catholic Church’s leading clergy for its staunch support of Catholicism. It did not follow the practice of providing a forum for new literature, and … it adopted a high moral tone in line with the Church’s social and moral teachings.”

That sounds bad, conjuring up the church–sponsored ailments of pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec like anti-intellectualism, censorship, -sexism and xenophobia. That is, of course, a very real part of the legacy of Quebec Catholicism, and critics such as Piotte and Couture are right to view the passing of such domination as a clear social good. But there is a baby in that dirty bathwater, and an anti-capitalist baby at that. Kennedy knows this, and it is a central question in his book’s conclusion. He writes of Quebec that “key elements within the Catholic Church sought to more directly influence the lives of their members. Specifically, they sought to foster a Catholic social mission that would provide a bulwark against the materialism fostered by laissez-faire capitalism.”

Ah yes, laissez-faire capitalism. That is, of course, the Leviathan against which the students of Montreal struggled during their printemps érable, almost exactly a decade after their older siblings were throwing themselves against -fences erected in Quebec City during the Summit of the Americas. Both political moments, to much of English Canada, seemed typically Québécois, either in an inspiring way or as an example of the insufferable qualities of the place. To encounter these contemporary movements in the pages of Le Devoir is to see them in a very different way indeed. There the struggle against laissez-faire capitalism, and against materialism, is literally part of le devoir, part of what has to be done, part of the assignment. That means that sometimes it is tedious and sometimes it is elucidating, but in any event it is fundamental. That sense of the need, the responsibility to deal with alternatives to laissez-faire capitalism is the most tangible remnant of the paper’s Catholic heritage. It may very well be its only such remnant, but it is a substantial one. Much the same could be said for Quebec society as a whole.

In his conclusion Kennedy acknowledges that “in Scotland nationalism was often subordinate to Liberalism, in Quebec liberalism was often subordinate to nationalism.” In Quebec that is as true today as it was in the period around World War One. Overall, Kennedy is a lot more comfortable with the pluralistic quality of Quebec nationalism than Piotte and Couture seem to be. A perceived hostility to pluralism on the part of their conservative nationalists comes up so often in Les Nouveaux Visages that it takes on something of a “lady doth protest too much” quality. Figures such as Éric Bédard and Marc Chevrier are doing interesting work that, really, is long overdue; the Quiet Revolution began more than 50 years ago, so it is well past time for some full-on critiques. Les Nouveaux Visages is a thorough introduction to the debates around its legacy, but even taking into account its polemical nature it seems a bit uncharitable.

While Éric Bédard may not be the equal of George Grant, his writing (and much of the writing that Piotte and Couture are attacking) shares a lot with everyone’s favourite Red Tory in terms of political standpoint. And one could say the same thing about Bédard that I tell my students about Grant: he embodies a conservatism that I do not really share, but that I can learn a lot from. One can feel the same way about historians such as C.P. Champion (whose The Strange Demise of British Canada was reviewed in the November 2010 LRC) and The Dorchester Review, which he helps edit. If these books share nothing else, they might at least prompt readers to rethink the way in which not all liberals are Liberals and not all conservatives sound like the Conservatives. And that is a moment in our shared political life that cannot come soon enough.