Together Again

A new book analyzes the diverse roots of the reborn Conservative Party

Canadian conservatism, like most other political philosophies, contains different ideological components under its lofty umbrella: left-leaning Red Toryism, right-leaning Blue Toryism, fiscal conservatism and social conservatism. Throw in some fairly like-minded ideologies like libertarianism and classical liberalism, and you have a big political tent to contend with.

That is nothing compared to what Canadian conservatives once faced. The split between the federal Progressive Conservatives and Reform Party (later the Canadian Alliance) threw this movement into the political wilderness for 16 years. During that time conservatives from the East and West, populists, Quebec libertarians, right-of-centre independents and even business-oriented Liberals all claimed to be the guiding light of Canada’s right. The PC-Alliance merger united the right once more, and shifted the focus back onto political bridge building, public policy issues and achieving electoral success.

To someone like me, who was directly involved in this battle of wills, and knows many of the key players, the lengthy period of political détente has been most welcome. In the 1990s and early 2000s I spoke and wrote extensively on Canada’s right-leaning parties and the conservative intellectual divide—which explains my keen interest in James Farney and David Rayside’s Conservatism in Canada. There are already some impressive studies of aspects of Canadian conservatism, among them Charles Taylor’s Radical Tories, William Christian and Charles Campbell’s Political Parties and Ideologies in Canada, Adam Daifallah and Tasha Kheiriddin’s Rescuing Canada’s Right: Blueprint for a Conservative Revolution, Hugh Segal’s No Surrender: Reflections of a Happy Warrior in the Tory Crusade, Preston Manning’s The New Canada and Tom Flanagan’s Waiting for the Wave: The Reform Party and the Conservative Movement. What this book’s co-editors have done, which is fundamentally different from previous volumes on the subject, is bring together essays by academics of different political stripes to explore the roots of modern Canadian conservatism. Some of the hypotheses, analyses and positions can obviously be disputed, but this collection serves an important purpose of showing just how wide and varied Canadian conservatism actually is. The movement includes the Red Tories who dominate in Atlantic Canada, the mix of fiscal and social conservatives in the West, and Ontario’s numerous middle-of-the-road conservative households, many of which have applied the old Ontario political strategy of voting for different parties in federal and provincial elections. It should be no surprise that being Conservative and conservative in Canada has often meant two very different things.

Farney and Rayside recognize the difficulties in creating a distinct definition of Canadian conservatism. They cite the range of terms—Tory, neoliberal, neoconservative—their contributors use to describe the phenomenon. Some Canadian conservatives themselves dispute the use of these terms to distinguish aspects of the movement. In my case, I do not personally agree with the use of the terms neoliberalism (more of a European colloquialism) and neoconservatism (a philosophy that, according to an original U.S. neoconservative, Norman Podhoretz, has been “dead” for years).

One term that does have a distinctive meaning in a Canadian political context is Red Toryism. As Farney and Rayside note, this particular brand of Canadian conservatism has been in decline at least since the 1970s, now almost fully replaced by a market-based ideology of individual rights, liberties and freedoms, much like its American counterpart. Interestingly, this trend is one that virtually all the contributors to Conservatism in Canada acknowledge. Stephen Harper has had much to do with formulating this brand, especially during the years he was able to lead the Conservatives back to the promised land of political power. In a two-part series in the Ottawa Citizen I wrote in 2012, I coined the term “Harpertism” to describe the new conservative mainstream. Not all Canadian conservatives would agree with its tenets, of course, but few Canadians of any political stripe would dispute its electoral success or policy influence.

Some of the book’s contributors indirectly offer a number of useful insights into Harper’s oft-discussed goal of achieving a conservative Canada. Using cross-national surveys of public opinion, Christopher Cochrane posits that parties on the left and right face somewhat different challenges when it comes to clustering economic and social goals in a cohesive platform. It is essential for left-wing parties to establish ideological interlocking between economic and social polarities, Cochrane argues, whereas the ongoing tension between economic and social conservatism provides right-wing parties with more flexibility. The latter is definitely a balancing act: social conservatives and fiscal conservatives “are natural allies because of their common opposition to various facets of the left,” yet remain “uneasy allies as a result of their lack of agreement on social and economic issues.” Hence, the trick is for economic conservatives to “not accord a high degree of salience to their moral opinions” and social conservatives to do the reverse. This has provided Harper’s Conservatives with the appropriate amount of creative room to astutely build a formidable political and strategic alliance.

Jonathan Malloy brings these theoretical issues close to home by investigating the Conservative Party’s relationship with evangelicals and social conservatives, “two groups with considerable overlap but also some differences.” His contention that these activist groups have thrived in the party in recent years is accurate, although the bulk of the party membership (including the large contingent of 20–somethings I worked with in the Prime Minister’s Office) is anything but socially conservative. To his credit, he points out a rarely discussed fact about Canadian conservative politicians and religion, noting that Preston Manning “used his position … to attract these supporters but also carefully manage the relationship between them and the party, a role that has been emulated even more successfully by Stephen Harper.” While there is a necessary moralistic component in Canadian conservatism, it is not, as Marci McDonald suggested in The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada, a political movement controlled by Christian nationalists. Having walked in conservative circles and with Christian -conservatives for more than 25 years, I can -honestly say that nothing could be further from the
truth.

On the other hand, populism has played a significant role in Canadian conservative politics. Farney suggests provincial politicians such as Alberta’s Ralph Klein and Ontario’s Mike Harris fit the mould of “right populists” who promised “to make the state smaller and less intrusive (which meshed well with neoliberalism’s goals) and to give ordinary people more ways to say no to government action imposed on them by bureaucratic elites, politicians, and judicial decisions.” Every Canadian conservative is not a populist, of course, but populism has been used in a positive (or negative, depending on your ideological disposition) manner to sell a political and economic message. Harper, Manning and, to a lesser extent, Brian Mulroney, spurred on by conservative politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, successfully sold the concept of small government to many ordinary Canadians. This strategy was not limited to Canada’s right: two Liberal prime ministers, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, wisely followed in their footsteps with a quasi-right populist message of limited government and fiscal prudence.

Farney makes an intriguing point. With the sole exception of the right-leaning British Columbia Liberals, “the most significant set of democratic reforms that address populist concerns—those to do with electoral reform—have not been closely linked to right-populist governments.” This ignores the fact that Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party has expressed significant support for democratic reform, especially during last year’s senate scandal, but there is some truth to Farney’s statement. Modern Canadian conservatives crave change on the surface, but there is still an elitist nature to this movement that has its roots in the ideas of traditional thinkers such as Edmund Burke and Benjamin Disraeli. To paraphrase an old saying, if this imperfect political system works to a Conservative’s advantage, then don’t fix it.

Just as important are the ways in which Canadian conservatism is informed by provincial particularities. Here the book’s contributors provide especially thought-provoking perspectives. In particular, Nelson Wiseman has a fairly good historical overview in this respect. While his essay suffers from occasional bouts of left-liberal analysis—such as Wiseman’s position that the “progressive and inoffensive image of Ontario’s conservatism soon shattered” due to Mike Harris’s “neoconservative election manifesto and cri de coeur”—a wise reader (and reviewer) learns to move past such differences of opinion and consider the crux of his position.

Wiseman examines a number of provincial Conservative parties “whose ethos has always been more liberal than tory” and who have taken their cues from “tory conservatism with its emphasis on tradition,” confirming the point that you can’t paint all Canadian conservatives, or even all conservatives within a given province, with the same brush, as Harper himself well understood. David Stewart and Anthony Sayers detail some of the diverse strands within Albertan conservatism, for example, as do Andrea Lawlor and Éric Bélanger for Quebec.

Interestingly Lawlor and Bélanger explore Quebec’s relationship with the federal Conservatives and the provincial Action démocratique du Québec. While Quebec has occasionally been called a welfare state or haven for social democracy by some critics, the ADQ’s short-lived political rise caused some observers to wonder if the province was shifting rightward. Lawlor and Bélanger note there is a “Blue Electorate” in Quebec that supported both parties, but “it is also clear that this ‘blue voter’ base is too small to allow both parties to grow and become more prominent than they have recently been in Quebec politics.” This makes sense in today’s climate. Harper’s Conservatives have never earned more than ten federal seats in Quebec and the ADQ was absorbed by the somewhat right-leaning Coalition Avenir Québec. There is room for conservatism to grow in Quebec, based on Lawlor and Bélanger’s detailed look at the extent to which some Quebecers hold conservative views on “private delivery of health-care services, government efficiency, promotion of traditional family values, and cultural minority accommodation.” But it appears to be a long way off.

There is one more important way that Harper has changed the party—one that some commentators would say is the most important of all. It is a subject that Tom Flanagan, one of the great architects of this movement, takes up. He points out that “Stephen Harper’s political development was moulded in the crucible of Preston Manning’s populism, and one can still see the effects today, both positive and negative.” The issues of direct democracy, a triple-E senate, western provincial populism, free speech and citizens’ rights were shared by both men, and each had similar views on lower taxes, limited government and a free market economy. At the same time, “Manning’s version of populism allowed ample scope for him to exercise personal control over the party through manipulation of decision-making processes, furnishing additional lessons for Harper.” Harper learned these lessons well.

Harper’s time with Manning and the Reform Party also helped cement his views on the need for constant election readiness. Flanagan makes an astute assessment about this aspect of the Harper Tories’ record. “Permanent campaigning has caused the Conservative Party to merge with the campaign team, producing a garrison party,” he notes. “The party is today, for all intents and purposes, a campaign organization focused on being ready for and winning the next election, whenever it may come.” This helped make the Conservatives more professional, intelligent, strategic, tactical and election-savvy, led to three straight federal election victories, and has made it a party that other conservative parties emulate. In time the Liberals, NDP and others may choose to follow Harper’s lead as well, albeit with their own policies, strategies and, naturally, election spin.

These are not the only unique perspectives in Conservatism in Canada on the complex history, growth and development of this important ideological movement. One thing is clear: this book’s innovative mix of voices and outlooks should be read by anyone interested in understanding more about the distinctive aspects of Conservatism, conservatism and the pivotal developments that have occurred within Canada’s Right.