"If the Conservative Party . . can neither comprehend the present nor glimpse the future, its fate must be a certain —and deserved—extinction."—O’Leary
M. GRATTAN O’LEARY
Editor’s Note—When the leadership of any major political party, changes hands, the news is of more than party interest. Right Honorable R. B. Bennett, it is reported, has intimated that he is considering retirement from Conservative chieftaincy. In this article M. Grattan O'Leary analyzes the prospects of the Conservative Party. He expresses his personal opinion as a Conservative. In the case of other articles he has written for Maclean’s, Mr. O’Leary has, of course, observed our policy of independence of parties.
MR. R. B. BENNETT, Ottawa is told, plans to quit politics. After ten years of party leadership, years which saw him take Conservatism to a brilliant victory and later to overwhelming defeat, he would put off his armor. For Canadians, whether Conservatives or not, this is something of moment.
Men might disagree violently with Mr. Bennett, or distrust him, or hate him, or admire him. None could be indifferent to him. He brought color to our public life, a rich personality, poweiful intelligence, an enormous gusto for service. In the House of Commons, whether as Prime Minister or as Leader of the Opposition, he was an arresting figure, dominating by intellect and force of character. Parliament, without him, will be immeasurably poorer. And Canadian democracy.
Yet it has been Mr. Bennett’s fate to have brought the Conservative Party to the lowliest estate in its history. Or to have led it into eclipse. To what degree the character of his leadership was responsible for this (and the question leaves room for debate) may be left to history. The reality remains that in Parliament, as in the Provincial Legislatures, the Conservative Party today is negligible in numbers, seemingly a spent force; its flag drooping everywhere. On the Pacific Coast, whence it sends but three representatives to Ottawa, it has—in the provincial field —struck its flag entirely. Between the Rockies and the Great Lakes it yields to Liberalism, Socialism, Social Credit. In Quebec it has been swallowed by Mr. Duplessis’ National Union. In the Maritimes, cradle of Tupper, Thompson and Borden—and of Mr. Bennett—it is everywhere in flight. Only in Ontario, where once it was dominant, does it show vitality.
It is at this stage—the darkest hour it has known since Macdonald founded it—that the Conservative Party is called upon to change its leader. And without a Moses in sight. Indeed, nothing could tell better of the party’s decline than its impoverishment in leadership talent. Twenty-five years ago, after its victory in 1911, it was rich in material; boasted Meighen, Bennett, Rhodes, Nickle. Today, behind Mr. Bennett, there is not an outstanding lieutenant. Not, at all events, in the Commons.
In its search for a successor to Bennett, the Conservative Party, in fact, must go outside the House of Commons. Even then, and by common consent, its choice will be restricted. It will be restricted, in fact, to three names— Mr. Gordon Harrington, Senator Arthur Meighen, Mr.
W. T. Herridge. None of these men, conceivably, will be the choice, but they are undeniably the best men the party has available; the best in experience, in intellect, in weight and in character.
Leaders in Sight
TT IS SAID of Arthur Meighen that he lacks magnetism,
that he is handicapped by the precedent of failure; it is even said by some that he has forgotten the accents of the West for the accents of Bay Street. The charges admitted, for the sake of argument, the truth remains that, incomparably, he is the most brilliant parliamentarian of his generation; better equipped in experience, intellect and knowledge of public questions than any of his Conservative contemporaries. A party willing to take the long view, not too eager for victory or to “sell the day to serve the hour,” would grasp at his leadership.
Next in line is Mr. Harrington. Gordon Harrington, long a force in Nova Scotia, is unknown in Ontario, in the West. He would speedily become known. A distinguished lawyer, one who understands the background and fundamentals of government, and who has shown unusual comprehension of modem social and economic trends, he would bring to the Conservative Party a fresh touch and perhaps a new outlook.
It is said that consideration of Mr. Harrington will depend upon the outcome of this summer’s provincial election in Nova Scotia. Which is pitiable. Certainly, if such a thing is to be a test of fitness for leadership of the Conservative Party—the test of whether a man can win an election at a particular time in a particular province—then the Conservative Party thereby provides at least one reason for its present condition.
Then there is Mr. W. T. Herridge. Mr. Herridge bears the heavy handicap of being Mr. Bennett’s brother-in-law. He bears the additional handicap of being a “reformer”; of being the author of Mr. Bennett’s speeches on the radio. Yet the Conservative Party might go farther and fare worse than select W. T. Herridge as its leader. He would give the party at least something of verve and nerve, give it courage and audacity, help to rescue it from dullness. Which would be something.
Finally, and apart from these three, there is Dr. R. J. Manion. Manion, essentially a swordsman, appeals to the militant party man. He has color, courage and a flair for the platform, knows his way about in Parliament and Cabinets. His political handicap, it must be admitted, is his religion. Canada has had two Catholic Prime Ministers— Laurier and Thompson. But while this is true, while both of the major parties, overwhelmingly Protestant, have gone outside their predominant faiths for leadership, the reality remains that at the present juncture, in the light of some recent events, likely to be heard of again, the choice of a Catholic leader presents difficulties. It is not a question at all of bigotry within the Conservative Party as a party. It is a question of the best strategy, of what is “practical politics” at this time.
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But the Conservative Party, in its present crisis, is faced with more than the choice of a new leader. It faces as well the task of overhauling its armor, of re-examining its policies and tendencies; of discovering, honestly and objectively, the possible causes of its decline.
What’s In a Party Name?
ONE OF THE curses of the Conservative Party in this country has been in its name. In its label of “Toryism.” It is easier to grasp a label than a truth. As a result, most of us have thought of a “Tory” as somebody who wanted to conserve something; of a Liberal as somebody willing to change something; of a Radical as somebody wanting change as a principle.
The trouble with that has been that a lot of “Tories” haven’t been overly strong about conserving; that a lot of Liberals have seemed timid about change; that Radicals, as they grew older (or richer), became conspicuously less radical. The goods have been misrepresented by the labels.
The labels, in any event, had a pretty bad pedigree. Mostly, they came from England. The character of the Canadian Liberal Party was supposed to be determined, or influenced, by the traditions and tendencies of the British Liberal Party; that of the Conservative Party by the traditions and tendencies of British Toryism. Nobody troubled much about the accuracy of the suppositions, or even about the origin of the labels.
The labels originated in abuse. Originally, British Conservatives were “Tories,” British Liberals “Whigs.” Each name was invented by the opposition party as a term of opprobrium. “Tory” was an Irish word, applied in the first place to Irish outlaws living in the bogs. Later on it was used to suggest that the English party of church and state was ready to plunder and murder its opponents—the supporters of Protestantism and, incidentally, of parliamentary supremacy.
“Whig,” on the other hand, was a Scotch word. It was applied to Covenanters who, in the cause of extreme Protestantism, were charged with menacing the throne and with having murdered a saintly archbishop in the presence of his daughter. Later on it was used by the Tories to suggest that all English politicians who favored the Nonconformists and opposed the court were certainly ruffians and probably rogues.
In this pleasant way the party label system was born—born with that travesty of each side by the other which has belonged to the thing ever since.
Change of “Whig” into “Liberal,” and “Tory” into “Conservative” made no difference. “Conservative” was invented by Croker, a political adventurer, but, while Peel accepted it, Disraeli detested it and never became reconciled to it. “What,” he asked, “are we going to conserve?”
But if labels meant little in England, they meant less over here. Prior to Confederation we had four parties, to wit: Extreme Tories; Moderate Conservatives; Moderate Reformers; Radicals or Clear Grits.
The labels sounded imposing, but history proves that most of those who wore them weren’t so much influenced by a definite philosophy or set of principles as by sectional and racial issues, by their education and environment, by their capacity to face (or evade) realities. Moreover, Macdonald and Cartier, Conservatives, found they could work with Reformers like Baldwin and Lafontaine. Macdonald, a consummate opportunist.
ready to promote party prosperity at any time, was anything but a Tory.
And so to our day. Sir Robert Borden, the Conservative, was at least as radical as Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the Liberal; Mr. Meighen as radical as Mr. King; Sir James Whitney and Mr. Ferguson as radical as Sir Lomer Gouin and Mr. Taschereau.
So far as Mr. Bennett was concerned, he was no more a Tory than Mr. Woodsworth is a Communist. By instinct, if not by training, he was a Radical. His whole nature seemed a struggle between the corporation lawyer, familiar with Big Business, and the child of a Puritanical environment. The lawyer was often in evidence, but not far behind, and often taking precedence, was the nonconformist conscience, the radical and revivalist. His reason was eternally tangled with his emotions.
There was Arthur Meighen. Meighen was an instinctive Radical. He won his first fame with a speech against the “Interests”—the celebrated “ramparts of gold” speech. And while he become more conservative with the years (or with responsibility) he remained suspect by his reactionary followers. To St. James Street, when he took over the Grand Trunk Railway, he was a “dangerous Socialist.” To ultra-imperialists, when he fought the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, he was antiBritish. The ablest parliamentarian of our generation, a Conservative, was in fact too radical for most of us.
Yet the label of “Toryism” remained— to curse the Conservative Party. Not the least part of the curse was and is the fact that certain people, regarding the label as representing something of a virtue, proceeded to join the party and to struggle desperately to distort its creed still more. Reactionaries, antediluvians, men whose only philosophy in life is “what we have we hold,” have thought it their duty to join and dictate to a party whose label appealed to them, but whose essential creed they misunderstood. To such it would never occur that a Conservative, anxious to conserve certain things, might be, without inconsistency, an ardent apostle of change. Of change for the sake of conservation.
The Conservative Party, if and when it comes to change its leader, would do well to accompany the change with some realization of this last truth.
Apart From the Leader
THE CHARACTER and calibre of the leader, whoever he may be, will not be enough. At Winnipeg, ten years ago, Arthur Meighen, speaking to the convention which selected R. B. Bennett, said this:
“There will be more danger on the side of the party itself than on the side of the leader you will choose. Even here now it is not the supreme consideration—Who shall be the leader of this great party? The supreme consideration is—What manner of party shall he have to lead?”
That, true in 1927, is truer than ever in 1937. The writer of these lines is a Conservative, has always been a Conservative, was once one of its candidates. After a quarter of a century of watching at close range its leadership, influences and policies, having never received or asked a favor of it, and not wanting or expecting a favor from it, he feels free to tell it:
1. That it should get away from “Babbittry,” from its practice of recruiting candidates from the so-called “solid” men of the constituencies: seeking instead younger men. men who can be trained for public service, men who are educated—or who can become educatedin what government is about.
2. That it should institute a “purge” of reactionaries, of the old rich men who are too powerful in its councils; that it should take less of its inspiration from Bay Street and St. James Street, planting its roots more in the soil of the common people.
3. That it should have more of democracy in its government; less of the system under which, too often, the dominant note of the party has been struck by a few out of touch with the many and the mood of the many.
4. That it should redefine Conservative principles, necessitating a discovery of what Conservative principles are about; a discovery which might result in an end to the practice of preaching Socialism or “Statism” in one breath and capitalism or “rugged individualism” in the next.
5. That it should get away from its fetish of Protection, as though Protection were an end in itself; accept Protection as at best a necessary evil, instead of an essential virtue, realizing the while that the tariff is no longer a major or potent factor in either our economics or our politics.
6. That it should provide itself with a press. Not with a subsidized or “kept” press, nor with a press that will merely echo the politicians, but. a press that will know what the Conservative philosophy and Conservative principles are about, and present them intelligently, consistently and independently; a press that will be directed and edited by men with some education and cultural background, and above all with some knowledge of the fundamentals of government—a press, in short, that will be free of the Babbitt mind.
There can be no doubt in the mind of any person capable of reading the signs of the times that the world is sweeping into a new era in which the old landmarks of political thought are going to be largelyobliterated, and it behooves any party
which wants to be taken seriously or which wishes to be intelligent and serviceable, to consider all the straws now blowing in the winds of doctrine. This is no time for indulging in any of the bombast of the past. If the Conservative Party cannot come to a realization of that, if it cannot perceive the forces sweeping over the world and particularly the hurricane blowing to the south of us, then no new i leader, nor no old one. will save it.
One danger of a traditionary party—greater today than ever before—must always be that it will remain inert in the face of some entirely different and dangerj ous condition of affairs, trusting to old weapons whose edges have become j blunted and to rusted armor against some deadly new artillery. It is not that opinion which represents continuity with the past should be rendered completely impotent. ¡ It is simply that a party like the Conservative Party must mn the risk of extinction i if it is left to the devices or to the mercy of | its extremist antediluvians. The true ! founders and builders of the Conservative Party have been the men who. while searching the chart of the past no less carefully and often more intelligently than j other men in their party, have also watched the barometer and scanned the horizon for a coming storm. The fathers ! sometimes stoned the prophets, but the sons enshrined in the sepulchres they built the policies for which the prophets had fought. Each struggle leavened the mass by a process of permeation until ideas once deemed highly heretical became the commonplaces of orthodoxy. If it be not that way again, if the Conservative Party, in its choice of leader and policies, can neither comprehend the present nor glimpse something of the future, then its fate must be a certain—and deserved— extinction.