Can the Conservatives Come Back
The Conservative Party at Winnipeg • . » . can resume its historic mission « ... or write its own obituary/ says
M. GRATTAN O’LEARY
ON DECEMBER 9, 10 and 11 the Conservative Party meets in Winnipeg in national convention— its third in twelve years. It meets to elect a leadera new Moses to lead it from the wilderness; it meets, as well, to either unrepentantly reaffirm old principles or to declare for new ones.
It meets at the lowest ebb in its fortunes since Sir John A. Macdonald created it eighty-nine years ago. Orphaned of leadership, unrecovered from shattering defeat in two successive elections, holding power in no single province, nudged into oblivion in the direction of the war, its decline and fall from its once proud eminence of historic achievement is one of the strange tales of politics.
What is the explanation?
Is it that the Conservative Party has become a spent force, its philosophy and policies unsuited to our day?
Is it that there are not enough Conservatives to go round—that Mackenzie King, a conservative Liberal, has pre-empted its ground? Is it that the party is fated to die—as the Liberal party died in England—between conservative Liberals on the one side, radicals and socialists on the other?
The answer, I think, is that tribulations of the Conservative Party, its seeming decline and decay, stem not from its philosophy or its policies, but from its lack of showmanship; from its inability to adapt itself; from its deficiency in imagination and party technique.
The Conservative Party, all in all, has been as progressive, as honest, as efficient as the Liberal Party. It has been less intelligent in propaganda and in its public relations. It has been deficient in temperament.
Except in labels there has been no difference between the liberal conservatism of the party led by Meighen, Bennett and Manion and the conservative liberalism of the party led by Mackenzie King. If there has been difference at all it has been in that while the Conservatives practiced liberalism in office and talked toryism in opposition, the Liberals talked liberalism in opposition and practiced conservatism in office. In fundamentals they have been alike as two peas.
Borden—to go no farther back than pre-Great War days—belied his Tory label. As early as 1908 — in his now forgotten Halifax platform— he was advocating public ownership and flirting with state control. In imperial affairs he carried on the traditions of Laurier, with some advance. In his general administrative record he was a realist, unconcerned with philosophies or formulas, dealing with problems as they arose.
Meighen, in his beginning, was a radical. He first won fame with his “ramparts of gold” speech, directed against eastern manufacturers. He gave legislative birth to the Canadian National Railways. He fought St. James Street over the acquisition of the Grand Trunk. He experimented with state control in various ways and fields.
R. B. Bennett began as a hot-gospeller for imperialism and protection. He ended with “Canada First” and went on the radio with the accents of W. D. Herridge and the philosophy of the New Deal.
Mackenzie King is an academic Liberal. Yet his record and policies contain nothing unacceptable to
a conscientious Conservative. Of his Finance Ministers, Fielding was an old-fashioned Whig, hating change of any kind; Robb was a Tory of the Tories; Dunning was an authoritarian bureaucrat; and Jlsley stands with one foot in Gladstonian liberalism and the other in war collectivism.
Missed the Mood of the Hour
NOT in its creed, therefore, is the explanation of Conservative decline. Its decline, I think, can be found in its reactionary talk and appearance. In its seeming mood. In such things, plus failure in organization—the right kind of organization. The Conservative Party fell down in imagination and propaganda and flexibility. Fell down in capacity to adapt itself to a changing scene. Missed the mood of t he hour.
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With the passing of Borden and the successorship of Meighen, Canada had come to a new era; the era of j “causes” and “revolts”; the era of I “progress” and “idealism” and j j “emancipation,” when it was a sin
! to be old-fashioned or conservative | about anything. Mackenzie King, his star in the ascendant, and as sensitive to the public mood as a radio-detector ! to an airplane, reacted accordingly. He would not change much of anything. He would talk of “youth” and women in politics, and orate ¡ meaningless but electorally potent stuff -about labor, and put glamour | girls in Twentieth Century Liberal Clubs. Give his party sex appeal.
While all of this was going on, j while the Liberal Party was getting j showmanship and promising adventure, while youth and women were going over to the banners of Liberalism, or if not to Liberalism then to the Left, while agrarian revolt blazed : on the prairies, the Conservative -, Party couldn’t shake itself from its j old, archaic ways. It still thought of I political education and propaganda I ; in terms of some third-rate news1 paperman hired at the last moment J I to get out election leaflets; still I thought of organization in terms of ward leaders, committee rooms with sawdust and spittoons on the floor, paid organizers with election cigars,
! and Union Jacks in the window, and i a few speeches about where John A. I stood in 1878. To have a candidate i under fifty years of age was all but a I party misdemeanor. New ideas were I taboo, the talk of young upstarts.
! There were the party’s dealings 1 with the press. John A. Macdonald,
1 like Wilfrid Laurier (and Mackenzie ! King today), knew his newspapers I and newspapermen; consulted with * them, flattered them, got guidance J from them, helped to guide them _ Arthur Meighen never understood newspapers, and Bennett heaped them with derision. The direct consequence was a loss of contact with newspapers—and loss of support. While powerful journals like the Montreal Star and the Montreal (lazette and the Halifax Herald and the Southam papers—and even the Ottawa Journal—became less and less militant in their Conservatism, and some of them got independence confused with neutrality, there was neither neutrality nor independence in the unwavering Liberal party spirit of the Winnipeg Free Press, the Toronto Star and the Vancouver Sun. Thus deprived of press support, and with no propaganda technique to put in its place, the Conservative Party became more and more remote from public attention; became increasingly unattractive.
While Mackenzie King strode the hustings with his heart on his sleeve, the Conservative Party remained seemingly without inspiration, content to invoke its past. Yet even in this concern with the past it was not discerning. Sir John Macdonald had talked of Canada. His successors talked mostly of Empire. They apparently could not understand that it was possible to love the Empire much and at the same time love Canada more; that it was to love of Canada and Canada’s soil that they must first of all appeal. Neither did they seem to understand that a party which preaches optimism and affection is bound to go farther than a party which preaches coldness and gloom. They were too hard, too prosaic. They denied hope.
And the Conservative Party, or some of its leaders, gave too much thought to three organizations in our country: The Quebec hierarchy, the Orange Order, the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association. Admirable in their respective spheres, these bodies have no place in our politics. The mistake of the Conservative Party, or of some of its leaders, was in imagining they had some place in our politics and in catering to them accordingly. It was the essence of irony that despite all of this concern and courting, most if not all of these organizations deserted the Conservative Party in the end—took out insurance with Mackenzie King.
Finally, there is belief (to which this writer subscribes) that the Conservative Party has taken too much of its inspiration and leadership from men who thought that the party’s sole function was to fight for high tarifls, to fight for protection. Then the Conservative Party has attracted the kind of people who regard a party’s reactionarism, real or alleged, as a virtue, and proceed to join it and to struggle desperately to distort its creed still more. Reactionaries, antediluvians, men whose philosophy in life is “what we have we hold,” have too often been attracted by the label “Tory” and thought it their duty to join and dictate to a group whose name meant little.
Thus some of the causes, or seeming causes, of the Conservative Party’s decay. In Winnipeg, in the second week of December, it will seek to restore itself; to march out of the wilderness of impotence and
frustration to its old place and power. What basic issues and difficulties will it face? What conflicts will arise from those issues, and personalities revolve around them?
Who Will Lead?
LET US take leadership first. If À Arthur Meighen, still the most potent voice in the party, demands confirmation of the leadership given him by a group one year ago, the prize will be his—but not without misgivings. Arthur Meighen’s incomparable intellect still compels admiration, but not Arthur Meighen the politician. There would he more than one delegate to ask whether he was the man to lead the Conservative Party in this hour and day—to march not only against Mackenzie King, hut the gathering storm of the C.C.F., and threatened political revolt in Quebec? Arthur Meighen today is not, to many younger Conservatives, the flaming spirit that came out of the West in the early nineteen hundreds, nor the voice that challenged Parliament and the country in the 19‘20’s.
But if Meighenemdash;against whom no one can level the accusation that he puts his own career or ambitions against the party’s or the country’s good—decides to put off his armor, to step down for a younger man—what then? Into the spotlight, in that event, will step three men: Saskatchewan’s Murdoch MacPherson, Manitoba University’s Sidney Smith, Ontario’s Colonel George Drew. Each a potential Moses; or thought so by his friends. Other prophets also mentioned by their friends are R. L. Maitland, leader of the Conservative opposition in the British Columbia Legislature, B.C.’s Howard C. Green, runner-up to Mr. Hanson when the latter was named House leader of the party, and Saskatchewan’s earnest John G. Diefenbaker.
There are, of course, tales; rumors —seemingly fantastic reports that Arthur Meighen will take the convention platform and make an impassioned plea for a “National” war party, with Manitoba’s Premier Bracken at its head. There are tales as well that Mitchell Hepburn, whose departure from the Ontario Premiership was as spectacular as his tenure of it, is prepared to join this proposed new party—prepared to league against his old antagonist, Mackenzie King. In politics, where the unexpected so often happens, such a thing could come true.
Yet if there be truth in it, or possibility, the secret is being well kept (at this writing) from Conservatives, from Conservatives who will be delegates at Winnipeg. More, it is by no means sure that Mr. Hepburn as a communicant in a Conservative temple, or in a Conservative temple called “National,” would be unanimously welcomed—and that goes for Mr. Bracken. There are Conservatives who feel that their party has changed or tinkered with its name too often already, and that their job in Winnipeg is to elect a leader for the Conservative Party, not to found a new party with a convert, much less a heretic, at its head.
Should this view prevail, or should the Meighen-Bracken-Hepburn story turn out to be romance, with Meighen merely surrendering his captaincy and letting the convention decide on his successor for itself, then the leadership contest will be a free-forall . . . as it should be. In that event, say the inspired voices, Murdoch MacPherson will stand the best chance; carry Saskatchewan and Alberta and perhaps British Columbia (if B.C.’s favorite sons drop out) with a goodly support from Ontario and a solid Maritime Provinces. Col. George Drew is most likely to get the organized vote of his native Ontario, especially of the delegates of the Conservative Associations, plus some votes from Quebec. Dr. Sidney Smith, on the horizon of Conservative leadership for some years, will have the solid allegiance of Manitoba delegates, a sprinkling from outside.
But who will be leader after the last ballots are taken (this again assuming there is no Bracken deal nor coup by Meighen and Hepburn), no one now can say. At a party convention—elemental democracy at work—there are many undercurrents and crosscurrents; backstage tactics, intrigues, logrollings. Always there is the possibility of some “native son” triumphing over all; or of some possible dark horse or unknown Canadian William Jennings Bryan with a “cross-of-gold” oration skyrocketing him to the heights. Mackenzie King snatched the Liberal chieftainship finally from the hands of the veteran Fielding when he pointed to a picture of Laurier and in impassioned tones declaimed: “Statesman, yet friend of truth . . . ” We shall see.
Three Conflicting Ideas
BUT Winnipeg’s struggle for the toga of leadership will not be all. With it, and perhaps as great as it, will be the clash of conflicting philosophies, temperaments, ideas. There will be the young men, the Sir Galahads, the “laymen” of Port Hope, signalling the party to turn to the Left, to adapt itself to changing needs in a changing world. There will be the old men, the veterans of past conventions and political wars, urging that the party stay static; the men who would content themselves with pious platitudes about “reverence for the past, joined to a high hope for the future,” letting it go at that. In between will be the realists, the men who are neither for
reaction nor revolution; men who hate the old antediluvians but who equally are suspicious of the new passion for planning, and regimentation and control.
This last school, unless all signs fail, will be heard from powerfully in Winnipeg. They will hold that no party is wise enough at this time to horoscope the future, to lay down particular remedies for particular problems it professes to know will come. They will argue that the Conservative Party should content itself with:
1. Getting the best leader available.
2. Providing that leader with a research staff and secretariat to keep him and the party informed of developments and trends and national moods and needs.
3. Determining that it will get the best candidates possible to bring strength and wisdom and courage to its ranks and more pres'tige and power to Parliament.
4. Declaring that
(a) its first aim is the winning of the war;
(b) reaffirming its allegiance to the British Commonwealth of Nations;
(c) asserting that for the future it subscribes to President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms: freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of the press and of speech.
To go beyond that, this school holds, to get into wrangles and pronouncements over labor and capital, or over the needs of agriculture, or to make specific commitments upon this economic issue or that— coming out for this or that theory of collectivism or individualism—would be foolish. As foolish as it would be dishonest.
With that contention this writer allies himself unreservedly. Standing between two worlds, one dead, the other struggling to be born, with no one daring to prophesy the shape of things to come, the party with specific remedies for specific things borders dangerously on quackery.
The Conservative Party at Winnipeg can recapture the confidence of the Canadian people; resume its historic mission as a great party in our democratic life. It can also, by failure in realism and integrity, write its own obituary.