Patrick Boyer, the MP for Toronto’s Etobicoke/Lakeshore riding, who announced last week that he would formally declare his candidacy for the Tory leadership on March 18, has about as much chance of winning the race as Ben Johnson.
Yet, his candidacy provides the ideal opportunity to ask what conservatism in Canada is really all about, and in which direction it should evolve. A lawyer and philosopher who has been not just the Tory party’s, but one of Parliament’s, most thoughtful backbenchers since he was first elected in 1984, Boyer believes that “We’re in a time of deconstruction.” His shrewd conclusion: ‘We are dismantling an ideological edifice and all the structures and ideas that had become component parts of it, so that reconstruction can occur using those existing parts according to a new blueprint Our new framework requires new patterns of thinking and, among other changes, a fresh appraisal of the possibilities of democratic politics.”
He accurately dates this sea change from the referendum defeat of Oct 26, tracing how that dramatic “reality check” demonstrated that the people and government of Canada are no longer in phase with one another. “In that direct popular vote on proposals to fundamentally change our Constitution,” he maintains, “the old approach was derailed and the political reconstruction of Canada begun. Canadians are changing their values, laws and practices as we transmute from the model of a 19th-century nation-state into a new model of a 21st-century international country.”
In a 34-page pamphlet titled “Democratic Conservatism: the Next Stage in the Evolution of Canadian Politics,” Boyer traces the evolution of his party from the “Confederation Conservatism” of Sir John A Macdonald to his wish for what he calls the “Democratic Conservatism” of a postMulroney period. He argues that at its core
The convention must redefine conservatism.
Its survival will demand not just a new leader but a new kind of politics.
“there was an ambiguity or ambivalence about the purposes of the Mulroney government” In Boyer’s view, Mulroney “was seen by some as a Diefenbaker protégé, but in fact he is perhaps closer to Macdonald in his pragmatism and his bridging the gap once again between French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians.” Yet Boyer derides Mulroney for being decidedly unlike Macdonald and most other conservatives in his view of the Americans, having reversed himself on his onetime opposition to continentalism.
Boyer’s definition of Democratic Conservatism is a bit loose. He advocates the downgrading of what he calls “the elite, top-down or hierarchical conservatism, where the interests of a few are paraded as the causes of the many,” and its replacement with “a populist conservatism where the flow is equally from the bottom up.” The idea of further empowering the electorate is certainly alluring and necessary, but it’s difficult to understand why Boyer believes his party would have a monopoly on such an obvious tactic.
Still, Boyer’s musings are valid and timely, because the Tories will eventually have to reinvent the basis of their political appeal. In that context it’s worth recalling how Canada’s
Progressive Conservative Party—which has changed leaders 19 times and party names five times since Confederation (while the liberals have only had nine leaders and never changed their label)—was established in the first place. The party first simmered up as an unlikely union of the fanatically loyal British Crown-worshipping Orangemen of Ontario and the ultra-faithful papist Castors of Quebec—a marriage between those who were more loyal than the Queen and more Catholic than the Pope. It was Sir John A. Macdonald’s genius to unite these disparate factions behind his modestly nationalistic followers to establish the wonderfully named Liberal-Conservative Party, which brought about Confederation in 1867. (The Liberals evolved out of a totally different coalition: the Rouges—anti-clerical Quebecers who were violently opposed to Canada’s British connection—and the Clear Grits of Ontario, who if they were not anti-crown, certainly were opposed to the Family Compact that had ruled Upper Canada.)
These early positions were moderated as Liberal and Conservative administrations moved in and out of power, but right into the 1950s Liberals still had to deny that they were anti-clerical in Quebec and that they were anti-British in Ontario. Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s support for an independent Canadian navy and Mackenzie King’s suspicion of all things British were typical of this attitude. As was Macdonald’s famous 1891 campaign slogan, “A British subject I was bom—a British subject I will die,” Sir Robert Borden’s strong pro-conscription stand during the First World War and Arthur Meighen’s emotional cry “Ready, aye ready!” when England appealed to the dominions for soldiers during the Chanak affair of 1922.
Now that Canada’s federal treasury is bankrupt, it’s no longer possible to differentiate the two old-line parties on the basis of their spending habits. But historically, Canada’s most successful prime ministers—especially Macdonald, Laurier and King—used the power of the state to intervene massively in the nation’s economic affairs. Other, less successful prime ministers limited state intervention to a kind of negative or at least neutral support function of the business community. Until 1942, when the Manitoba farmer John Bracken became Tory leader and supported Liberal-sponsored welfare measures, the Conservatives really were the party of big business, mostly influenced by the secondary manufacturing industries of central Ontario. (In contrast, the liberals tended to side with primary industries, especially farmers dependent on export markets for their grain crops. The liberals have always insisted that, unlike the Tories, they think of Canadians primarily as consumers with equal interests, rather than as producers with special and sometimes clashing interests.)
What the Tory convention in June must accomplish, apart from picking a new prime minister, is to redefine Canadian conservatism. Its survival in the 21st century will demand not just a new leader but a new kind of politics.
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