On changing political stripes

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 18 1998

On changing political stripes

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 18 1998

On changing political stripes



Anthony Wilson-Smith

Winston Churchill was arguably the English-speaking world’s first—and best-known—political free agent. Born and raised a Conservative, he was elected as one to Great Britain’s House of Commons in 1900. In 1904, he switched to the Liberal party; 18 years later, he jumped back to the Tories. Asked about his penchant for changing parties and constituencies, he responded: “Anyone can rat—it takes a bit of ingenuity to re-rat.”

Churchill would be comfortable in Canadian politics today. Changing party colors—though not necessarily platforms—has seldom seemed more in vogue. A New Yorker magazine article this

year, compared the practice in the United States to that of free agents in sports who move to other teams to further their chances to get ahead. In politics, of course, no one admits to such crass opportunism: instead, they claim “changes in party values,” “growth of personal philosophy” or simply “profound philosophical differences.”

Sometimes it is all or none of the above. Consider Jean Charest: his switch from federal Progressive Conservative leader to head of the Quebec Liberal party is the most obvious example of the trend. But has he actually renounced any core beliefs? Critics might say that in order for that to happen, they would need a clear idea of where he stood in the first place. Supporters would say that Quebec’s Liberals are that in name only, anyway: their non-interventionist, small-c

conservative policies are ones that any Tory could live with. And in defence of federalism, the one area where Charest’s views have been unequivocal, it is entirely appropriate for him to lead the province’s primary federalist party.

Party switching, for that matter, is virtually the only sin that Quebec sovereigntists forgive in Charest—if only because their own leader, Lucien Bouchard, has done it so many times. At various times, he has been a card-carrying federal Liberal, member of the provincial Parti Québécois, federal Tory, and founder of the Bloc Québécois. In his defence, supporters say his circuitous path reflects the political journey undertaken by many in the province.

Only in Quebec you say? In Alberta, Premier Ralph Klein was a Liberal before he was asked to run for the Tories. The new Liberal leader, Nancy MacBeth, was a Tory minister who quit when she lost a leadership race to Klein. So in the province’s next election, it appears that a Liberal-turned-Tory will confront his mirror opposite.

Then, there is a spin on the same phenomenon—parties that either change names or adjust their policies so much that they bear little resemblance to what they stood for in the first place. After the wave of scandals that enveloped Saskatchewan’s last Tory govern-

ment, the only way out of the political graveyard was to emerge, reborn, as the Saskatchewan Party.

The small-c conservatives in British Columbia showed no interest in a provincial Tory party. Instead, they flocked to Social Credit, which, after its collapse, begat an almost still-born Reform party. These days, call Gordon Campbell’s B.C. Liberal party anything you want—but don’t call it a branch of the federal Liberals, because it is striving mightily to win over those same right-wing voters.

Social Credit also died in Alberta—but passed the right-wing torch, with much less fumbling, to the Tories. Meanwhile, in Ontario, Premier Mike Harris’s Tories kept their old name, but seemed

to transform into a wing of Reform. But all of this perhaps gives today’s trend-makers too much credit for originality: long after Churchill and well before this decade the practice was alive and well.

In Canada, it is business as usual when politicians switch parties and trade in their old policies on new ones

Several years ago, the New Democratic Party considered freshening its image by changing its name; the proposal, however, only served to remind voters that the NDP began life in the 1930s as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and adopted its present name in the 1960s.

Pierre Trudeau was still an NDP sympathizer—and a vocal critic of the Liberals—just a few years before he became Liberal leader. Reform party Leader Preston Manning, who likes to present himself as a non-professional politician, first ran for Parliament in 1965—as a 23-year-old candidate for Social Credit. In Trudeau’s reign, one cabinet minister—Jack Horner of Alberta—was an infamous and uncomfortable late addition from the federal Tories. And long before John Crosbie became

a famous federal Tory, he was almost equally famous in Newfoundland as an ardent Liberal.

Then, there are those modern-day politicians whose loyalties to their parties are clear—even though it is less clear why that is the case. Talk to Reform MPs Ian McClelland or Keith Martin about social issues, and they sound like textbook Liberals. Listen to Toronto Liberal MPTom Wappel or some of his rural Ontario caucus colleagues: they sound far more at home with Reform.

Should people be surprised that parties and politicians reinvent and rename themselves? Consider this: loyal federal Liberals spent the 1970s supporting big government and even bigger deficits and the 1980s opposing free trade. By 1993, they were implementing the largest federal spending cuts in history, and supporting free trade more aggressively than anyone.

Churchill would have understood. As he observed: “A change of party is usually considered a much more serious breach of consistency than a change of view.” Those who change parties can expect to be accused of betraying the values they stood for. But some of the time that accusation is more true of those they leave behind.