Canadian Conservatism Present And Past


Canada’s general election is less than a week away, although if you live south of the 49th parallel you could be forgiven for not knowing this. When politicos here tear their gaze away from the spectacle of 2016, they prefer something a little more exotic, especially given Canada’s (not entirely undeserved) reputation for being the political equivalent of vanilla pudding.

This election is more interesting than most, however, for a number of reasons. Canada’s three major parties are running more or less neck and neck, so it’s still anyone’s game five days out. In keeping with the outsider insurgency apparently sweeping the English-speaking political world, one of those parties – the New Democratic Party (NDP) – is a social-democratic outfit that has never governed the country before. Most intriguing to me, though, is the status quo under contention – this center-left country has been governed for the past nine years by the Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Harper is the last of the neocon-types that ran the Anglosphere in the aughts. You remember these guys: we had Bush, of course; the British had Blair; and the man down under was John Howard. There was some flexibility among the cabal, but the ideological glue that bound them was free marketeering at home and aggressive interventionism abroad.

Harper was the most junior member of this class and is the only one still around (within two years of his election, Bush, Blair, and Howard would all be out of office). In a larger sense, he represents a kind of globalization of conservatism within the English-speaking world, the supplanting of national political traditions by a fundamentally internationalist ideology.

For, to the conservatives of Canada’s past, Harper would be an almost unrecognizable figure. From John A. Macdonald, the first Conservative PM, to John Diefenbaker, the last before the neoconservative ascendancy, Canadian conservatism was consistently opposed to Harper’s twin idols of interventionism and the free market.

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Economically, protectionism, robust government investment in society, and welfare spending underpinned conservative policies. Inasmuch as foreign military adventures were considered, it was reluctantly (though not necessarily intelligently) in the service of Britain and the empire for which the conservatives felt so passionately. And in what will always be Canada’s dominant foreign policy issue – relations with the United States – the old Canadian Right took an entirely different tack.

In 1911, for instance, the Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden won largely on the basis of his opposition to lower trade barriers between Canada and the United States. Fifty-two years later, in a sign of the changing times, John Diefenbaker fell from the premiership largely for resisting American pressure to deploy nuclear missiles within Canada. Though the Conservatives maintained friendly relations with their neighbor to the south, they feared that America’s liberal culture, supported by its vast economic and military strength, could swamp their country and unmoor it from its traditional foundations.

To conservatives like George Grant, “to be Canadian was to build a more ordered and stable society than the liberal experiment in the United States.” Such an endeavor would always be jeopardized by threats from without; challenged from within, its failure was inevitable.

For better or worse, the pessimists on the Right were not proved wrong. After the fall of Diefenbaker, the Conservative Party was banished to the political wilderness for over two decades (excepting a 9-month stint in power between 1979 and 1980). It was during this period that Canada shook off almost all of its remaining British trappings, changing the flag, the constitution, and the culture (this process, by which the old Anglo-Canadian identity was swapped for a culturally neutral, civic nationalism is well-documented in the excellent The Other Quiet Revolution). When the Conservatives retook Ottawa in 1984, they were a changed party governing a changed country. They had become more or less what they are today: champions of free markets and free trade at home  (NAFTA was a Conservative priority), and reliably deferential to American foreign policy abroad.

But in the age of Trump, Sanders, and Corbyn, it’s clear that the game is changing, and the political arrangements of the recent past are under threat. In such a systemic crisis, the idea that formerly obscure or moldering ideologies – like Canada’s traditional conservatism – might make a comeback is increasingly plausible. At the very least, I suspect this will be the last race the Harper-types run for some time.

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