Canada's conservatives get a "C" for effort
By Steven Martinovich
Pity the poor Canadian conservative. The first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, was a conservative who won six majority governments, served 18 years and managed the feat of turning a collection of disparate colonies into the nation of Canada. Since then, however, conservatives have spent more time out of office than in and have watched what was once an economically and socially conservative nation turn into European style 'social democracy'. What was once "God, King and Country" is now "Beer, The Dole and Hockey."
Bob Plamondon charts the history of Canada's conservative leaders in Blue Thunder: The Truth about Conservatives from MacDonald to Harper, a sometimes depressing but always informative romp. While some of names will be familiar to all Canadians, such as MacDonald, John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney, others will likely be known to only serious students of Canadian history. The one common thread tying most of them together, outside of one brand of conservatism or another, is a propensity to alienate either their party, the country or both, no matter how promising their start.
As the country's longest serving conservative prime minister, it is no surprise that MacDonald receives the most space in Blue Thunder. Plamondon argues that MacDonald was the original big tent conservative, building alliances with whomever he needed to in order to capture power. The key to these alliances, as Canadians know today, was always Quebec. In order for a conservative to win a national election, MacDonald counselled, they must always respectfully take into account Quebec's aspirations and concerns. Ignoring the province would only turn them against the Conservatives and towards the left – or as eventually happened in the 1960s, nationalism.
One of the theses that Plamondon argues is that the truly great conservative prime ministers remembered this lesson. Both Diefenbaker and Mulroney both enjoyed huge majority governments thanks in part to Quebec support. Those who were unable to convince Quebec of their sincerity – and that list is a long one – typically ended up in the opposition benches. Big tent conservatism brought victory, appearing retrograde and doctrinaire would inevitably lead to loss. As Plamondon shows, Canadian conservatives have had to walk a fine line for nearly a century.
Within Plamondon's chronicle of Canadian conservatism's history, the reader will likely notice two things about Blue Thunder. The first is that Plamondon's heart clearly belongs to the old Progressive Conservative party. He praises its rare moments when it was able to build a big tent movement that allowed capture of 24 Sussex Drive and has relatively few kind words for its more doctrinaire successor, the Conservative Party. While he grudgingly offers current Prime Minister Stephen Harper some compliments, he incredibly proclaims Mulroney – he of the single largest tax hike in Canadian history and solid environmentalist credentials – the most conservative prime minister ever elected.
That point leads to the second revelation that Blue Thunder provides the reader, and that is the utter failure to establish any real conservative movement in Canada. Whether you call it classical liberalism or American-style conservatism, an actual mainstream big "C" conservative party seems to have never really existed outside of brief moments that were quickly extinguished on assumption of power. Even Harper, who once guided the National Citizens Coalition and essentially wrote the original platform of the Reform Party, has turned into a Keynesian – albeit one who also likes lower taxes.
If any complaints can be brought against Plamondon's efforts they should be considered relatively minor. Even though his effort weighs in at several hundred pages, Plamondon was forced to focus much of his attention on relatively few figures. Because of that Blue Thunder should be considered a jumping off point for further study, not a definitive account. Also, conservatives who are not adherents of the big tent philosophy will be less than enamoured of Plamondon's championing of the pragmatic strategy. Finally, by focusing only on the leaders of Canada's conservative political parties, Plamondon ignores entirely the role that the grassroots have played on them.
Those concerns aside, Blue Thunder is an accessible and – if you don't dwell too much on the failures – enjoyable political history. It should raise a number of questions for Canadian conservatives to ask themselves, including those of strategy, ideology and what kind of leadership they need to achieve victory. In the past those questions have often been haphazardly answered or simply ignored. The movement can be forgiven for wondering when the second coming of MacDonald will occur.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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