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Fading blues – the decline of the Tory tradition in Canada since the 1980s (Part Two)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted September 14, 2020

By the early 1990s, the federal PC party had conclusively proved to most people that it did not really embody the traditions and principles of Canadian conservatism. The three largest groupings in the federal PCs were mostly anti-conservative.

Probably the largest of these groupings were the "situationists" (1) -- persons such as Brian Mulroney, who could be considered "conservative" only in the sense of wanting to maintain the status-quo, and keep themselves in so-called "power", without any reference to conservative principles. In the run-up to the 1983 Party convention, and to the 1984 federal election, Mulroney had, by a few partisan-sounding statements, allowed the mantle of being a “right-winger” to fall on him. He probably did so because he believed that it would be to his advantage in the upcoming election. The mood of the electorate was unusually tending towards a sense of revulsion against what were becoming perceived among considerable numbers of people (outside of the media and intellectual elites) as the excesses of the radical Trudeau social experiments. One especially remembers Mulroney’s statement that he would try to appoint every “living, breathing Tory” to government positions ahead of Liberals. But his behaviour upon attaining office was completely different. Mulroney governed with a timidity that suggested that he had won a minority, not a majority government. The ferocious, round-the-clock media attacks against the allegedly “hard-right Mulroney regime”, in a period when the conservative media presence in Canada was virtually non-existent, did not increase his confidence.

The “situationists” or upholders of the status-quo were the ones who aspired to be superficial administrators or managers, rather than trend-setting political leaders of the country. The support of the status-quo, no matter what it is, is obviously not the key tenet of conservatism -- by that calculus, the geriatric Soviet Politburo members (with their official atheism and Marxism-Leninism) could have been seen as the greatest "conservatives" in the world! To be a "situationist" is to sacrifice principles for the sake of a blind support of the status-quo, and one's place in it. It is the very opposite of what has been called in earlier articles "governing strategically".

The second major grouping were persons who could be called the "social democrats", such as Joe Clark (Canada’s Prime Minister for nine months in 1979-1980, and leader of the federal Progressive Conservative party from 1976-1983, and 1998-2003) and Flora Macdonald.  They were, in their arguments, very similar to the situationists, but as "Red Tories" they also made the claim of representing "the real tradition" of the Tory party, which they defined as an extensive welfare-state and intense government interventionism.

They appeared to forget that the core of a real "National Policy" could only be an authentic Canadian nationalism. It could be argued that their support of the excesses of multiculturalism, of virtually the entire social agenda of left-liberalism, of special benefits for “recognized minorities”, and so forth, contradicted the notion of a more traditionally-based "Tory welfare-state", which was, historically-speaking, grounded on the social unity and cohesion generated though such immemorial institutions as family and church.

Indeed, the term "Red Toryism" may be seen as a misnomer. Rather than representing a more positive synthesis of toryism and social democracy (as typified by George Parkin Grant, Eugene Forsey, and certain elements of the old Co-operative Commonwealth Federation - CCF) -- such persons typically combine the less salubrious aspects of both liberalism and socialism, i.e., socially-anarchic liberalism without individual enterprise, and collectivistic socialism without any genuine social sense. Most of the so-called "Red Tories" have only a superficial and tenuous resemblance to the real Tory tradition.

Thirdly, there were the so-called "libertarians", persons like Sinclair Stevens, who looked to America for inspiration and were, above all else, gung-ho free-marketeers and capitalists.

It is a fundamental mistake to automatically and totally equate conservatism and capitalism. How can the strong traditional ethos of conservatism endure within a system that places its highest values on hyper-consumption, the unrestricted inflaming of the lower human desires, and the promotion of a soulless and rootless "market-ethic"? As the preeminent Canadian political philosopher, George Parkin Grant, once remarked, it is liberalism, not conservatism, that is "the perfect ideology for capitalism".

The "Red Tories" are right insofar that Sir John A. Macdonald was no fan of either America or materialistic capitalism. Canadians should remember that the United Empire Loyalists came here precisely because they did not want to be Americans. They chose loyalty to their Sovereign, and a higher order, to the freewheeling liberal republicanism of America.

Canada was itself created as an act of national and political will in direct contradiction to "basic economic realities" (which dictated north-south trading patterns). To a large extent, Canada attempted to maintain its independence in contradiction to the notion that economic forces are the overwhelming factor in history.

The defining moment of the Dominion of Canada, the British North America Act (1867), established "peace, order, and good government" as Canada's founding principle, not the ultimately liberal "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". For most of Canada's history, "Free Trade" was fiercely opposed by the Conservative Party, as a fundamental threat to Canada's once considerably tory identity.

To be continued. ESR


(1) The author is aware that there is a “big-S” philosophy of Situationism, which originates in the radical thought of media critic Guy Debord. The terms are obviously unrelated. The author uses the term “situationist” to suggest “in situ” – sitting in one place – and also because a locution like “status-quo-ist” sounds too awkward.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.




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