My Party: Right or Wrong?

Despite its triumphalist title, Bob Plamondon’s new book opens on a decidedly downbeat note: “[I]t’s been tough being a Conservative in Canada. For every three years Liberals have been in power, Conservatives have held office for two. Not counting the [John A.] Macdonald years, Liberals hold a two-to-one margin.”

I remember having very similar thoughts in the spring of 1983 when as a teenager I arrived early to register for the convention that would, a day or two later, elect Brian Mulroney the new leader of the Progressive Conservatives.

As I waited for the doors to Ottawa’s Civic Centre to open, I thought of the terrible price that partisan politics extracts from unsuccessful contenders for power. In particular, I remember thinking how Joe Clark and Robert Stanfield, who at that time were the party’s two most recent leaders, would look back on their careers and know that, through a mixture of bad timing and bad judgment, they contributed to the election victories that allowed Pierre Trudeau to implement big-government policies that were the antithesis of conservatism. I thought how awful it must be when it is too late to choose a different course in life to realize that it would have been better for one’s cause if one had never entered politics.

A more mature reflection might have caused me to realize that neither Stanfield nor Clark actually supported free enterprise or government restraint. In the case of Clark, when the Canadian Alliance/PC merger of 2004 at last gave him the opportunity to be part of a party that stood unabashedly for smaller government, he chose instead to end his lifelong affiliation with the Conservative label. But I was not yet 20 in 1983, and it had not yet occurred to me that one does not need to be a conservative to be a Conservative – even the head Conservative.

Blue Thunder tells the history of the Conservative Party with a series of end-to-end biographies of its 19 leaders (21 if Arthur Meighen and Clark, who each held the leadership twice, are counted twice). Although this is not a method conducive to systematic analysis, it does allow Plamondon to unearth some interesting stories. Favourable criticism of the book has tended to focus on the rollicking good tales it tells. As a practicing Conservative (and conservative) politician, I am disappointed that Plamondon neither makes good on his promise in the preface to reveal “what has worked for Tories and what has not,” nor does he explain how future leaders can achieve electoral success.

When it comes to how Liberal leaders achieved success, the book is as unambiguous as it is possible to be, starting with Conrad Black’s introduction. Black attributes Liberal success to “the generally high cunning of successive leaders,” along with a few doses of good luck. Plamondon agrees, writing that the Liberals are prepared to “win at all costs” – in other words, to be both ruthless and non-ideological.

However, this raises the obvious question: Have Conservative leaders lost elections because they have been less willing to be idea-free and “cunning” or, at any rate, to tie their policies into pretzels in order to outflank their opponents at the political centre? This does not seem to be what the record shows. Two of Stanfield’s three lost elections took place after he attempted to outflank Pierre Trudeau on the left with policies favouring “deux nations” (1968) and wage and price controls (1974). Joe Clark lost the 1980 election after he promised to raise the excise tax on gas. Kim Campbell’s 1993 defeat was largely due to the widespread abandonment of the old PC Party by former supporters like me who no longer felt at home in a party that had swung too far from its conservative roots.

An alternative explanation for the two-to-one loss ratio, which did not seem to occur to Plamondon, is that many Conservative leaders were just as willing as their Liberal opponents to stand for nothing at all, and they lost anyway. The leader of a party that loses an election usually makes the same opportunistic compromises as his or her victorious opponent but without the redeeming quality of success. However, this is an uncomfortable hypothesis for any author to embrace. The scramble for the ideological centre when it is not crowned with success is not an alluring sight.

So, to get at the most robust hypothesis as to what has gone wrong over and over again, it is necessary to depart entirely from Plamondon’s book and to turn instead to some of the writings coming out of the Calgary School. Tom Flanagan has suggested that the real reason for Liberal success and Conservative failure in the 20th century was that the Liberals really were the Natural Governing Party – that is, they were not the centre-left version of what the Conservatives were on the centre-right. Instead, the Liberal Party was a completely non-ideological organization that was able to cobble together a more reliable mix of safe ridings as its core of support than were the Conservatives.

I suggested something similar in 1994 in the pages of Liberty when I noted that much of the history of partisan politics in Canada could be explained by the simple fact that Quebec’s voting pattern tended to deliver the whole province to a single party, while in the rest of the country, the seats tended to split evenly. Therefore, the party that won Quebec needed only to win one-third of the seats in the rest of Canada to form a majority government. Until Mulroney’s Quebec breakthrough in 1984, the Liberals were the chief beneficiaries of this dynamic. While the days of the Liberal Party’s dominance in Quebec ended a generation ago, this dynamic goes a long way toward explaining the two-to-one ratio of election victories that the party enjoyed over the Conservatives between Macdonald’s death and Stephen Harper’s arrival at 24 Sussex Drive.

The real secret to the Liberal Party’s success in cobbling together a coalition based upon overwhelming electoral dominance in a single part of the country was simply to outbid its opponents in that one region (whether in terms of patronage or of policy). However, doing so inevitably caused resentment in the rest of the country, which meant that other parties (primarily the Conservatives but also the CCF/NDP) tended to reliably win more than half the seats elsewhere in Canada. The natural Liberal response was to seek out and cultivate communities outside Quebec that were, for one reason or another, insulated from this resentment and to cultivate them intensively even if this further eroded Liberal support in what could broadly be referred to as English Canada. This seems to serve as a rudimentary explanation for the Liberal dominance, now seriously eroding, in the ethnic communities of Canada’s major cities, among francophones outside the province of Quebec, in rural Irish-Catholic ridings and so on.

The history of the Conservative Party in the 20th century can therefore largely be understood as an attempt, at first, to overcome the Quebec-plus-a-chunk-of-the-rest winning formula and then, when the strength of that coalition became clear, to outbid the Liberals for ownership of that non-ideological version of the Canadian “centre.” What I saw while sitting on the steps of the Civic Centre in 1983 was the wreckage of two decades of failed attempts at this endeavour.

The next year, Brian Mulroney finally pulled it off, and he enjoyed a decade in power before the internal reaction against the policies he had embraced in his pursuit of the old coalition finally blew apart the winning formula forever – taking with it the Progressive Conservative Party. In an irony worthy of a Greek tragedy, the destruction of the winning formula that had kept the Conservatives out of power for so long had the side effect of allowing a Liberal prime minister to enjoy three straight majorities (1993, 1997 and 2000) based on the alternative coalition that Conservative leaders from Robert Borden to John Diefenbaker had been trying to cobble together.

Given his failure to consider any of this, Plamondon’s analysis of the past seems mostly irrelevant. I was nevertheless hopeful there might be some utility in his recommendations for the future. But I found these to be confused and self-contradictory, because he is unable to make up his mind whether the best strategy for winning elections is to seek the centre or to take a stand on principle and thereby drive the political centre toward one’s own fixed political standard.

At different points in the book, he advocates each of these contradictory approaches. For example, on page 361 he quotes another author on the underlying reason for Kim Campbell’s disastrous 1993 defeat: “‘[The] Tories refused to put ideas on the table for Canadians to consider because they either had none or did not want to tell what they actually needed to do. … The overriding lesson from the election is simple: ideas do count. Standing for something does matter.’”

Nevertheless, on page 473 he says that Conservatives win elections when they are non-ideological centrists:

If the Tories need a hidden agenda it is this: Win. Not just the next election but many elections to come. History shows that the party wins when it is pragmatic, not ideological. It wins when it is in touch with the hearts and minds of ordinary Canadians. Successful Tory leaders advanced conservative-minded policies to the extent only that they resonated with Main Street Canada. They have never talked in terms of ideology, right-wing or otherwise. They redefined the political centre, not in terms of socialist and capitalist extremes, but as a place of moderation that represents the wider values of Canadian society.

Perhaps the problem at the heart of the book is this: One can write a book about how to promote a particular ideological agenda within Canadian politics or one can write a book about how to turn a particular political party into a vehicle for ongoing electoral success. But there is no logical reason why the two ideas go together, just as there is no reason, either in theory or in practice, for assuming that the Conservative Party, in its various incarnations, has ever had, or could have had, a consistent ideology. Collectively, the twists and turns of 140 years have had the effect of transforming the party of strong central government, imperial links to London and trade protectionism against the Americans into the party of decentralized federalism, free trade and a firm military alliance with the United States.

Why then should a conservative feel constrained to support the Conservatives at all, except when they support him? Philosophical consistency would have required the supporter of Borden’s anti-free trade campaign of 1911 to vote against Mulroney’s pro-free trade campaign of 1988, to name only one of a number of examples. There is no point pretending that anything links these two policies, separated by 77 years, other than an accident of institutional history. A thinking conservative would surely want to be able to say that he voted for the Conservatives in 1988 for the same reason his grandfather voted for Wilfrid Laurier.

But Plamondon is a party man who feels constrained to describe both Borden and Mulroney as great leaders and men of vision. He never quite makes the statement “my party, right or wrong,” but he comes close. On page 57, he writes of the values he ascribes to his greatest hero, Sir John A. Macdonald: “Loyalty to party – even above constituent needs – was sacred to Macdonald.” However, I am not entirely certain that this is an accurate reflection of Macdonald’s views, but as a question of principle, surely it is the opposite of what conservatives should want from Conservative leaders – and for that matter, what liberals should want from Liberals, too.

Scott Reid is a Conservative MP and the Deputy Government House Leader. He was one of six “emissaries” sent to negotiate the Canadian Alliance/PC merger in 2003.

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