Searching for the soul of Canadian conservatism

Sean Speer
April 29, 2017
Canada Post willing, a quarter million Canadians who belong to the Conservative Party are now receiving ballots enabling them to vote for their next leader. Of the 14 names on the ballot, at least one will have dropped off by the time the campaign ends May 27 and at least eight have no hope of winning. Among the five who could win, none is a perfect combination of principled conservative, party unifier, and ideal competitor to take on Justin Trudeau and the Liberals. So what should guide Conservatives in their choices? Take the long view, advises Sean Speer: vote to uphold the traditions of Canadian conservatism founded by Sir John A. Macdonald; to respect the size and role of the state in a free market economy envisaged by Adam Smith; to respect the role for customs and tradition championed by Edmund Burke; and to expand the positive contributions both libertarian and social conservatives have made to Canada over many generations. In other words, Conservatives should choose the leader they believe will best serve the traditional values and principles of their movement, rather the short-term interests of their party.

Searching for the soul of Canadian conservatism

Sean Speer
April 29, 2017
Canada Post willing, a quarter million Canadians who belong to the Conservative Party are now receiving ballots enabling them to vote for their next leader. Of the 14 names on the ballot, at least one will have dropped off by the time the campaign ends May 27 and at least eight have no hope of winning. Among the five who could win, none is a perfect combination of principled conservative, party unifier, and ideal competitor to take on Justin Trudeau and the Liberals. So what should guide Conservatives in their choices? Take the long view, advises Sean Speer: vote to uphold the traditions of Canadian conservatism founded by Sir John A. Macdonald; to respect the size and role of the state in a free market economy envisaged by Adam Smith; to respect the role for customs and tradition championed by Edmund Burke; and to expand the positive contributions both libertarian and social conservatives have made to Canada over many generations. In other words, Conservatives should choose the leader they believe will best serve the traditional values and principles of their movement, rather the short-term interests of their party.
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Recently there has been plenty of ink spilled on the Conservative Party of Canada’s leadership race, the general state of Canadian conservatism, and its political fecundity now and in the future.

This attention is a sign of Canadian conservatism’s emergence as a serious intellectual and political force in Canadian public life. It is a largely modern development and should not go unrecognized. It was far from inevitable and reflects hard work, thoughtfulness, and rigour on the part of key individuals and institutions over the past 40 years.

When U.S. liberal intellectual Lionel Trilling wrote in 1953 that liberalism was not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition in the United States, his sentiments could have also applied to Canada.

Notwithstanding Donald Creighton’s two-part biography of Sir John A. Macdonald, at the time there was little scholarly interest in the Old Chieftain’s philosophical bequeath. The welfare state was in ascendance and Conservative parties at the federal and provincial levels were basically reconciled to the “mixed economy” consensus. There were few academics or public intellectuals presenting alternative market-based ideas. There was no National Review or a Canadian version of Bill Buckley. There was for all intents and purposes no conservative movement. The federal party’s adoption of price and wage controls in the 1974 election was a good (or bad) example of the infirmity of Canadian conservatism in the post-war era.

But then conditions started to change. The establishment of market-oriented think-tanks, an emergence of conservative intellectual and political voices, new interest in cultural conservatism and traditionalism, the failures of industrial policy and shift away from state activism, and other external factors (notably the collapse of the Soviet Union) contributed to a newfound interest in conservative ideas.

It’s beyond the scope of this essay to fully capture the genesis and evolution of modern Canadian conservatism. But the point is that public and media interest in Canadian conservatism as a competing vision to liberalism and a serious set of propositions for Canadian governance is in and of itself an intellectual, institutional, and political accomplishment. It is a sign that Canadian conservatism has indeed come a long way.

These modern successes, however, should not preclude conservatives from introspection or even self-criticism. The Conservative Party’s leadership campaign has been at times messy and unedifying, but at its core is more than a group of obscure candidates clamouring for attention. It is grappling with fundamental questions about conservatism’s place in Canadian politics, internal tensions between market and social dynamism and community cohesion, and the formulation of a positive policy vision rooted in conservative ideas. These are critical questions and should be the subject of rigorous debate and contention. That is healthy.

Of course, it has not just been the leadership candidates engaged in this debate. Many others have offered their answers to these basic questions too. Some of them are even conservatives.

A trilogy of Conservative prescriptions

Which brings me to three recent commentaries on Canadian conservatism that have generated some attention.

Each offers a somewhat unique perspective on the movement’s opportunities and challenges, and ultimately how it ought to reconcile some of these competing ideas and priorities. They are good-faith attempts to reinvigorate Canadian conservatism and deserve serious engagement. All three though are ultimately flawed for different reasons as I will describe.

The first is Maclean’s “self-loathing conservative” columnist Scott Gilmore, who has called for a new political party that reflects the values of “moderate conservatives”. He has invited like-minded Canadians to attend a series of dinners across the country to discuss the need for a more centrist conservatism. The basic underpinnings of this vision seem to be a general moderation and a greater emphasis on climate change and refugee resettlement.

There are four flaws with Gilmore’s diagnosis of Canadian conservatism and his proposed cure.

1.  His critique of contemporary conservatism – such as that it is anti-climate change or anti-immigrant – mostly reflects left-wing characterizations of conservative orthodoxy rather than an accurate assessment of mainstream conservative thought or the Harper government’s record. Does Gilmore really believe, for instance, that most Canadian conservatives oppose the idea that “government can level the playing field [for those with unequal opportunity] before it gets out of the way”? The Harper government’s creation of the Universal Child-Care Benefit, Canada Student Grants, Registered Disability Savings Plans, and several other initiatives clearly refutes this assertion. A more constructive debate about modern conservativism would exclude strawmen.

2.  Gilmore’s focus on a small subset of public issues – such as carbon pricing or more refugee resettlement – confuses conservatism with his set of policy preferences. These positions are defensible and ought to be part of a robust debate about the application of conservative principles to contemporary challenges. But surely the essence of modern conservatism is richer and more multi-dimensional than a technocratic debate about the relative utility of environmental regulations versus carbon taxes or marginal differences in refugee resettlement. Conservatism is a values system rather than a finite set of policy pronouncements. It should be seen as an intellectual framework from which to view the world and ultimately to reason through new issues and developments by applying tried and tested institutional and moral thinking.

3.  A new political party rooted in the values of “moderate conservatives” – at least as Gilmore defines them – would be basically unrecognizable from the Liberal Party. One success of modern Canadian conservatism is that the center-left has come to accept its basic insights about markets and the limits of state action in the economic sphere. Increasingly therefore conservatism’s chief contribution to our political life must be about more than slightly lower marginal tax rates or a faster falling debt-to-GDP ratio. Of course these issues are important, but they are a necessary yet insufficient vision for human flourishing.

This is particularly acute at a time when the growing political divide seems to be less about markets versus planning and more about social and cultural questions that strike at the heart of national identity and community cohesion. Canadian conservatism must therefore also draw on its Burkean impulses and commitment to customs, traditions, and institutions, and on its aversion to technocracy and utopianism, to serve as a ballast against unrooted individualism and Mr. Trudeau’s professed post-nationalism. Conservatives cannot be, as Stephen Harper warned in a 2003 speech, “modern liberals in a hurry.

4.  Then there is, of course, the practical problem of vote splitting. This is not an academic point. We have over the past 25 years a case study of the consequences of multiple center-right parties versus a consolidated one in a first-past-the-post system with other brokerage parties. The lesson is for the different parts of the conservative movement to come together in order to compete in the political arena. It does not mean that there should not be robust internal debates about priorities and trade-offs and regular adjustments to what aspects of the conservative vision are emphasized. But surely the answer is addition rather than subtraction.

The second prescription comes from former Conservative staffer Justin McAuley who has called for a new “true blue” conservatism that would seemingly shift the party in a more libertarian direction. He specifically cites balanced budgets and LGBTQ rights as motivating issues. That Maxime Bernier has performed so well thus far in the Conservative leadership race suggests that there is a considerable constituency within conservative circles for a libertarian vision.


While McAuley’s individualistic formulation no doubt has some appeal, it is lacking in three key areas.

1.  It falls victim (perhaps due to limited space) to the common conservative mistake of characterizing balanced budgets as a philosophical tenet and an end in and of themselves. Conservatives tend to focus on balanced budgets as a proxy for large, intrusive, and ineffective government. There is no doubt some basis for this thinking. But it has important limits. Deficits and debt are the output. Public spending on wrong-headed programs and services is the input. Balanced budgets are ultimately neutral on the size of government or the composition of public spending or its utility. Conservatism must therefore be about more than bringing revenues and outlays into balance. It must be about making a positive case for a smaller, more limited government that enables greater economic dynamism, personal choice, community empowerment, and, yes, sound public finances.

2.  MCAuley’s dismissal of social conservatives as a “fringe group” is wrong. The intellectual and political fusion of “live-and-let-live” libertarians and social conservatives is key to understanding the intellectual and electoral successes of modern conservatism. The healthy interplay between freedom and virtue is at the core of a rich and dynamic conservatism. This is the enduring fundamental insight of Buckley and his libertarian consociate Frank Meyer in building the case for modern fusionism. Most social conservatives are not anti-rights reactionaries contrary to popular conceptions. They seek to preserve traditional customs and values and offer a useful and increasingly needed countervail to rapid social and cultural change. They also form a key political constituency including among ethnocultural communities. Libertarians are therefore wrong to write them out of the movement or attempt to go it on their own.

3.  A tangential yet equally important point is that separating markets from morality is a risky experiment. The market system of voluntary exchange rests on a complicated inter-personal foundation rooted in trust and other common values, institutions, and behaviours as Adam Smith astutely observed. McAuley and others neglect the utilitarian, if not, the transcendental virtues of faith and public morality too dismissively. The presumption that democratic capitalism can work as well without these unifying and so-called “so-con” values is at best untested and at worst foolhardy. It is a good reason for libertarians and social conservatives to find common ground as the mid-20th century fusionists intellectually and politically understood.

The third prescription is from National Post columnist Andrew Coyne. His long-form essay in The Walrus is, by far, the most nuanced, thoughtful, and serious of the trilogy. It exhibits his skill at synthesizing philosophical knowledge with real-world observations and crisp writing, and reinforces the gap between his commentary and much of the rest of the Canadian punditocracy’s. It is a must-read even for those who ultimately disagree with his thesis.

Coyne’s principal argument is that Canadian conservatism has become too populist and risk adverse and must instead adopt a more market-oriented vision that is rooted in a conception of the market as a social institution that is inclusive and fair.

This vision of the market is no doubt true. It reflects Adam Smith’s rich insights in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and captures the oft-ignored truism demonstrated by Milton Friedman and others that the state has historically been a greater source of discrimination or cronyism than the market.

Present-day conservatives should therefore find much value in Coyne’s formulation and attendant policy ideas. His vision is bottom-up, positive, and conservative. But it is not without its limits or weaknesses. It lacks in two particular areas.

1.  Reframing how we conceptualize the market and role of the state is a productive but hardly an exhaustive way to think about contemporary politics or society. There are a wide range of issues that concern people outside of the market framework and conservatives must have compelling responses to these broader questions. One might argue in fact that questions about the utility (and even the morality) of markets are no longer the principal cleavages of contemporary politics.

Now, in fairness to Coyne, he frequently articulates views beyond the marketplace including, to name just one, physician-assisted death, of which he has been among the most articulate and powerful critics in the public sphere. But to the extent that he has produced a plan to “save the Conservative Party” he has understated the importance of bringing conservative values and ideas to bear on non-market issues. Conservatives need to articulate a broader vision that reflect the title of Irving Kristol’s 1978 book, Two Cheers for Capitalism, in which he argues in part that market capitalism, though important, is not a sufficient basis for a full and rich worldview.

2.  Coyne also fails to understand the distinction between the conservative movement and the Conservative Party. He talks about the need for a “patient, persistent intellectual force” that builds the case for markets, choice, subsidiarity, and the other values that animate conservativism rather than focus on electoral considerations. This is proper counsel for the conservative movement but it is mistaken advice for the Conservative Party of Canada. The distinction may be subtle but it is essential to understanding how the two interact and differ. The conservative movement’s mission is to build the broad-based support for its ideas and values among the Canadian public. It is not concerned with election cycles or other short-term considerations. It has an ideological or values-based mandate.

A political party, by contrast, exists to win elections and form government in Canada’s parliamentary system. Of course, there is some role for political leadership in “enlarging the possible.” But it is institutionally incorrect to assert that the primary role of a political party in a brokerage system should not be about winning elections. Political parties that regularly ignore the preferences of its voters find themselves out of business similar to a retail enterprise or an entrepreneur. Therefore any plan to “save the Conservative Party” should not involve dislodging it from its core mandate. If Coyne is dissatisfied with the progress that Canadian conservatism has made in shifting the public’s views about markets and personal freedom, then his primary complaint is with the movement rather than the party.

Let the movement lead the Party

The immediate decision facing Canadian conservatives is, of course, who to select as the next leader of the federal Conservative Party. All the candidates bring interesting backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences to the race. Ultimately the new leader will benefit from drawing from the different schools of conservative thought represented by these diverse candidates. A fusion of a libertarianism’s emphasis on freedom and liberty and traditional conservatism’s focus on order and virtue is, in my view, the sweet spot for Canadian conservatism.

The onus will then be on the party and the movement to develop and popularize a renewed conservative policy agenda that addresses contemporary issues and challenges. The basic intellectual framework should be immovable. But its application to new questions – including the future of work or preparing for demographic change or maintaining community cohesion in an era of diversity – must be dynamic. It is in the application of conservative values and principles that Canadian conservatism can most contribute to our political life.

But conservatives must also avoid placing all their eggs in the political basket. It is commonly observed that politics is downstream from culture. This is something that Canadian conservatism ought to take to heart. It does not mean that conservatives should withdraw from politics or give up on advancing their ideas in the public sphere. But it does mean that conservatives should aim to dedicate as much time and resources in helping to improve their communities, their churches, and neighbourhoods as they do fighting for lower taxes or smaller government. These smaller signs of progress can often lead to much larger change than any short-term political or policy victories.

Canadian conservatism is a work in progress. It is easy to forget how far conservatives have come. The long-term Liberal (and liberal) ascendancy that was wrongly presumed to accompany Paul Martin’s prime ministership was overthrown barely a decade ago. Notwithstanding the defeat of 2015, Conservatives (and conservatives) ought to feel good about their achievements and prospects.

U.S. conservative Yuval Levin often describes conservatism as “gratitude.” That is to say it is about an appreciation or gratitude for what works and an inclination to address our failures building on what works rather than starting anew. This is an impulse that Canadian conservatives who tend to be too pessimistic and negative should adopt.

There is plenty of scope to debate conservatism’s place in our politics, how it ought to evolve, and how it can remain connected to the concerns, interests, and aspirations of all Canadians. That is healthy. But adopting a narrow or non-inclusive conservatism that is only focused on a limited set of issues or draws from a singular school of thought is not. It is neither in the interest of conservatism nor the country. Canadians need a rich and full conservatism in our modern political life. The Conservatives who vote for a new leader on May 27 should let this objective guide their decision.

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