Since the disappointing federal election result in October, Canada’s conservatives have been engaged in a slow-burning civil war about what went wrong, who should lead the Conservative Party of Canada and what the overall future of Canadian conservatism should be. Out of this is emerging an apparent consensus – at least judging by the weight of public commentary – that Canadian conservatism will become irrelevant unless it embraces social progressivism.
One column in The Globe and Mail by two political consultants suggested that the Conservatives “should consider breaking from the past” to “resonate more broadly across the country,” while another column in the Toronto Star by a political strategist called for leader Andrew Scheer “to overcome his pride about Pride,” i.e., to demonstrate his acquiescence to social progressivism. Another in Maclean’s suggested that Conservatives have a “branding problem” and called for the party “to think like marketing-execs.”
Missing from these articles – and much other commentary on social and mainstream media besides – are substantive attempts to outline what conservatism ought ultimately to be about. Most discussions have not extended beyond superficial observations about branding and electoral positioning that, if implemented, would make conservatism nearly synonymous with liberalism, albeit with a decades-long lag. Granted, much of the post-election commentary has also been in the nature of “friendly advice” from external sources who normally sneer at, if not loathe, conservatism and would never consider voting Conservative under any circumstances. So why care?
One key reason for concern is that social-progressivism represents a strong current within the Conservative Party. The party’s ostensibly retrograde electoral platform and messaging has been offered as an explanation for its electoral loss and a reason for Scheer to be toppled. (He announced his resignation in mid-December.) Peter Mackay, a former senior minister in the Harper government and current favourite among many moderate eastern Conservatives, was eager to plunge the knife in Scheer’s back and advance this narrative, saying that social conservatism “hung around Andrew Scheer’s neck like a stinking albatross.” This approach appears to be supported by a considerable proportion of rank-and-file Conservatives. It’s entirely possible that it could be reflected in the party’s choice of its next leader. If so, the consequences would be incalculable.
For this reason alone it’s critical to put forward and debate options that rest not on prevailing social fashion or momentary marketing-driven impulses, but on age-old principles and coherent political models that have demonstrably worked. Some Conservatives are sure to advance a vision centred on lower taxes, less regulation, more economic freedom and continued globalization. Others are likely to draw inspiration from the recent success of conservative populism in a number of other countries. But if Canadian conservatives look back on their own history, they’ll find a largely forgotten tradition that offers a distinctly Canadian contribution for the future of conservatism: Red Toryism, properly understood.
The small “l” liberal briar patch
Human beings are not atoms. We are not born into the world as self-sufficient rational decision-makers. We are formed by society and by others. Our nature as socially and historically situated beings is undeniable, and yet much political philosophy is built on a denial of this. While liberalism is often presented as metaphysically and anthropologically agnostic, in reality it is built on a specific conception of the person. Liberalism begins, according to Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his essay Atomism (from a collected volume of essays), with “the priority of the individual and his rights over society.” It thus rests on a particular view of human nature, one that “affirms the self sufficiency of man alone.”
Many liberals would reject Taylor’s characterization of liberalism as “atomism,” but at the core of most variants of liberalism is an emphasis on the primacy of free and equal individuals. The liberal idea of man thus elevates autonomy, and its pursuit thereof, to the status of the highest political good. It leads to a relentless quest for emancipation and along with this the erosion and removal of all constraints on personal action. This is a defining characteristic that has come to make liberalism a never-ending project, for a philosophy that regards creating a society of free and equal persons as the highest good will be constantly on the lookout for new barriers to freedom and equality that must be overcome.
Accepting this characterization of liberalism does not require rejecting freedom and equality, and many of the achievements we associate with liberalism are laudatory. A recognition of the inherent equality and dignity of all people, regardless of race or gender, and the emancipation of slaves, serfs, women and other minority groups were both morally worthy and necessary. Universal human dignity and equality are not innately “liberal” ideas, but it is undeniable that liberals, and liberalism, have helped actualize them. But unrestrained and left entirely to its own devices, the internal logic of liberalism and the pursuit of absolute freedom and equality in every sphere of human life corrodes every barrier and constraint that inhibits this.
For this reason, liberalism often ends up being a destabilizing force. This point has been made by liberals and non-liberals alike. Early 19th century French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, in the second volume of his magisterial Democracy in America, feared the kind of atomism much later described by Taylor − seeing it as going hand-in-hand with a tyrannical form of democratic collectivism. Present-day Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule has aptly described the relentless and destabilizing nature of liberalism as a sacramental liturgy that must be constantly performed anew.
If your personal understanding of the history of conservatism begins in the 1980s, this characterization of liberalism surely strikes you as odd, because modern conservatism seems to have fully embraced the language of liberalism. Margaret Thatcher once said in an interview that “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” This suggests that at her core the UK’s “Iron Lady” was ultimately a (small-l) liberal, though this was perhaps masked by her deep patriotism, her love for all things English and her tough foreign policy, all of which set her at odds with liberals.
Many conservatives today indeed insist they are the heirs to a purer, better form of liberalism. This is often termed “classical” liberalism and is usually described as a liberalism of small government, light regulation, untrammelled public discourse and economic freedom. This kind of liberalism is generally associated with the historically Lockean stream of Anglo-American conservatism, one of a two branches of Anglo-American conservatism, the other being Burkean.
Many present-day conservatives seem eager to embrace Thatcher’s individualism as the essence of conservatism, for they regard politics as a binary battle against the statism and collectivism of the left. Rather than being genuine opposites, however, radical individualism and collectivism are two sides of the same coin. A society of radically autonomous individuals is not likely to be a society of self-governing individuals. Instead it is likely to be one in which the institutions and traditions that governed social life and relations have been weakened, dissolved and denounced as oppressive constraints that interfere with the individual’s pursuit of personal authenticity. A society in which the age-old, traditional constraints on individual excess are cast onto the altar of autonomy faces chaos unless an ever-more powerful central authority steps forward to regulate and govern every aspect of our lives.
This relationship between radical individualism and collectivism is not accidental. In his under-rated classic The Quest for Community, the late American sociologist Robert Nisbet warned that the drive towards totalitarian collectivism in the 20th century was rooted in the natural human yearning for belonging and community. The totalitarian temptation and the rise of mass movements were products of what he called “enlightenment individualism” progressively destroying the structures and institutions that had previously satiated our need for community.
Social institutions from families to churches to voluntary associations of almost innumerable form are often rooted in pre-modern customs, traditions and forms of kinship. Enlightenment individualism regarded these older institutions as sources of oppression, irrationality and superstition that, thereby, undermined and delegitimized their historical claims over individual behaviour. The progressive emancipation of individuals from these typically personal and local forms of relationships and solidarity produced a sense of alienation that naturally drew many people to mass movements. Thus, the end-state of radical individualism was not liberation, but a much more radical form of mass conformism.
Freedom is more than radical autonomy, and conservatism must be more than liberalism
If conservatism is to be anything more than just liberalism behind, it must be built upon a recognition of our historical and social situatedness. A focus on the social ought not be a mere supplementary or optional component: it must be part of the core. Fortunately for conservatives, there is already a rich wellspring to draw upon. Edmund Burke’s famous “little platoons” provide a good starting point. The 18th century British politician and political philosopher considered groupings within family, churches, and civic associations as the basis of social life.
“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle of public affections,” Burke wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790. “It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” These platoons form us and cultivate the virtues that enable both freedom and flourishing.
To reject atomistic individualism is not therefore to reject freedom. But it requires recognizing that freedom and autonomy are not synonymous, and that autonomy is not synonymous with the good. Individuals loosened and liberated from all constraints are not likely to be truly self-governing and free; they’re more likely to be slaves to, not masters of, their own desires.
Individualism versus collectivism is a false binary. True freedom needs to be nourished and cultivated. Social and other intermediary non-government institutions enable, preserve and extend our freedom. These institutions help to create boundaries and roles that provide intelligibility, stability and order to the social world. A world without these institutions isn’t one that’s emancipated; it’s one in which we need bureaucrats and therapists to regulate every aspect of our lives. A political philosophy largely centred on protecting, preserving, and promoting these institutions moves beyond the false binary to provide a unique, conservative “third option”.
Unfortunately, conservatives too often fall prey to nostalgia for an idealized past that cannot be resurrected. Canada has not proved immune to the trends observed in books like “Bowling Alone;” social atomization and hyper-individualism are hallmarks of contemporary life. The conservative answer cannot simply be a purer form of liberalism, one that hyper-extends liberalism’s radical individualism and conception of freedom divorced from any notion of human flourishing situated in and nourished by the “little platoons.” It has to be one that emphasizes there is more to conservatism than liberalism. Far too often, however, conservatives run away from this challenge and hide behind the language of liberalism.
Debased Red Toryism is not the answer – it’s just more liberalism
Among the worst offenders who dress their liberalism up as “conservatism” are Canada’s so called Red Tories. Journalist and author Steve Paikin recently defined this political species as “conservatives who are socially liberal but [are] sticklers for fiscal prudence and respect for democratic principles.” What this translates to in practice is a conservatism that represents little more than liberalism wearing blue stripes. Paikin was also being generous in his linkage of Red Tories to “fiscal prudence”, for in practice they’ve proved themselves nearly as big spenders as Liberals, often running massive deficits. Their habits largely account for current-generation “fiscal conservatives” defining themselves separately from Red Tories.
From political figures like former Quebec premier Jean Charest to former Alberta premier Alison Redford, this form of conservatism largely consists of attempting to “out-liberal” the Liberals, and claiming that to be principled conservatism. Charest, whose unruly mop of curly hair marked him early on as a different kind of PC among his strait-laced colleagues during the Mulroney era, embodies this political type to an almost comical degree. He moved seamlessly from five years spent as the most left-leaning federal PC leader in history in 1993-1998 (when he led the House of Commons’ fifth-ranked party) to leader of the Quebec Liberal Party in 1998 (becoming premier in 2003). Charest recently indicated he will run to replace Scheer. Meanwhile, Redford’s incompetent rule and bloated budgeting in Alberta all-but handed the reliably-conservative province to the NDP in 2015.
Whether due to their ardour for the latest trends and fashions of social progressivism, or their instinctive adoption of centrist/elitist liberal hysteria about issues such as Brexit, this grouping of Red Tories has been widely loathed by other conservatives. They are a continued source of strife, pulling conservatives into a vortex of internecine conflict that, at its worst, has split apart parties and kept them out of power for extended periods. The “lost ‘90s” federally and the NDP’s rule in Alberta in 2015-2019 are two examples of the damage done. It is critical that Conservatives today avoid reverting to an approach that could deliver a “lost ‘20s” as well.
An older and better form of Red Tory
The contemporary Canadian usage of “Red Tory,” has little to do with an older tradition of Canadian conservatism that was also once referred to as Red Toryism. While largely a forgotten political tradition in Canada, recent developments in the United States and U.K. suggest its central ideas remain relevant today. There are two related but recent variants of Red Toryism on either side of the Atlantic that more closely resemble the ur-Canadian variant. At a minimum, Canadian conservatives should pay close attention to these developments.
The current British variant of Red Toryism is associated most closely with the English philosopher and theologian Phillip Blond, a confidant of former British Prime Minister David Cameron. It is a full-throated rejection of both the bureaucratic-managerial state and global capitalism which, as we’ve seen, have each been enabled by a hyper-liberal focus on individual rights. This view became central in Cameron’s attempt to detoxify and revitalize the British Tory party with his “Big Society” agenda.
This project was focused not simply on getting rid of the state and expecting civil society to spontaneously fill the void, as many small-government types on the right often imagine. Instead, Cameron and Blond wanted to use the state to “remake society” – in the sense of rebuilding or restoring it. The Big Society’s vision was to use the state to encourage social enterprise, based on the principle of subsidiarity. It empowered groups and individuals to solve problems at the local level, rather than relying on a distant but overweening bureaucratic state to do so. The hope was that this process would spur the revival of critical social institutions.
While the historical Canadian variant is very similar to its British cousin, it has different origins and a slightly different conception of the state. The label “Red Tory” was coined in 1966 by political scientist Gad Horowitz, a specialist in labour theory at the University of Toronto. He used it to describe a tradition in Canadian conservative thought that blended conservatism and elements of socialism in a distinctly anti-liberal synthesis that rejected radical individualism.
The University of the Fraser Valley political scientist Ron Dart traces Red Toryism back to an older tradition of (British) North American conservatism that he refers to as “High Toryism.” It has its roots in the culture of the United Empire Loyalists who fled northward after the American Revolution, and centred on loyalty to the British Crown and the Anglican Church. They stressed values like tradition and the common good, and their version of Toryism became associated in Upper Canada (today Ontario) with the Family Compact. Some of its most ardent defenders included the first Anglican Bishop of Toronto, John Strachan. The Family Compact order in Upper Canada was one that embodied the traditional Tory values of loyalty to the Crown, church, and country. But it also reflected an older aristocratic sense of noblesse oblige in which the “men of talent” of the governing elite understood and acted on their obligations to society and the people they governed.
This older tradition has little to do with contemporary Red Toryism. It is best embodied in the thoughts of philosopher George Grant. While now mostly remembered for his writing on Canadian nationalism, including his famous Lament for a Nation, Grant’s broader political philosophy, while often vague, defends a “traditional conservatism, which asserts the right of the community to restrain freedom in the name of the common good.” Whatever you think of it, this Red Toryism is definitively not just a variant of liberalism.
After Confederation and into the early 20th century, Canadian Red Toryism retained the “Tory touch” of the old High Tory tradition, but its outlook was shaped to the size and youth of the Canadian nation. In practice this meant that a protection of Canadians’ shared history, values and sense of nationhood often required nation-building projects that involved using the powers of the state, including its financial power. This eventually became seen as the “socialist” part of Red Toryism, although it was a mild and limited form.
The emblematic project of this tradition was, of course, construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, undertaken by Sir John A. Macdonald to help realize his “National Dream.” Another example was the establishment of a national broadcaster, the CBC, by prime minister R.B. Bennett. At the provincial level, the building of powerful institutions such as Ontario Hydro or the university system also illustrate this philosophy. And the success of Ontario Premier Bill Davis’ Big Blue Machine (Davis was premier from 1971 to 1985) is often held as proof of its political appeal. Regardless of what we might think of their contemporary versions, these initiatives proved vital in forging national or quasi-national institutions around which a national identity and shared loyalties could be nurtured. Macdonald himself was especially concerned with making the Conservative Party he led the party of nation-building – with Macdonald as lead nation-builder.
At its best, this form of conservatism sought to use the state not primarily to regulate people’s lives, but to build up a nation that could create the loyalties and bonds that enable a polity’s enduring freedom. History thus demonstrates that conservatism in Canada has not been solely about free markets; it was built upon a robust patriotism and loyalty to a new nation that required recurring use of the state to help nourish this patriotism and to protect, preserve, and strengthen social institutions. It is a unique and distinctly non-Liberal Canadian conservative tradition.
Today, however, it is often treated as a “leftist” form of conservatism because the modern right-liberal rewriting of conservative history − built on the binary between the individual and the collective − sees any use of the state as collectivist. This is also one reason the term “Red Tory” gradually drifted towards its current reference centring on the conservative movement’s social left.
Red Toryism need not equal collectivism – lessons from abroad
However, using the state to build and protect social and civic institutions is not innately a form of collectivism. It doesn’t require collectivist policies, nor are its goals collectivist. Latter-day Red Tories have often adopted such policies, but these were choices rather than requirements, which helps explain the difference between the two forms of Red Toryism. Traditional Red Toryism employs a more nuanced understanding of limited government, one that acts according to a clear vision of the state’s limited role, while using this role to promote and protect a free and flourishing society.
This older tradition of Canadian conservatism has been largely forgotten, but developments elsewhere may be breathing new life into Red Toryism. Boris Johnson’s breathtaking victory in Britain’s recent general election was not a victory for Thatcherism and the champions of unregulated capitalism. Key to his victory was bringing former-Labour voters into the Conservative fold with a manifesto that not only promised to “get Brexit done,” but included promises and commitments to use the state to rebuild British society and industry under the “One Nation” banner.
Blond sees Johnson’s victory as a vindication of Red Toryism, potentially reviving a tradition embodied in prime ministers including Benjamin Disraeli and Harold Macmillan. Blond has written that Johnson’s electoral victory and the long-term realignment it could represent “ensures that [Conservative] policies and promises must flow from a future where liberalism can no longer serve or guide us.”
Meanwhile, underneath the seemingly chaotic state of American conservatism, a renaissance of thinking is taking place. Among the most interesting contributions is that of Republican Senator Josh Hawley, who is pushing the boundaries of conservative orthodoxy. Since entering the Senate in 2018, the Missourian has been trying to add some intellectual weight and permanence to the “populist moment” that elected President Trump.
In a 2010 essay, Hawley proposed a republican conception of freedom that emphasizes self-determination and participation in public life. “Self-determination turns liberty outward, away from the self and its passions, and toward society and civic life,” Hawley wrote. “It teaches that liberty requires a certain sort of citizen, and it insists on a connection between personal freedom and democratic participation.” Hawley links his thinking back to the views of American founders such as James Madison and John Adams.
In a recent commencement address at the King’s College in New York City, Hawley challenged what he called the “Pelagian” notion of liberty that dominates current American life. Pelagianism is a Christian heresy built on the claim that people are born untainted by original sin, and thus that salvation can be accomplished through the human will alone, without God’s grace. According to Hawley, Pelagian freedom resembles modern progressive freedom because it also conceives of emancipation (a secularized notion of salvation) built on creating one’s own self, unrestrained by historical or social baggage. Hawley sees this view best-typified in retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s oft-quoted statement in the case known as Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
Hawley’s heterodox conservatism is more than mere theorizing. It has profoundly influenced his views on key issues and how to address them. It has helped, for example, to turn him into the American right’s leading critic of big tech, and his antitrust-based agenda to break up these monopolies could provide lessons for Canadian conservatives regarding economic and industrial policies.
Hawley’s is no longer an isolated voice. In a series of essays and speeches, fellow Republican Senator Marco Rubio has begun to lay out what he refers to as “Common Good capitalism.” The Floridian’s philosophy draws on Catholic social teaching and Papal encyclicals like Rerum Novarum to stress that, “Dignified work, strong families, and strong communities are key to civic – and economic – well-being.” The successful pursuit of this requires not simply getting out of the way of what Rubio refers to as the “financialized economy”; it also means using the state where necessary to restore “a system of free enterprise wherein workers fulfill their obligation to work and enjoy the resultant benefits, and businesses enjoy their right to make a profit and reinvest enough to create high-productivity jobs.”
Towards a restored Canadian Red Toryism
Canadian conservatives would do well to take note of these developments. Modern Canadian conservatism champions “small government”, seemingly without having any theory of what the state is actually for. Absent such a framework, it is difficult to identify governing priorities let alone to develop a philosophically coherent blueprint for action. When Conservatives get elected, they often have no idea of how to achieve the “fiscal responsibility” they preach. A series of ad hoc actions and policies follow, and the predictable result is failure to roll back the state in any significant or lasting way.
If they wish to succeed, conservatives need to take advantage of their time out of political office to step back and think seriously about what the state ought to be used for. Once elected, they could then work systematically to reorient government towards these ends. Instead of using the state simply to help individuals subsist, conservatives should use it to help individuals flourish and become self-governing. This means supporting the related enabling social institutions. A Red Tory theory of the state would empower and support civil society, not replace it.
In doing this, conservatives would not only be able to tap into current international conservative revivals, they could re-appropriate and reapply Canada’s homegrown Red Tory tradition. The specific policy proposals would vary depending on the level of government and location, but they should emphasize policies that help families. These could include, for example, expanded and strengthened parental leave. One of the Harper government’s signal successes was increasing the Universal Child Care Benefit. This was a quintessentially conservative policy of using the state to help institutions conservatives consider critical.
More broadly, there should be a renewed emphasis on subsidiarity, one that is not simply about the division of political powers, but aims to support the social institutions closest to problems and people and, therefore, best placed to develop solutions. It should also expand educational options for parents who want to instill not just skills but values in their children. Environmental policy would focus not on utopian schemes to “fight” climate change, but practical and humane measures that conserve and sustain public spaces and help build livable and cohesive communities and environments.
A revived Red Toryism would be about more than just policy, however. Policy would be integrated with a different language and way of thinking about political questions. Conservatives today are often unable to think outside the language of liberal rights, which often means framing conservative solutions as “market-based,” or stressing a right-liberal interpretation of rights. A revived Red Toryism drawing on the proven historical model could help challenge this hegemonic liberal framing of every issue by moving away from the language of individual rights to the language of dignity, flourishing and the common good. Language matters, and by engaging in political thinking on a different linguistic landscape, new possibilities could be opened up.
More broadly, the language of Red Toryism, stressing key concepts like dignity and flourishing instead of rights and markets, could be built around an integrated vision of not just a Big Society, but a sustainable one. The language of sustainability should have not only electoral appeal among voters and communities traditionally inaccessible to Conservatives, but ought to have an intuitive appeal to the conservative mind as well.
Jane Jacobs-style urbanists might not seem like natural conservatives, but the growing concern for livable and sustainable localism seems like fertile ground for a new, holistic and humane conservatism. An integrated conservative vision of the “sustainable society” would emphasize not just ecological sustainability but social sustainability as well, plus fiscal sustainability enabled by a government that eschews collectivism and focuses instead on building a society of self-governing rather than individually autonomous people.
As conservatism is being revived elsewhere by heterodox thinking drawing on older and neglected conservative traditions, Canadian conservatives have an opportunity to do the same. Conservatism is about more than just “freedom” – especially if freedom is defined mainly in terms of social licence and individual re-invention. Conservatism is about a recognition that we are more than mere consumers and taxpayers, we are social and relational beings. With a recent federal election lost, a leadership race soon to begin and the nation’s future uncertain, the time is right for a Red Tory revival. Carpe diem.
Ben Woodfinden is a doctoral student in Political Science at McGill University in Montreal. He has also been published in The American Interest, The National Interest, The American Conservative, Maclean’s, Real Clear Policy and The Washington Examiner (@BenWoodfinden).