Amongst the countless, mind-numbingly forgettable interviews he gave over his long political career, Joe Clark once revealed something significant about himself and Canada’s Conservatives. Speaking to the Financial Post in 1975, some months before his unlikely election as federal Progressive Conservative leader, Clark quickly faltered when asked about economics. Explaining his ignorance, he said, “When I went into politics I had to choose between learning economics and learning French. And I chose French.”
This awkward formulation neatly encapsulates Clark’s influence on federal conservatism. And Clark was awkwardness personified. Unexpectedly tall and gangly, in conversation he’d crane his neck downward as if proximity to a question would somehow help him understand better. He seemed unsure of what to do with his large hands and long fingers, often bringing his palms and fluttering digits together, seemingly praying that the conversation might end.
Clark’s persona came to embody Canadian conservatism for a time, yielding a federal party of confused mushiness, allergic to any kind of binding philosophy. This apogee of “progressive” conservatism, or Red Toryism, ran up against the statist steamroller of Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals, with predictable results. To be fair, Trudeau Sr. remained in power mainly due to Quebec, suggesting that Clark was right to learn French. Why he couldn’t walk economics and chew French gum at the same time is another question.
This might or should all be ancient history but for the fact that echoes of Clark-ism reverberate in the Conservative Party of Canada to this day. The current CPC leadership race has unearthed debates many thought buried a generation ago. Pierre Poilievre’s success pitching an unapologetic conservatism has clearly irked many of those mesmerized by their own milder, hazier world view.
The strength of this spasm is hard to gauge. A group called Centre Ice Conservatives has formed to advance not only hockey clichés but “pragmatic” policies, while respected party veteran Marjory LeBreton – whose activism goes back to the Diefenbaker days over 60 years ago – asserts that Poilievre’s tone and manner might split the CPC along old fault lines. Old Progressive Conservatives would, it is implied, divorce latter-day Reformers. Such talk has been lapped up by the media, who never heard a conservative infighting story they didn’t like.
To paraphrase Barack Obama, it seems that for conservatives, the 1970s are calling. Which begs questions that go beyond the current leadership fight. What do these vintage arguments about centrism, pragmatism or even “progressivism” offer conservatives or other Canadians today?
What’s in a Name?
For most Canadians, “PC” might signal the brand of a large grocery chain or their reward points card or, less pleasantly for people of a certain vintage, the abbreviation for “politically correct.” At least in five provinces, however, it remains the abbreviation for Progressive Conservative Party.
The curious might wonder what odd confluence of Canadian politics saddled “conservative” with “progressive” – a concept usually associated nowadays with leftism. Isn’t that more than merely an adjective or adverb, but a contradiction in terms? Well, yes, as we shall see. The name derives from the 1942 merger of the old Conservative Party, the party of Sir John A. Macdonald and Robert Borden, with the federal Progressive Party. The latter was a relatively short-lived populist party rooted in the farmers’ movement of the early 20th century, with vanishingly little to do with “progressive” politics as we now know it. When Manitoba Progressive Party leader John Bracken became federal Conservative leader (though never prime minister), he demanded “Progressive” be added to the party name.
Fast-forward over 30 years and the Canadian elite consensus was steeped in statism. The grand schemes of Pierre Trudeau – official bilingualism, multi-culturalism, state control (and partial ownership) of the energy industry, even metrification – ruled the day. Progressive Conservatives, first under Robert Stanfield and then under Clark, often sought to out-Liberal the Liberals, which was no mean feat.
This was most apparent in Stanfield’s promotion of wage and price controls to combat the rampant inflation of the 1970s. Trudeau mocked this approach in the 1974 election, famously pointing to his audiences while exclaiming “Zap! You’re frozen.” The awkward Stanfield had no effective rejoinder. This, plus abundant Quebec votes, were enough for Trudeau to win a second majority, after which he promptly imposed Stanfield’s plan himself. Zap! You’ve been fooled again!
As discussed in this C2C article, Canada in this period produced no equivalent either of Barry Goldwater – the American Senator who mounted an unashamedly conservative presidential run in 1964 – or William F. Buckley, who became the philosophical godfather to at least two generations of U.S. conservatives. Nor was there any supportive infrastructure for Canadian conservatism prior to 1980, with perhaps two conservative organizations of any significance: the National Citizen’s Coalition (formed 1967) and the Fraser Institute (formed 1975).
Consequently, our conservatism remained a mix of traditionalists, Establishment or “Bay Street” Tories and conservative populists of different stripes, the first two groups supplying most of the “Progressive” conservatives. Some were slightly farther to the right-of-centre, some a little farther to the left, but virtually none operated according to, let alone publicly advanced, a coherent conservative philosophy of government. And no combination of these was able to consistently compete with the federal Liberals, who ruled for 52 of 63 years between 1920 and 1984. Except for brief interludes, notably the inspiring but erratic John Diefenbaker, conservatism at the federal level was generally powerless and somnolent.
This was not entirely due to lack of opportunity, for by the 1970s chronic mismanagement by centre-left and technocratic governments caused economic crises across the developed world, sparking the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions. In the dreamy Dominion, meanwhile, reaction remained muted despite similar economic woes. Brian Mulroney, winning an historic majority in 1984 by ousting the stale and unpopular Liberals, enacted few of the sweeping policies of his UK or American contemporaries. When asked about conservative ideology, Mulroney famously remarked that there would be “no litmus tests” in the PC party. This sounds magnanimous and open-minded, but in practise meant something altogether different.
Red Toryism Until Hell Freezes Over
By no stretch a conservative thought-leader, nor promoter of same, Mulroney’s “big tent” party was an unstable coalition of old-time Tories, western populists and Quebec nationalists held together mainly by Mulroney’s personality, “blarney” and skill at dispensing patronage (punctuated by occasional catastrophic missteps), plus the sheer desire to win for a change. Philosophical conservatives were viewed with suspicion or bemusement and had no positions of influence. Ontario MP Patrick Boyer, for years the flagbearer of a flat-tax approach to budgeting, was seen as something of a kook. Alberta’s Gordon Taylor, a long-time Social Credit MLA and minister, was considered a “dinosaur” upon becoming a PC MP. This moniker was liberally applied to any older conservative who wasn’t with the progressive program. The progressive Clark, by contrast, became Mulroney’s foreign minister.
It was as if Reagan and Thatcher didn’t exist and the passionate policy debates raging amongst conservatives across the Western democracies were unknown. At the 1985 PC national convention in Montreal, months after Mulroney’s staggering victory, the large convention rooms set aside for policy debates were largely empty. The sole noteworthy policy that was recognizably conservative – admittedly a big exception – became Mulroney’s dogged pursuit and promotion of free trade with the U.S., upon which he staked his government’s re-election in 1988.
Regional divisions more than ideology fractured Mulroney’s shaky coalition in the 1993 election, goosed by popular rage over imposition of the GST. When the votes were counted, the separatist Bloc Québécois and western populist Reform Party almost wiped out the federal PCs.
But that convulsion in “the regions” – whose intensity had been multiplied by another catastrophic miscalculation, the Charlottetown Accord constitutional package or “Mulroney Deal” – also set the stage for a realignment of Canadian conservatism. Perhaps 20 years too late, conservative ideas for the first time became preeminent in the federal arena.
This was apparent during the 2003 re-formation of the federal Conservative Party by merging the rump-PCs and Canadian Alliance. With the policy-driven Stephen Harper as leader, and prominent members of Ontario premier Mike Harris’s “Common Sense Revolution” government in key positions (plus the non-ideological former PC leader Peter MacKay), the new Conservative Party was different from day one. Note that one of Harper’s conditions for the merger of the federal parties was dropping the word “progressive” from the name. This was no coincidence.
The prospect of such a realignment was too much for Clark. He actually rebuffed Harper’s offer of the fledgling party’s interim leadership during the coming leadership race. After Harper won, Clark ultimately endorsed Liberal leader Paul Martin in the 2004 election, confirming what many had suspected all along: that deep down Red Tories prefer Liberals to actual conservatives in their own party. Clearly, ideology was at least partly responsible for this stunner. Quoted at the time of his defection, Clark said that, “I’ve seen nothing in the Stephen Harper-led party that on issues of human rights, like the environment, issues like bilingualism, issues like the nature of the country, this is anything like the governments Mulroney or I led.”
The legacy-PC suspicion toward, or sometimes merely ignorance of, recognizably conservative policy of the kind made mainstream under Reagan in the U.S. or Thatcher in the UK persisted well into the mid-2000s. A senior Harper cabinet minister – with over 20 years in “conservative” politics under his belt – revealed as much. Upon learning that the leader was a student of Austrian economics, he mused, “You know, I hadn’t heard of Hayek, but I’m thinking about reading some now.”
No wonder that in some circles it remains a live topic to question the utility of even having a guiding philosophy in conservative politics. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, old tropes about conservative ideas being unpalatable to the “broad centre” of the public persist. It’s time this stale analysis was put to bed.
Discussing policy with self-described conservative “moderates” has typically been an exercise in pinning the proverbial Jell-O to the wall. In attempting to probe why their views were indistinguishable from the Liberals (or NDP for that matter), a standard response was, “Well, I’m a progressive conservative.” Which should always, but rarely does, trigger the immediate response: “Well then, why don’t you just join the Liberals or NDP?”
A somewhat similar formulation still heard today is, “I’m a fiscal conservative and social liberal.” These sorts require gentle enlightenment that, writ large, such a party essentially limits itself to making the machinery of government run more efficiently, providing an improved fiscal platform for the Liberals to resume remaking society once they regain office.
The old fiscal conservative/social liberal chestnut also conceals a basic contradiction, pointed out by Harper. Namely, embracing social liberalism – whatever that might be – typically commits you to hefty state intervention and ever-more government programs, negating any plausible fiscal conservatism. And it’s also worth recalling that to some Red Tories, like Clark, gaining a thorough understanding of fiscal issues didn’t seem to matter either, making them just plain social liberals who feel entitled to govern.
More important, in the third decade of the 21st century, what relevance do terms like “progressive” and “social liberal” have? Taking the second first, issues like gay rights and abortion are off the table in Canada – despite the Liberals and NDP wanting to talk about them incessantly – so when ostensible conservatives say they are “social liberals,” which live issues exactly are they talking about? Is it euthanasia, further drug legalization, what? As for “progressive,” does this mean they buy into the whole post-modern, wokist mess? Of course, posing such questions typically leads back to the quivering blob of Jell-O.
It is still a fair question to ask: must political parties be burdened with ideology? Even if 70s-style “progressive” conservativism is in substance too far left, what about “moderation,” “centrism” or “pragmatism”? After all, one group of smart people – let’s call them the Red Team – could simply compete with another, the Blue Team, to solve problems on a case-by-case basis, using the facts at hand. This might fit the definition of “pragmatism,” a term dear to self-defined conservative moderates.
Googling “brokerage parties” produces the following: “Brokerage parties have no firm ideological position. They compete to deliver policies that meet the desires of the greatest number of the people.” Conceptually, this might describe the old Liberal/PC relationship in federal politics. It worked great – for one of them. The PCs were second banana in this relationship for at least 60 years, seeming to confirm that – if given a choice – Canadians would vote for real rather than wannabe Liberals. This reality prompted the ever-incisive Harper to summarize the Red Tories and moderates’ strategy as wanting to be “the Liberal B-Team.”
There are two schools of thought regarding the motivation of Red Tories. The first revolves around the question, do they actually have no guiding political philosophy? If so, that would mean they are “pragmatic” as they often describe themselves. Or are they, deep down, actually leftist but just don’t want to say so? While they have often insisted it was the former, their historical behaviour often suggested it was the latter. When faced with a simple test, like the need to make a quick policy decision, they usually jumped to the left.
Joe Clark’s behaviour is a case in point. Foremost was his visceral rejection of Harper and the prospect of actual conservatives driving the party bus. His own record in foreign affairs, which he views with great pride, is off on the left curb of the conservative road. While touting his efforts to strengthen the Canada-U.S. friendship, Clark boasts of how he deliberately disagreed with the Americans on important issues. These include, Cuba, Nicaragua, the authority of the World Court, Palestinian self-determination, and Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Liberal B-team, indeed.
There is evidence that the reflexive Red Tory response is waning. The Centre Ice Conservatives, for example, actually held a policy conference. It’s no mean feat to gather people in Edmonton in mid-August and squirrel them into a stuffy hotel for eight hours. The agenda consisted of fairly standard policy themes – the economy, defence, energy – with at least one social-sounding topic, “Growing a More Inclusive Canadian Society.” One panel discussed a practical item, “Growing a Strong Centrist Political Base in Canada.” Note the use of “centrist” rather than “conservative.”
Policy or Poilievre?
Reports suggest that despite the policy chin-wagging, the real issue was Poilievre. This also jumps from the Centre Ice website, which singles out (along with wokism) the sinister effects of “populist voices of the extreme right.” It asserts that these “loud and fringe voices” are malign, “creating tribal divisions over issues mainly long-settled in the minds of most Canadians.” What these “long-settled issues” are is not stated. How to bring down inflation? Whether to force everyone to be vaccinated for Covid-19? But clearly the spectre of unbridled populism is top of mind in these pages.
Tone is also clearly an issue. Without mentioning Poilievre specifically, former Senator LeBreton, who’s associated with Centre Ice, warns of “the dangers of divisive and excessive rhetoric” which fans the “flames of vitriol, grievance and anger.” Mustn’t get angry – the Bank of Canada’s in the very best of hands! There is some, presumably unintended, irony there given that LeBreton often waxes nostalgic about her first political boss, John Diefenbaker, among the most fiery and emotional orators in Canadian history. “Dief the Chief” delighted in excoriating the Liberals and exposing their perpetual corruption. He didn’t hesitate to call Pierre Trudeau a “Socialist”(One Canada, vol. 3, p. 360), a deliberately unspoken truth at the time.
Setting aside aesthetics, if “centrists” truly wish to advance conservative policies – and there is evidence they do – it might help to pause and consider what they are up against. One significant challenge is the dominant left/centre-left elite consensus. To which one might add “Laurentian.” It is in the obvious interest of conservatives’ opponents to make that consensus as close to identical with their political views and agenda as possible, simultaneously branding conservative alternatives as beyond the pale. Consequently, if conservatives mainly desire affirmation from the dominant elite and fear social shunning, good luck with implementing new policy.
Second, there is the persistent myth of the Liberals as a brokerage party. It’s in their obvious interest to brand themselves as centrists. But it isn’t really true. Yes, the Liberals almost 30 years ago adopted Reform Party proposals for fiscal restraint, though only under the greatest of pressure, faced as they were with Canada rapidly spiralling into an economic basket case. This was an exception that proves the rule, however, given that the Liberals have been dominated by leftist and often far-left ideology for over 50 years.
There is seemingly no government program, tax or state intervention Liberals don’t like, affecting broad swaths of society and intruding incessantly into private life. Just in the last few months, this has included the federalization of day care, crusading against disposable cutlery, and committing to the NDP’s state-funded dental care scheme. How can that go wrong? And their attitude toward Canadians has become noticeably more authoritarian, including through Bill C-11’s online content control provisions and the clearly needless imposition of the Emergencies Act, with its freezing of bank accounts.
Added to this are, it’s worth repeating, a legacy media hostile to conservatives and an often-intransigent bureaucracy. The latter is an added challenge for modern conservatives because, when the centre-left actively allies with bureaucrats and conservatives don’t, it has consequences. Recall that the bureaucrats at Global Affairs in Ottawa didn’t mob new Prime Minister Stephen Harper for selfies.
Which brings us to the fundamental question: what strategy is most effective when fighting a committed, ideological, politically and culturally entrenched, and ruthless opponent? Is it moderation, a soft tone and “pragmatism”? Or articulate and forceful opposition?
The Case for Winning
The proposition that genuinely conservative parties can win elections is stronger than the standard public discourse in Canada – including among many conservatives – would suggest. First, it has actually happened in numerous countries over a long span of time. Second, there is compelling evidence that conservative ideas can gain broad traction with the public, that a large cross-section of people might be inclined to vote for conservative candidates and that, consequently, electorates can be led in a conservative direction – if these ideas are articulated with an effective presentation by the right leader. Third, and this can’t be overstated, if your opponents and critics adamantly insist you shouldn’t run on conservative ideas, maybe you should ignore their advice.
Conventional wisdom often asserts that there is a magical sort of Bell Curve representing potential votes and that, accordingly, one must just seek to place oneself in the “broad middle” with the suitable mix of promises and inducements and the correct sort of appearance and style. The curve, so the story goes, approximates popular adherence along the Left-to-Right political spectrum, with the bulk of people holding “centrist” views. Finding enough votes consists merely of edging toward your opponent and grabbing a little more area under that curve. Just enough to win.
Not surprisingly, real people’s actual views are more complex. Opinions will differ along multiple axes, say from communitarian to individualist, elitist to populist, or favouring centralization versus devolution of power. And on many individual policies or issues, they are decidedly to one side, with only a weak bulge in the middle, or none at all. This defies simple placement of voters along a single left-right spectrum. Former Reform Party leader Preston Manning has made related arguments regarding differences across specific policy areas.
While the interaction of variables quicky becomes complex, electorally useful trends can be identified. For example, the federal Conservatives’ Patrick Muttart designed a successful micro-targeting plan for the 2006 election, tailoring specific policy proposals to individual societal groups which shared certain characteristics. During his time as a federal Conservative MP while in Opposition and later in Cabinet, Jason Kenney applied a different approach in engaging new Canadians, working to connect with their “inner conservative,” i.e., cultural attitudes more attuned to the CPC than the left-of-centre parties, historically considered the home for immigrant voters.
More important, there is increasing evidence that the conservative base is larger than commonly supposed. In his ground-breaking 2012 book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explored the psychological foundations of people’s political beliefs. Himself a liberal, Haidt was trying to help the Democrats figure out how to beat the Republicans more consistently. By delving into the moral and ethical underpinnings of political motivations, Haidt actually became more open to other viewpoints. Most important for conservatives was his conclusion that, based on six fundamental dimensions of morality, traditionalists and Libertarians had more potential public appeal than liberals.
Haidt also emphasized the stultifying effect of confirmation bias – hearing what you want to hear – which makes it almost impossible to convince political opponents with facts. How often have we all failed at that? Instead, he asserts that – message to politicians – one needs to first build a bridge of trust with others before being able to sway them politically.
Other psychological research links political inclinations to two of the “big five” personality traits. Jordan Peterson has explained how being high in so-called “trait openness” (simplified: willingness to consider new experiences) typically defines liberals, while conservatives are marked by a high degree of conscientiousness, as understood in this framework of personality analysis. The other traits – extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (not to be confused with eroticism) – appear to have little influence on political attitudes. This suggests that tailoring political messaging to the first two dimensions of personality might best help connect with broad segments of the public, building the trust that Haidt advocates.
This is further evidence suggesting ample room for conservative electoral success. The challenges are in communication, framing of arguments and just plain political savvy. But old habits die hard. Many are still fixated on the magic voter Bell Curve and talking in the language of our grandparents while shying away from anything that might appear “divisive” or tap into popular anger. Of course, based on Haidt’s analysis, if you’re a Red Tory and/or were weaned on the magic curve, you likely won’t be open to alternatives. So the challenge for movement conservatives is to build bridges with so-called moderates, at least those open to conservative thinking in the broadest sense.
The Challenge of Governing – A Conservative Compass
Philosophical grounding and policy smarts are also critical in governing. Unless leaders, ministers or staff have an inner conservative compass, they will be lost. Its guidance enables them to make judicious compromises along the way while always steering towards the original objectives until these are reached. Otherwise, how might conservatives govern? It’s the predicament of the car-chasing farm dog actually sinking its teeth into the spinning tire – what happens next? This question seems to bedevil many “centrist” politicians, notably Liberal Paul Martin, who began to flounder the moment he achieved his long-time obsession, the Prime Minister’s Office. One can’t help wondering whether Erin O’Toole might have matched or exceeded Martin in that regard.
While bridges to the moderates should be built, some markers must also be laid down. First, that the CPC will not be a brokerage party. Second, that there is an immense foundation of conservative thought, including Burke, Hayek, Thomas Sowell and Roger Scruton, among others, to provide much of the material for a Canadian conservative philosophy of government. Such thinkers are clearly not infallible, but their profound insights can guide the best public policy. It is because, fundamentally, they have a more accurate understanding of human nature and what works to advance society in an orderly manner than do our opponents. This understanding is derived from their knowledge and intuition but also, importantly, from the accumulated experience and tradition of generations. Of course, if you can’t tell Friedrich Hayek from Salma Hayek, this might not be obvious.
From this would flow a shared policy approach. Not just commitment to free enterprise, but a corresponding understanding that this means substantially reducing the size of government. It means acknowledging that faith-motivated Canadians have a place in the party – as even Jean Charest, to his credit, has said. Then there’s the “P-word” – populism – to deal with. The fact that the elite is dominantly left/statist-oriented should make the decision easy, but likely sticks in the craw of many “moderates.”
This also means that centrists have a choice. They can either accept the philosophical foundations of their party or do a Clark. No hard feelings, but one Liberal party is enough. Conversely, the new leader of the CPC must build bridges as well and treat moderates better than bluer conservatives were treated back when progressives dominated. Tweaking the Liberal playbook will not solve Canada’s myriad problems. What’s needed is a strong, coherent – conservative – alternative.
John Weissenberger is a Calgary geologist. His first-hand experiences reflected in this essay date back to the 1970s.
Source of main image: Shutterstock.