Toryism at it’s best, is in my estimation the best and least threatening school of democratic political thought. What? you say! What about those crazy fundamentalists? What about those heartless Libertarians? What about those oil mad Albertans? What about….? What about…?
Toryism is a broad based idea, just like Liberalism, and as such it recognizes the necessity of coalition building. It needs to be a BIG tent, one that any Canadian could proudly and comfortably park themselves under. Reconciling those groups is no small feat but Toryism has the advantage of being at heart a very pragmatic idea. It might be summed up by the old saying that “old boots and old friends are best.” Meaning, in other words, that in the absence of compelling evidence of a need for change, the best course is one of stewardship, consultation and incremental change of the two steps forward, one step back sort. This is hardly threatening stuff.
There is a long (and dishonorable) tradition in debating of taking the weakest or most extreme part of your opponents’ plan or argument, and using it to represent the whole of what is being argued against. When political parties begin to fail they begin to do this to themselves. If the Tories allow one of their core constituencies to define who they are – as has happened in the recent past – then the charges above will begin to have some merit. I do not think this can be said of Stephen Harper, who has broadened and expanded the Tory tent tremendously in a very short time. He united Canada’s right when the pundits said it could not be done. He has made real inroads in reaching out to Quebec, and I believe he will continue to do so. His victory speech last night gave every indication that that is the course he intends to pursue.
If I could give Stephen Harper two books to consider as he goes forward, they would be Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism, and Crunchy Cons, by Rod Dreher. A taste of the later can be found in this famous NRO article:
Boston College professor Peter Kreeft discovered this phenomenon a few years ago. Kreeft said he and three friends fit John Courtney Murray’s four American political types: radical, liberal, traditionalist, and conservative. One day, Kreeft, a traditional Catholic, discovered a close affinity with the Marxist atheist in the group. What did it was driving around Cambridge and judging everyone’s reaction to a new housing development the conservative Republican had moved into. It was clean, well lighted, green, and spacious, with attractive amenities.
Kreeft and his friend Dick, the radical, thought it was an abomination, because it was ugly and therefore inhuman. The conservative said the fact that they cared about how the place looked marked them as “artsy-fartsy,” but the traditionalist and the radical argued that beauty was one of the most important things there is.
Soon, Kreeft and his radical friend found out that despite the gulf that separated them on politics, they shared a number of areas of agreement (suburbs bad; nature good; big business and big government bad; small business and small government good). Kreeft determined from this that “beneath the current political left-right alignments there are fault lines embedded in the crust of human nature that will inevitably open up some day and produce earthquakes that will change the current map of the political landscape.”
The weirdest thing about this quote is that the so called Marxist thought aesthetics mattered. I mean, the Russian communists aren’t exactly renowned for their architecture. Didn’t they say that beauty was just bourgeois hangover? In any case, if our Marxist friend is alienated from consumer society and grasping for a means to articulate it, he should be courted by Tories. We ought to be a party that embraces people first and that regards ideology as a smorgasbord from which we pick and choose, and balance and counterbalance, in an effort to create healthy communities in which alienation, and not mere criticism, is minimal. The two things are very different. Alienation is the fruit of poisoned relations, while criticism springs from ongoing healthy negotiation.
The Dreher outlook is not well represented in the Tory party as it stands today if we are to look for a majority government in the future we will need to reach out to it. If we do that, I’m certain we can gain substantial support in Canada’s cities, where we had a tough time last night. Opening up the tent to this group could garner support from Liberals and, even more encouragingly, from the NDP. Whatever I think of some NDP policies, I certainly recognize the NDP as being (in it’s own fashion) an ethically charged party. We can and should appeal to that.
None of this is to say that Toryism has no principles at all. Toryism’s principles are not synonymous with free market economics or with full blown Christianity. It’s principles are healthy people and communities. It is built on nurturing harmonious human relations. A Tory government ought to be viewed as a safe steward and servant of those things, offering a mature and even hand to all. If we draw on economics or religion from time to time, it is because think they offer something useful, and not because we are zealots.
I said earlier that when political parties fail draw from a large base of support, it is because they allow one or more interest groups to dominate them in such a way that what had been a disreputable straw man characterization begins to become credible. They begin to become are parody of themselves. This clearly happened to the Liberals under Paul Martin. Long time readers will be well aware of the great antipathy that I have for his leadership skills. He may be the nice man that those close to him say he is, but he is no leader. He split his party against itself and lost capable supporters as a result. Even worse, he gave free reign to that wing of the party that currently goes by the name of ‘progressivism’ . In other words, he and the Liberal party as it stands today were the ones guilty of everything they were accusing Stephen Harper of – of being small tent extremists, unable and unwilling to reach out, to listen, and to accommodate real and respectable differences that exist in this country. Whatever the merits of ‘progressivism’ might be, they do not absolve Martin from blame that he stupidly narrowed the base of support in his party to the point that no longer represented people who once parked themselves there, but who had a somewhat different agenda.
I am, frankly, surprised that the Liberals did as well as they did last night. I had been hoping they might be reduced to near historic lows (perhaps 40 – 50 seats, mostly in the east) and that the Tories and the NDP would pick up the pieces. There are many reasons for this, not just the fact that I think Martin’s lack of principle deserved more of an ass kicking than it got. Writing in the National Post today, Fr. Raymond DeSouza wrote:
If it meant embarrassing himself with petty outbursts against the Americans, even after promising to improve Canada – US relations, he [Martin] would do it. If it meant allowing his chief of staff to negotiate tawdry deals to induce opposition MPs to cross the floor, he would do it. If it meant trafficking cabinet seats to win a non confidence vote, he would do it… And finally, if it meant conducting a near maniacal election campaign – disgorging smears, proposing constitutional amendments on the fly, playing fast and loose with national unity, and descending into a caricature of the man who will say anything to win vote – then he would do it in spades, and have the chutzpah to declare that this was an election about his values.
That people voted for this man’s party after all of that (and more!) speaks to our failure as Tories to provide them with a safe shelter from storms like this. Could you imagine Martin faced with a unity referendum? We must not allow ourselves to become a parody of our own selves, such that voters feel they have no choice, they have to hold their nose and vote for the only party that might listen to them. We must remain broad and not become so beholden to one group or idea that we begin to apologize for being what we are. We must banish the ‘small c’ apology forever; it is a blatant admission that we think the party as a whole is beholden to something we are not.
Tories must not take anything for granted now. Proceed slowly and confidently; I hope Mr. Harper will choose his cabinet and his appointments with care. The more broadly placed and articulate they are, the more that mainstream Canada will have a chance to become aquainted with what Toryism has to offer. We must play good defense and recognize that simply keeping the Liberals from forming the government will go a long way towards marginalizing their left wing and thereby shifting the debate on grounds favourable to us.
I remain a social conservative but one who knows that strong, tall trees grow from the ground up, and that government is not always the proper place to put all of our hopes and aspirations. Reshaping Canada’s political debates such that those two points alone are prominent and credible would be a big improvement on the statism that has been so prominent in post war Canada. That’s do-able. That would have a lasting positive impact.