The Meaning of Conservatism

Canada's conservative parties have been faction ridden over the past few years, with democratic populists from Preston Manning's Reform, economic nationalists led by David Orchard, social conservatives allied with Stockwell Day, Red Tories in the mould of Joe Clark, and tax and budget cutters associated with the Harris and Klein governments all claiming to be the true heirs of the conservative patrimony.
April 1 st 2004

Canada's conservative parties have been faction ridden over the past few years, with democratic populists from Preston Manning's Reform, economic nationalists led by David Orchard, social conservatives allied with Stockwell Day, Red Tories in the mould of Joe Clark, and tax and budget cutters associated with the Harris and Klein governments all claiming to be the true heirs of the conservative patrimony. Suddenly, these feuding groups find themselves thrust together in a new party shorn of any qualifying labels and adjectives, such as Progressive or Reform, but simply known as the Conservative Party of Canada.

With the new party trying to reconcile all of these internal contradictions, it's as good a time as any to ask what conservatism really means in the Canadian context. Canada's Liberals are equally rife with division and contradiction, having shifted their position on issues ranging from provincial rights to free trade over the years, and containing a huge diversity of views within their caucus and party. But the Liberals have been held together by a glue even stronger than ideological purity: the exercise of power. Conservatives, perennially in opposition, have had much more time to reflect upon the meaning of their creed.

Conservatism, as a distinct political tendency, can be traced back to the reaction to the French Revolution. Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France was a plaintive cry to preserve the old order of politics based on prescription and tradition instead of following the notions of "sophisters, economists, and calculators," who promised a more rational, modern form of politics and social organization but which Burke feared would lead inevitably to the guillotine.

From then until now, English-speaking conservatism and its political manifestations have been fundamentally Burkean—open to incremental reforms but resistant to the sweeping utopian visions of liberalism and socialism as remedies which may prove worse than the disease.

In Canada, the Burkean tendency was embodied in the Tories of Upper Canada and the Bleus of Lower Canada, who came together in the Liberal-Conservative Party of Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George-Etienne Cartier. If there was a touchstone of Canadian conservatism, it was a reverence for the British connection and parliamentary tradition and therefore a resistance to American economic dominance and republican politics. Canadian Conservatives opposed free trade with the United States (while promoting it within the British empire) and were unafraid to intervene in the economy through the Canadian Pacific Railway or Ontario Hydro. These large state-backed enterprises were seen as necessary to compete with the industrial might of American conglomerates.

This pro-British, anti-American theme remained prominent in Canadian conservatism down to the premiership of John Diefenbaker. His defeat at the hands of the Liberals over the issue of accepting American nuclear missiles was the proximate cause of George Grant's Lament for a Nation. Grant despaired at the possibility of building a conservative nation in Canada, suffused as it was with the pervading influence of American technology, which Grant believed to be a universal acid that would dissolve any conservative sense of tradition, religious devotion, or historical community.

As Burke's Reflections sparked a conservative political movement, Grant's Lament inspired a new generation of Canadian nationalists who sought to prevent the fulfilment of his prophecy of absorption into the American technological orbit. Nationalists were found in the Waffle movement within the NDP, among Liberals such as Mel Hurtig and Maude Barlow, and most recently in David Orchard's two bids for the Progressive Conservative leadership.

But while this revived Canadian economic nationalism was inspired by Grant, it missed the deeper wellsprings of Grant's conservatism. Grant's Anglican piety, his attachment to the British crown, and his admiration for the French Catholic nationalism of figures such as Henri Bourassa were by and large not shared by the nationalists who came after him. His left-leaning admirers did not understand his later vehement opposition to abortion and euthanasia, which he saw as manifestations of the same technological will to power that drove American capitalism or military adventurism.

Meanwhile, just as Grant was mourning the end of Canadian conservatism, in the United States and in Britain, conservatism as a philosophical and political tendency was undergoing a revival. Burkean politics found a new audience through publicists such as William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk.

The Reagan and Thatcher movements, while undoubtedly more technological capitalism than conservatism from a Grantian perspective, were indeed Burkean in their resistance to the Jacobin tendencies they saw in both Soviet communism abroad and welfare statism at home. The transcendent note of piety in both Burke and Grant was struck by American evangelicals as they found their political voice in the 1980s and in the struggle over abortion. Fitfully, the new Anglo-American conservatism came to have an influence in Canada through the Mulroney, Klein, and Harris governments and the Reform and Canadian Alliance parties.

Thus, both the most right-leaning elements of the Alliance and the most left-leaning elements of the Progressive Conservatives share an origin in Burkean resistance to modern utopianism—only they direct their ire at different targets. The social conservatives seek to preserve community from social engineering and uphold the sacredness of life in the womb and the hospital ward. The nationalist conservatives want to preserve community from American consumerism and defend the right to life of third-world farmers or Iraqi civilians caught in the crossfire of U.S. corporations or armaments.

It is an open question whether the new Conservative Party of Canada will have room for these Burkean concerns on either end of its spectrum. The Orchard supporters seem to have been driven out or quit, while social conservatives, so vocal within the Alliance, seem to have a diminished role in the new party. But between them, they are the co-heirs of the Burkean and Grantian traditions in Canadian politics.

Though it would be difficult on both sides, a conversation between the two groups could lead to a vision of politics that is much deeper than the bottom line, ledger-book focus of mainstream fiscal conservatives. But if the new Conservatives aspire not just to gain power but to improve the country, they should think hard about how to conserve not only the national treasury, but also our sovereignty, parliamentary government, cultural heritage, natural environment, communities, families, and the sanctity of life itself.

 

Mark Cameron is the Director of Policy for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Prior to that, he was the Ottawa director of the High Park Group, a Toronto and Ottawa-based public policy consulting firm.

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