Does that title surprise you? If you subsist on a diet of the media in Canada, it probably does. From headlines writers to pundits, the terms “Conservative” and “Tory” are used interchangeably. Yet they should not be. Indeed, if the Conservative Party in power does not (and soon) find its Tory roots and bring them to the fore, it will likely, at the next election, be replaced by the Liberals, to spend another long set of years in the wilderness.
I do not base this on any estimate of who might walk away with the prize (if that is what it is) of Liberal leader in the current race. Yes, the Liberal Party tends to focus on “who can beat our opponent” rather than “what should we stand for and why”. I base it, instead, on a different calculation: if the Conservatives insist on acting as though they are Liberals, then Canadians will choose to elect the real thing rather than a substitute.
So why would the Conservative Party act like Liberals? In large measure it is because Conservatives such as Stephen Harper are actually neo-Liberals. In other words, they, like classic liberals, eschew history and tradition in favour of using the levers of power to make — perhaps even force — change, with no real thought for the future even as the past is demolished to make way for “the new”. Pragmatic incrementalism, after all, may seem benign, but it says “the job isn’t worth doing” quite as much as anything else. Or, in the tenets of Liberals, “let’s try this, and then we’ll try something else” — or “throw a whole bunch of stuff out there and see what sticks”.
All of this is the stuff of process and power: it is not the stuff of reasoned reform or stewardship.
Toryism in Canada has long — since Baldwin and LaFontaine and the introduction of Responsible Government — been about a bond between the generations, respectful of the traditions received from the past and taking careful stewardship for the future. Tories are in favour of low taxes, so as to make it possible for private citizens to act freely, with as little distortion in their decision-making as possible, yet Tories also favour building a national infrastructure, to make action easier in the future. Tories despise deficits, as these burden future generations with the task of repaying the debts without benefit to themselves, yet will use debt prudently and in small amounts to achieve long-term goals. Whether provincially (education and health care come to mind) or federally (the national commonweal takes precedence), the notion of a people at peace with each other and defended from external injury, and with fairness in space and time, is the essence of a society of liberty, well governed, balancing the needs of the many with the needs of the one.
Our Tory roots, philosophically, go back to Aristotle, Aquinas, Hooker and the like, and differ from Tories of old in that we shed the notion of an élite (by birth, money or merit) with a claim on our governance. Liberals, paradoxically, believe that one’s “betters” ought to be in charge: it is the essence of managerial thinking.
If the Harper Government were a Tory Government, we would not bail out old industries: this penalizes everyone today and (if done by deficit spending) tomorrow and limits the opportunity to build new work in their place. (Gordon Campbell, Premier of BC and a definite neo-Liberal, nevertheless told the Legislature and the province last week these Tory truths: living proof that you can get to the right place even on the wrong road, but just not consistently.)
A Tory Government, faced with the current economic situation, would be pruning unnecessary programs — even whole departments — to focus resources on a few initiatives that would build for the future, not just prop up today.
A Tory Government, faced with the slowdown the globe is experiencing, would be putting citizens’ resources back under their control, through reduced taxation. It is through innovation and new initiatives that we will pull ourselves up and prosper, not by sucking the country dry for old, stale ideas and industries.
Do you think I am an idealist? It has been years since “Conservatives” swamped “Tories” in this country: Tories were an endangered species even when Bob Stanfield led the Progressive Conservatives. Still, Toryism in Canada offers hope on firm foundations, a hope that would see the Government likely to be returned when this Parliament draws to an end.
Conservatism — whether the arch “red meat” type favoured in some parts of this country, or the pragmatic “better quality of Liberal” type favoured in other parts (and on offer from the Prime Minister) — will fail. Gresham’s Law will hold: just as bad money drives out good, so, too, real Liberals will drive out ersatz ones.
I shall not be surprised to be disappointed as the next few weeks unfold. Still, one can hope.
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