It has seldom been easy to find a genuine conservative in Canada, but in the 1940s it appeared to the public that there was at least one specimen on display: George Drew, the lordly premier of Ontario, a friend of Bay Street and a hero to right-wing newspapers. Those who wonder about the future of conservative ideas in Canada should consider Drew's fate.
He certainly looked like a stuffy, old-fashioned conservative. In truth, Tories considered him a fairly progressive sort of Progressive Conservative but he came down often on the conservative side -- balanced budgets, a strong military, tax cuts.
Elevated to federal leader, he fought the 1949 and 1953 elections against Louis St. Laurent and the Liberals, with tax cuts among his promises. He twice received about 30% of the votes and then retired. His replacement, John Diefenbaker, became prime minister in 1957 partly because he promised to spend more money on old-age pensions than the Liberals.
The leader who followed Diefenbaker, Robert Stanfield, was a Red Tory on the traditional Maritimes model. His successor, Joe Clark, was an Alberta version of the same type. At the 1983 leadership convention right-wingers heavily supported Brian Mulroney, but in office for two terms he turned out to be a traditional big-spending quasi-Liberal.
Back in the 1940s one young Tory who disapproved of Drew's promised tax cut was Dalton Camp, later a much-admired political strategist and columnist. Drew and his friends believed that lower taxes would benefit all the citizens. But Camp sensed that the citizens weren't interested. And around this time he began his lifelong crusade to turn the Conservatives into a replica of the Liberals.
The voters, Camp believed, didn't want a tax cut. They wanted grants. They also wanted government contracts, protected markets and eventually, unemployment benefits as a social entitlement. In the two dozen or so campaigns he organized over the years, Camp did his best to demonstrate that the Tories, if elected, could provide all of these things more generously than the Liberals. Camp thought that Canadians liked big government and wanted more of it.
While people with Camp's opinions were taking the Conservative party away from people with Drew's opinions, historians in the U.S. were developing what came to be known as the Consensus School of political history. In the post-war, post-New Deal era, they were arguing that the whole country had become committed to the American Creed, a loose set of ideas that provided a frame for political debate. These ideas, Harvard University political science professor Samuel Huntington has argued, were the source and basis of national identity. "The consensus," he said, "is basically antigovernmental."
The American Creed sees government, while necessary, as dangerous; it must be limited. That view persists today, with the open endorsement of most Republicans and the reluctant acquiescence of most Democrats. It's a set of convictions that can be opposed, but only with difficulty.
Politicians on their happiest days exercise great influence, but their powers are seldom as significant as the consensus that underlies public opinion. Around 1940 Franklin Roosevelt overrode the American consensus, turning an isolationist country into a nation of interventionists. With the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Pierre Trudeau altered the Canadian consensus by ending the supremacy of Parliament and subjecting all laws to U.S.-style judicial review. These were exceptional acts by dedicated leaders. Usually, politicians adapt themselves to current attitudes.
The Canadian consensus consists of those views that sensitive, educated people assume will be held by other sensitive, educated people. Slowly, it evolves. In one era same-sex marriage appears an eccentric idea at best; 10 years later, the consensus having altered, the right to same-sex marriage looks so commendable that anyone seriously opposing it will be condemned for bigotry. A change like that emerges from, and expresses, the governing liberal/socialist consensus.
Not everyone endorses this collection of opinions; possibly it doesn't have a majority of the citizens behind it. But certainly it's the belief system articulated by most people involved in public life and the media.
It is the reverse of the American consensus. Articulate Canadians tend to be believe that Canada has always relied on government for its existence and that improvements in our common life are most likely to come through government action. We consider government supervision more vital than individual enterprise, which makes us into a nation of regulators. When something new appears in the world, the American asks: How can money be made from this? The Canadian asks: How can we regulate it?
We argue a great deal about which government should do what. Cities want more money from provinces, provinces want more from Ottawa, and Ottawa wants (but seldom gets) both credit and power in return for the money it collects from the public and then doles out to various governments. But these are essentially turf wars. They don't affect the fact that Canadians look to government for leadership in trade, the defence of national identity, the governance of broadcasting, and the regulation of just about everything else. We are "statist," a favourite term of the Americans that we seldom use. Being statist, we look for a party that agrees with us; that's one reason the Liberals, despite their scandalous behaviour, appear to be, once more, our party of choice. We know they believe in statism.
As a result, there's little space for conservatism. Reform, Alliance, etc., politicians may push Ottawa toward reducing the deficit and toward a more intelligent definition of Quebec-Ottawa relations. But these are quickly absorbed into the Liberal consensus.
In eastern Canada, even conservatives don't much believe in conservatism -- at least not for long. Mike Harris was twice elected in Ontario on conservative principles and implemented some of them. Ernie Eves, his most important minister, succeeded him as premier, developed a watered-down quasi-liberal approach to government, and soon lost power to the real Liberals. The Tories then picked a new leader, John Tory, a graduate of the Bill Davis and Brian Mulroney eras, who appears to believe that his party embodies liberal principles better than Liberals.
Stephen Harper, as federal leader of the Conservatives, has stirred deep fears in those who embrace the Canadian consensus. But his fellow politicians (including some members of his caucus) know that he's likely to change little and will do no harm to that collection of self-adoring notions we sometimes called "Canadian values." Still, Liberal and New Democrats are glad to see him denounced as an un-Canadian radical who will destroy great institutions such as the medicare system. In truth, he's begun sounding, on trade issues at least, more Liberal (thus more anti-American) than the Liberals themselves.
Apparently, Harper has become frightened by the idea that he frightens people. Discussing Harper in the current issue of the Literary Review of Canada, John Gray writes that "the man who began his political life eschewing the centre is now trying desperately to pass for a moderate middle-of-the-roader." Harper now tries to present himself a friendly, unchallenging fellow, as if he hoped we would forget his conservative past (as well as the name Conservative on his party) and accept him as a smarter, more efficient, more honest kind of Liberal. It may be that he's decided it's the Canadian way, the only Canadian way.