In the past 13 years, conservatives in Canada have endured an incredible odyssey. It’s a trip that took them from a successful national government based on a creative pan-Canadian coalition, to disintegration into two factions caused by a populist insurgency, followed by long years of stalemate that ultimately forced the belated recognition by both sides that national parties ”” not regional rumps ”” win Canadian elections.
Two books published this fall do an admirable job of documenting and analyzing this long voyage, and their titles hint at the pain and struggle that accompanied it. Full Circle: Death and Resurrection in Canadian Conservative Politics, by Bob Plamondon, and The Long Road Back: The Conservative Journey, 1993-2006, by Senator Hugh Segal, are as different as chalk and cheese.
Plamondon’s book is meticulous and detailed, and gains insight from extensive interviews with many of the main characters, including Preston Manning, Don Mazankowski, Peter MacKay and John Weissenberger. Segal’s is far more impressionistic and personal, the product of a passionate yet scholarly analysis informed by years as an insider both at Queen’s Park with Bill Davis and as chief of staff to Brian Mulroney.
In Full Circle, Plamondon breaks new ground in a number of areas, beginning with the inability of the Mulroney Conservatives in the late 1980s to take seriously the Manning/Reform threat in western Canada after the fateful CF-18 decision. He describes in detail for the first time the backroom negotiations that led to the deal between Peter MacKay and David Orchard to deliver MacKay the leadership at the 2003 PC convention. He also takes the reader deep inside the Alliance-PC negotiations later that year which led to the creation of the new Conservative Party: the choice of the emissaries from both sides, the ups and downs of the merger talks and the caucus management challenges the leaders faced along the way. And all of it is backed by colourful quotes from many of the key participants.
The Conservatives’ 13 years in the wilderness are perhaps best understood through the relationships among the key protagonists, and here Plamondon really shines.
Preston Manning and Stephen Harper: As Plamondon describes, the connection between the two was often difficult and uneasy, from Harper’s days as Manning’s policy adviser, through his troubled time as an MP, to the final break with his leader and early retreat from national politics in 1997. Throughout this period, Harper’s principal concerns continued to be the economy and taxation, while from the beginning, Manning added a social conservative agenda to his populist vision, which led to the Reform Party marginalizing itself with significant areas of mainstream public opinion.
The two also disagreed over the best way to win political power. As Plamondon notes, ”œManning’s vision of Reform had always been to ride a wave of popular discontent with the mainstream parties, win government, then realign the structure of political parties to be more consistent with the views of the common man.”
Harper, on the other hand, always believed that the populist, bottom-up approach had serious limitations, and that much more was needed. As he put it after becoming Alliance leader: ”œWhat we’ve got to do is turn this party into an institution. It’s too often been viewed as a popular protest movement or a regional fragment or a leader-centric vehicle or a coalition thrown together for a single election. I think the way to address that is to…build a permanent professional political institution.”
Peter MacKay and Scott Brison: Most people will remember the bitter MacKay-Brison Question Period jousting from the Martin minority parliament of 2004-05, but as Plamondon writes, the personal animosity between the two had deep roots. Virtually from the time of their election in 1997, they reserved their sharpest elbows for each other.
As if to foreshadow Brison’s later departure for the Liberals, Brison’s campaign manager told a key MacKay operative during the 2003 PC leadership, ”œI will never be in a party with Peter MacKay.” And of course, once Brison threw his support to Jim Prentice at that convention, MacKay was forced to make the deal with David Orchard to become leader.
Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay: As Plamondon makes clear, the ultimate reuniting of the Conservative family was never going to take place so long as another duo were in charge ”” Preston Manning and Joe Clark. There was simply too much history between them. Once they had departed the scene, it took the combined leadership of Harper and MacKay to recognize together that their respective parties had reached a perfect stalemate ”” the Alliance dead in the east, and the PC brand equally lifeless in the west ”” and sue for peace.
Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark: The final acts of the tumultuous 40-year relationship between the two former Conservative prime ministers are documented by Plamondon. While Mulroney played a quiet but vital leadership role in herding the conservative political cats toward reconciliation, Clark could not bring himself to sign on to the new enterprise.
As Plamondon notes, when Stephen Harper became leader of the united party, ”œClark chose to spend his last day as a parliamentarian burning his remaining bridges to Canada’s conservative movement. ”˜I would be extremely worried about Stephen Harper. I personally would prefer to go with the devil we know. I’m concerned about the imprint of Stephen Harper.’”
Plamondon closes the book with the lesson that every conservative should take from the past 13 years: ”œThe factions of conservatism in Canada run wide and deep, and offer a full range of conflicts, contradictions, and inconsistencies. If those factions choose to battle each other for supremacy, the conservative movement will lose every time.”
If the potential for fracture among Canadian conservatives is Plamondon’s closing, it’s also the starting point for Hugh Segal’s The Long Road Back. In his view, the centrifugal forces of the country are an enduring challenge for all national governments to master and subdue. While brokerage politics have always been central to national political success in this country, Segal notes how easy it is for the forces of fragmentation to take hold:
Atlantic Canada’s strong sense of grievance, the wealthy west’s sense of being put upon and unfairly excluded from the decision-making process, Quebec’s traditional objections to federal incursions into its area of constitutional authority, Ontario’s anxieties about the amount of federal tax collected and redistributed from its economy ”” all form the superstructure of complaint that defines our politics.
Segal’s thesis is that the successful Conservative prime ministers have all been adept at bridging those cleavages: ”œAccommodation between the English and French, between the different regions, classes, and interests is at the soul of the Canadian experience.” When conservative leaders fail in forging these accommodations, Canadians will always return to the ”œdefault” position and vote Liberal.
In Segal’s view, conservatives also face some other constraints to success, mostly self-imposed. Looking over 139 years of history, he identifies a number of points where a lack of competence and coherence, the absence of unity and a tendency to extremism, and the offering of simplistic solutions to complex problems limited conservative electoral success.
In contrast, he argues that the only two Conservative prime ministers to achieve back-to-back majorities ”” Macdonald and Mulroney ”” were successful because they bridged these challenges: ”œThe virtuous circle of coherence ”” competence and unity in support of a plan, and a plan and a set of ideas that require competence and coherence ”” was the key to seeking and gaining public support.”
The real value-added in The Long Road Back comes in Segal’s comparison of the conservatism of Margaret Thatcher, George Bush and Brian Mulroney in the immediate post-Cold War period, and what it meant for those who would succeed them. The central thesis is that the absence of an external enemy often creates the absence of a conservative policy anchor: ”œThe conservative world view very quickly became a philosophical framework that was not as concerned about ideological and totalitarian enemies outside the realm as about enemies of freedom and opportunity inside the realm.”
As the Cold War drew to a close, long-running conservative leaders were coming to the end of remarkable runs in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. Despite the significant modernization accomplished by Thatcher, the Eurocentric and Europhobic factions she could not moderate ultimately drove her from office. In the US, the first President Bush was brought down from within by the ”œBuchanan nativist wing” that ”œstarted a culture war that Americans never needed nor wanted.” And in Canada, despite the Mulroney achievements of economic transformation through free trade and tax reform, the result was the ”œpredictable massive public recoil caused by any tampering with taxes and by the neurotic nature of Canada’s relations with the United States.”
Segal ends his analysis with a homily on humility, which is really a tribute to the risks taken by Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay in ending the estrangement among Canadian conservatives:
The road to nowhere ”” guided by hubris, self-centredness, and ideological politics ”” was transformed, via humility, to a clear road back. It was humility that helped Harper call MacKay; it was humility that made the policy conference of 2005 in Montreal such a success; it was humility that made 2004 a partial election success; and it was humility that made 2006 the breakthrough that it was.
Both of these books amply demonstrate that if Canada is hard to govern, leading conservatives is an even greater challenge, and that the temptations to revert to incoherence, disunity, extremism or oversimplification are constant dangers.
As a wise man once said, ”œThose who do not understand their history will be condemned to relive it.” All conservatives who wish to avoid experiencing their own personal Groundhog Day should read them carefully.