Who’s A Conservative Now?

Reviewing Michael Ignatieff’s True Patriot Love in the current Literary Review of Canada, Ron Graham suggests that beneath Ignatieff’s Liberal Party convictions lurk “a Tory’s deference to authority, an accommodation of elites, a privileged perch in the Ontario hierarchy, an insider’s interest in the status quo, a casual disregard for individual rights and a jaw-dropping sense of entitlement.”

Well, let’s say for the sake of argument that Graham has captured Ignatieff. Could be. What caught my eye is Graham’s definition of Tories: deferential, privileged, careless of human rights, possessed of “a jaw-dropping sense of entitlement.” Is that what Tories are like? Conservatives? I know a few. I don’t think so. Not today’s Tories.

Here’s a short, happy essay on conservatism by John Robson, columnist with the Ottawa Citizen and policy analyst with Breakout Educational Network:

Those of us who think Canada needs more conservative, classical liberal or simply laissez-faire ideas have much work ahead of us. One problem, or two, is the feeling that whatever else they may be such ideas are un-Canadian. One encounters this in polemical form, and must be prepared to meet it. But it has an intellectual component as well.

In Beyond the New Right John Gray said that trying to repair old traditions “is, in Wittgenstein’s lovely phrase, ‘as if one tried to repair a broken spider’s web with one’s bare hands’” (it’s from Philosophical Investigations #106). It’s an appalling task. But trying to create one from scratch is worse, as much of the sad political and economic history of the third world testifies.

If we actually face that problem, of trying to create a tradition, well, tough luck: In the words of one of my favourite Herman cartoons, a pony express rider with three arrows in his back is told by his boss that “No one said the job was going to be easy!” As has been observed, you cannot cook roast beef in a washing machine regardless of how hungry you are and so you have to find a method that might work even if the odds are unattractive. The same is true here if these policies and ideas really are better, or indispensable, in building or preserving a good society.

If we conservatives really are aliens who have invaded the Canadian body politic, well, we know we mean no harm to their planet. But as a matter of fact, helpful in argument and encouraging in reforming the culture, institutions and habits of thought, is that Canada’s tradition is far more conservative, in the loose sense, than we are often led to believe today. There are in fact a large and diverse group of people (in its original form these remarks introduced a panel who advocated for George Brown, Harold Innis and Fr Richard John Neuhaus) who ought to be remembered better and appreciated more than they are as representatives of that tradition.

We who call ourselves conservative will of course continue to battle among ourselves over these and other figures. Some of us will deny that various parts of this legacy are conservative, partly because of familiar disputes about whether we must purge the classical liberals, the social conservatives, the religious right or the unreasonable reactionaries and their ideas internally before we can do anything outside these walls, and so on.

Whatever our differences we ought to have that debate in an intelligent and civil way. I take the liberty of quoting Samuel Brittan’s 1968 book The Bogus Dilemma, a particularly good libertarian attempt to rid the world of the left-right distinction: “The economically libertarian views of a Hayek or a Milton Friedman, or even of the non-socialist Keynesians, form no part of the English intellectual Conservative tradition, which is not the opposite of socialism, but something different. This tradition does have related to it a literature of great subtlety and quality. The key to this body of thought is that it originated as a defence against liberalism rather than socialism.” That sort of conservatism seems either unhelpful or harmful to some on the right, and indispensible to others. But I think we are much better positioned to discuss the matter, in good conservative fashion, once we have in mind real people who offered real responses to real circumstances as an anchor for our debates.

The three names above are just a start. Others who merit consideration and discussion surely include Stephen Leacock, Isaac Brock, General Wolfe and Sir John A. Macdonald, a conservative’s conservative to those like Russell Kirk who think this philosophy must reject dogma, and a nightmare to those who find most contemporary conservatives too unprincipled.

The debate is just beginning. But whatever we want to do we’ll be better able to do it once we know the truth which, with luck, will make us free.

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