Archive for August, 2011

Responsible Government and Colonial Independence


In the blog of August 22 reviewing the new journal The Dorchester Review, I make the argument that each of the British North American colonies became an independent state on adopting the principle of responsible government. In 1848 the colonies walked away from Empire. That’s John Ralston Saul’s contention. That’s mine.

Craig Yirush asks: “If independence was achieved in 1848 or 1867 then why was J.W. Dafoe (and many others) so concerned about our autonomy in the early 20th, and so happy about the Statute of Westminster?”

A good question! I do not have an answer.

You’ll find a good statement of idea the grant of “responsible government” would emancipate the colonies in John Beverley Robinson’s Canada and the Canada Bill (1840). Robinson admired parliamentary government, including its defining principle, “responsible government.” He is extravagant in his praise of it! His sole argument against its adoption in British North America is that it is not a form of rule suitable for a colonial dependency

There’s much more to say on the topic and I say some of it in “Durham and Robinson, Political Faction and Moderation,” in Ajzenstat and Smith, eds. Canada’s Origins, Liberal, Tory, or Republican? (Carleton Press, 1995). And see my Introduction to the new edition of G.P. Browne’s Documents on the Confederation of British North America (McGill-Queen’s, 2009), and my Introduction to the new edition of the abbreviated Lord Durham’s Report (McGill-Queens, 2007). Why didn’t the colonies drift away from Britain? 

And why isn’t Robinson’s argument part of our historical vocabulary today? My guess is that no one has been reading Robinson for years, except, no doubt, Ralston Saul.

We’ve lost much of our institutional history. That’s good news for some of you. There’s interesting work to be done.




The Dorchester Review

There’s much to like in this new academic journal.

By way of introducing themselves the editors say: “If the mandate of the Canadian Forum at its inception in 1920 was “to trace and value those developments of art and letters which are distinctively Canadian,” then the mandate of The Dorchester Review is very nearly the opposite. The nationalism that began with the 1920s centre-left has in some ways produced a narrowing effect on the country’s imagination squeezing out elements of tradition and culture inherent to Canadian experience that fail to conform to a stridently progressivist narrative.”

I enjoyed John Robson’s review of John Pepall’s Against Reform (University of Toronto Press, 2010). It’s entitled, “Don’t Mess with Parliament.”

I liked “Teaching History as Self-doubt.” The author is listed as “Rhetor.” Why do we teach history? “Rhetor” asks. Why and how? The objective is surely not merely to boost patriotism or inculcate ideas of citizenship. But shouldn’t it be something more than condemnation of past wrongs? The examples are drawn from British experience.

C.P. Champion offers a disappointing review of John Ralston Saul’s book, Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine and Robert Baldwin for Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadian Series. Saul argues that the grant of responsible government in 1848 released the British North American colonies from the constraints of Empire. Saul is correct. The parliamentary principle we call “responsible government” characterizes an independent state. Champion says, and this is true, that “There were anti-imperialists in the 1840s but contrary to Saul et. al, they lived in England, not Canada.” But dear friend, when we talk about “responsible government,’ we are not describing sentiment or political opinion, or politics. We are describing constitutional law. A regime that acknowledges “responsible government,” may decide to cooperate with the government of a foreign country or with an imperial government, just as our present Parliament of Canada may decide to cooperate with NATO or the Government of the United States. But, as all understand, the decision rests with Canada. Canada is a sovereign state.

Each of the British North American colonies that adopted “responsible government” became a sovereign state.

To repeat: we walked away from Empire in 1848 without war. There’s nothing “left-wing or “right-wing” about this notion. It’s a fact of constitutional law.

I intend to go on reading The Dorchester Review. I’m subscribing!

A New Defence of Hartz-Horowitz

In Canadian Idealism and the Philosophy of Freedom, C.B. Macpherson, George Grant, and Charles Taylor (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011), Robert Meynell acknowledges his debt to Louis Hartz and Gad Horowitz and concludes, as they do, that Canada’s political culture is deeply imbued with a salutary inclination toward socialism.

Hartz and Horowitz contend that in British North America John Locke’s robust idea of individual freedom was modified by a communitarian philosophy originating with the United Empire Loyalists; thus Canada, in contrast to the United States, has the potential to develop a strong socialist or social democratic party. (Gad Horowitz, “Conservatism, Liberalism and Socialism in Canada,” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 1966.)

(In other words, Red Toryism is Canadian, par excellence. Harper Toryism is not.)

The thesis was never well supported; it appeared at a time – the 1960s – when Canadians were losing interest in study of primary historical documents. But it had a huge readership and is still influential.

Meynell departs from his mentors in one respect. He draws his evidence not from history, but from the philosophical and political writings of twentieth-century Canadians, Macpherson, Grant, and Charles Taylor. It is a long, dense book, the work of years. No student of Canadian political thought should ignore it.

It’s angry tone is a surprise. Meynell is scathing on the subject of Janet Ajzenstat. All my books are flawed, he says. I make the mistake of looking for Canadian-American similarities. I should be looking for differences! To understand how, why, and whether we should love our country we must see how we differ from our neighbours.

His criticism of Robert C. Sibley’s Northern Spirits, John Watson, George Grant, and Charles Taylor, Appropriations of Hegelian Political Thought (McGill-Queen’s, 2008) is equally harsh: “[Sibley,] like Ajzenstat concludes that Canada is not substantially different from the United States and argues for the surrender of Canadian sovereignty to the global liberal empire led by the United States.” I was so astounded by this last assertion that I wrote Sibley. He denies saying anything that would allow such an interpretation.

He added: “The Hegel I value is the one who sought to balance the claims of freedom with the claims of community by means of institutional order. In any case I’m sure [Meynell’s] book will appeal to those nostalgic for a Canada that never was.”

Jonathan Kay on the Romance of the Tea Party

“In times of crisis, all societies instinctively revert to romantic backward-looking notions.” That’s Kay in the National Post, August 9, 2011, A16.

There is a religious strain in this instinct, he says. “It is imagined that the current trials result from the population deviating from some ancient revealed text, be it the Bible, the Koran, or the U.S. Constitution. This is why at Tea Party events, there is such a strong correlation between religious Christianity and fiscal conservatism: The small-government pastoral frontier society of America’s formative years is idealized as a sort of Eden.”

You can hear him chuckling. “The idea that an 18th century-style social contract can cure America of its 21th century ills is attractive in the way that all romantic political ideologies seem attractive in turbulent times.”

Well, call me a romantic. I’m a fan of that 18th century social-contract philosophy. In my opinion it is one of America’s strengths that Right, Left, or Tea Party, Americans still pay attention to it. And for goodness sakes! What is wrong with scouring old texts for political ideas? People still read Mill, Marx, Confucius, Cicero, and Aristotle. I hope they always will.

It isn’t the backwardness of the argument that most bothers Kay. It’s the religiosity. He is staggered by the idea that Tea Partiers consult religious texts on political matters. “Some conservative Christian activists even blur the line between the Constitution and the Bible by claiming that the latter inspired the former.”

Dear Jonathan, for decades now scholars have been investigating the idea that intellectuals of the European Enlightenment looked positively on the arguments for human equality and dignity in the Bible, and drew from the Old Testament ideas about ways to hold kings and judges to account. The simplistic idea that the Enlightenment rejected the Bible tout court is not universally accepted.

I found in my mail recently a notice from the medieval studies workshop at University of Chicago. Thy are accepting proposals for a session at the 47th International Congress on Medieval Studies, to be entitled: Christian Hebraism in the Middle Ages. The notice continues: Scholarship on Christian Hebraism (the Christian study of the Hebrew language and Jewish texts, including the Old Testament) generally focuses on the Church Fathers or European intellectuals of the 17-18th centuries. This panel seeks to reevaluate the state of Hebrew learning in the medieval Christian world.