I almost hear the Canadian Heritage music in the background as I write: the Canadian Red Tory is perhaps the rarest animal in the Canadian political landscape. Once the heart and soul of Canadian Conservatism under its champions George Grant, John Diefenbaker, Robert Stanfield, and David Crombie (among others), Red Tories were decisively defeated in 1983 with the triumph of Brian Mulroney first in the PC leadership race against Joe Clark, and then–resoundingly–in the rout of the Turner Liberals in 1984 and 1988.
The term “Red Toryism” persisted past 1983 but morphed to mean a set of policies that advocated fiscal restraint and social expansion. This new meaning attempted to provide nuance to the Canadian political landscape by showing the diversity within the old federal Progressive Conservative party and functioned much in the same way as “Blue Grits” did for the federal Liberals. In this way, the term was helpful insofar as it did describe a particular kind of politician–a Joe Clark say, or an Ernie Eves. It was singluarly unhelpful, however, insofar as it further banished from public memory what true Red Toryism was.
So what is Red Toryism? Here is my attempt. Red Toryism is nationalistic. Positively, it is proudly Canadian; more negatively, it is suspicious of the United States which, simply through the size of its population and influence, can simply ignore or dismiss Canadian concerns on just about anything. One could counter here that the Liberals are far more nationalistic–with their preference of the Maple Leaf over the Union Jack, re-patriation of the constitution, the Charter of Rights, and now overt anti-Americanism. (if you’ll allow me an excursus, it is an irony of Canadian politics that the most Anti-American Prime Minister oversaw the creation of this most pro-American document and thereby dismissed forever the tradition of Common Law in Canada). In fact, however, Red Tories can’t help but see Liberal nationalism as a facade. Liberals love the Canada they want Canada to become. This is not said meanly. The Liberal party has always been the party of “progress.”
This is not to say that Red Tories are the party of “regress.” Rather, it means that Red Tories do not see Canada as an idea or set of ideas in need of greater realization. Rather, they see a vast geography sparsely populated that is necessarily resistant to this very kind of approach to government. Canada’s population and geography are better suited, says the Red Tory, to de-centralized, local forms of government and business. “If a bank or business is too big to fail, it is too big to ever have existed in the first place.” This, I am told, is the new mantra of the Canadian left. It could just as easily be a Red Tory mantra provided we can add that this is also true of government. The federal levers of power, then, are to be used to empower those further down the government ladder. More power to the provinces, to municipalities, to local communities, who invariably know how to manage their own affairs. Red Toryism is a politics of locality and trust rather than of centralization and bureaucracy.
Third, Red Tories not only prefer local government solutions, but also respects and those empowers those mediating institutions of which I wrote in an earlier post. And this necessarily implies conservation. Red Tories believe society is best served by a government committed to conserving those institutions that need to be conserved against both market and bureaucrratic interference–guilds, unions, churches and religious communities, families. For these institutions not only do things that government cannot, they are necessary to the flourishing of local communities.
More can be said on each of these points. And I expect more points could be added. But I think I have written enough to show just how rare a true Red Tory is. I think–and I am open to correction–the last visible Red Tory “died” when David Orchard joined the NDP. And perhaps it is not that surprizing. It is hard to carve out a space in Canadian politics that resists the expansionary desires of both Bay Street and Parliament Hill. In the face of growing urbanization, an approach to political life that clearly grows out of Canada’s rural past.
At perhaps no other point in its history, however, does Canada need this rarest of political birds. For it truly seems to stand outside and opposed to much that is taken for granted across all three federal parties, which from its standpoint look very much like variations within an ideology, their relative closeness partially explaining the silly acrimony in the House of late.
So can the Canadian Red Tory be reborn? I hope and pray so, for the country will be better for it.