Sunday, June 12, 2005

Belinda is right

Belinda Stronach is right: Canada needs a healthy conservative party. She is also right in believing that the present Conservative Party is not what Canada needs.

In a 2003 speech, Stephen Harper laid out his historical analysis of the conservative movement and made his argument for the direction to be taken. He distinguished between economic conservatism (essentially classical economic liberalism) and social conservatism—the latter deriving from Edmund Burke. Harper argued that, with the triumph of the economic policies of Thatcher and Reagan, and the collapse of communism, the battle for economic conservatism had been won; liberals and even those who still called themselves socialists no longer challenged the primacy of the market. What remained was the battle for social conservatism: the battle for a society rooted in strong moral values and respect for tradition.

Most commentators believe that Harper and the Conservatives are seen as “scary” because of their social-conservative agenda, and indeed this agenda, as it presently stands, is rejected by many Canadians. However, it seems to me that what may be a greater impediment to Conservative electoral success is the party’s economic conservatism. Most Canadians don’t want Thatcherite economic policies; they don’t want a slash-and-burn approach to taxes and social programs. But a political agenda that supports families and local communities, that is tough on crime, that demands an adequately funded and equipped military, and in general calls for greater personal responsibility in all areas of life, is likely to have wide appeal. Harper is right to point out that liberalism tends to focus on personal liberty to the exclusion of morality. He is right to recognize that there is a widespread hunger for a reinsertion of moral values into public, as well as private, life. Canadian socialism has always had a strong moral underpinning, and it is no coincidence that J. S. Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas were men of strong faith who did not shy from making morality central to their politics. But what democratic socialists have recognized, and what Stephen Harper and the Alberta-firewall crowd do not, is that the unfettered market tends to undermine the possibility of a moral society because it reduces all value to “the bottom line” (because, as Marx and Engels wrote, it drowns every other kind of value in “the icy water of egotistical calculation”).

This is not to reject a role for the market, but to recognize its limitations. What Canada needs—among others things—is a Conservative party that has its roots firmly in the Red Tory tradition: a party that recognizes there is a role for the state in helping the less fortunate in society, in promoting the general welfare through supporting education and culture (it was the Conservative Party that gave us the CBC), and in defending Canada from being assimilated by the economic and cultural forces of the USA. It is now forty years since the publication of George Grant’s Lament for a Nation. (Ron Dart has a summary worth reading.) It’s time for conservatives to rediscover Grant and traditional Canadian conservative values.

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