First fix for the Conservatives — their psyche

Posted on November 7, 2015 in Governance Debates – Full Comment
November 6, 2015.   Andrew Coyne

“We got the big things right,” Jason Kenney was saying the other day. “We got the tone wrong.”

A lot of Conservatives have picked up on this theme. “It was very clear at the doors,” former international trade minister Ed Fast told the Globe and Mail, “that the tone and style of how we governed had lost the support of a large number of Canadians.”

That’s certainly true. It’s just not the whole truth. No doubt the Conservatives’ habitual secrecy, authoritarian excesses and relentless partisanship gave people lots of reasons not to vote for them. But as important in their defeat was that they gave people few reasons to vote for them: not in the course of the campaign, not in the years that led to it.

I’m not sure what the big things were that Kenney thinks they got right, but they mostly amounted to things they didn’t do: raise taxes, for example, or institute a national daycare scheme. Yes, they get points for digging out of the deficits they created, for cutting the corporate tax, and for negotiating several big free trade deals.

But in the main what characterized the Tories’ 10 years in power was timidity, mixed with inconsistency. They took few risks, invested almost no political capital, articulated no broad vision. Where they did act, it was as often as not by stealth: important measures would be found buried four hundred pages deep in an omnibus bill, or parsed from some throwaway remark by the prime minister at a conference in Switzerland.

And with each about-face, broken promise or abandoned principle, from corporate subsidies to foreign investment to deficit spending, from the rights of MPs to the discussability of abortion to Quebec’s nationhood, it became harder and harder to understand just what principle or philosophy was guiding Conservative policy — other than blind obedience to the leader.

At its roots, this stemmed from a lack of confidence. Defeated in elections they hoped to win, Conservatives concluded it was not because of any failing on their part to persuade their fellow citizens of the rightness of their cause, but because Canadians simply could not be persuaded. So either they would have to be tricked, or their resistance overcome in other ways, but by no means could the party hold anything so dangerous as a governing philosophy, still less talk about it.

And from this void grew the darkness. People are inclined to be generous to others when they feel confident in themselves; they will be open about their plans when they believe in their purpose — and trust that others can be brought round to them as well. Not only is it not enough to change the tone, then. It’s not even the point. What has to change first is the Tory psyche. They have to believe in themselves, which is to say they have to believe in something.

So as the party begins a period of introspection, it should reflect most of all upon why it exists. It isn’t a matter of moving right or left, as if power were the only purpose and all that remained was to find the right formula for achieving it. It’s a matter, rather, of asking: To what purpose is power to be put? More broadly, in power or out, how can they make themselves useful to Canadians?

I do not think this requires a great deal of frantic reinvention; only rediscovery. Beyond holding the government to account and readying itself as an alternative, the task of any party in opposition, there is a specifically conservative tradition in Canadian politics that is still worthy of representation.

By “conservative,” of course, I mean “conservatively liberal,” for we are all, right or left, inheritors of the Western liberal tradition. And while there are divisions within the conservative strain of that tradition, what unites them, it seems to me, is a belief in the need to limit arbitrary power.

The Burkean might put more emphasis on the constraining wisdom of tradition, the libertarian might stress individual choice and autonomy, but what is common to both is an unwillingness to assign great or discretionary power to some over others: whether such power is concentrated in state or private hands, whether its purposes are malign or benign — perhaps especially if its purposes are benign, for people do the worst things for the best reasons.

The Western tradition therefore looks for ways to limit and disperse power, to contain and channel it — whether by the rule of law, the scrutiny of Parliament and a free press, the dictates of convention, or the competitive discipline of the market. I think these can be a starting point for a conservative conversation, not because liberals do not also believe in these things, but because conservatives will have their own particular way of expressing them — and because parties in opposition are always bound to be more interested in limiting power than parties in government.

I think in particular it provides a way to think about and talk about the market, not as the arena for unleashing private greed, as it is often caricatured, but as the vehicle for achieving certain social purposes — as, indeed, a social institution, whose purpose is to limit private power, and whose effect is to oblige us to be useful to each other, to make goods and services that others are willing to buy at prices they are willing to pay, to limit our use of scarce resources: obliged not by diktat but by prices and the availability of competitive options.

That’s pretty broad brush, but it creates a platform from which to approach more detailed questions of policy: whether to subsidize businesses, for example, or otherwise protect producers from competition and consumer choice, but also whether to price carbon emissions. And in all these matters a Conservative party that began from first principles might come to very different conclusions than a party whose only principle was power.

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