Jack Layton’s legacy and our yearning for political civility

Posted on August 30, 2011 in Governance Debates

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TheGlobeandMail.com – news/commentary
Published Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2011.   Margaret Wente

On Saturday I went to Jack Layton’s funeral. I wasn’t inside the hall, with the dignitaries. I was in the public square, with the people. Many of them had brought their kids. As the pipers played and the honour guard bore the flag-draped casket into Roy Thomson Hall, you’d have had to be a stone to be unmoved.

“We came because we want to show that people around the country still believe in what he believes, even though he’s no longer here,” one young mother told me.

Some people think the outpouring of emotion over Mr. Layton’s death was excessive – and of course some of it was. But on the whole, I think not. Canadians of every political stripe yearn deeply for a political culture that’s more civil and constructive, and that can engage ordinary citizens in building a better country. Young Canadians yearn most of all. Over at City Hall, one of the chalk scrawls said: “Thank you Jack, for taking out the cynicism.”

If Stephen Harper gets this – and I’m pretty sure he does – then we could be in for a welcome spell of less rancour and more outreach. Mr. Harper’s sizable majority, along with the extraordinary fact that the entire opposition is decapitated, means that he can do pretty much what he wants. But unless he’s entirely deaf and dumb, he’ll try to take the high road.

Other politicians ought to pay attention too. The message is that you probably won’t get elected by promising to bust meth labs and bring back chain gangs.

A lot of NDPers believe that Canadians’ huge affection and respect for their leader will translate into even more support for the party. “The ground shifted in Canada politically,” declared Stephen Lewis, who used his eulogy at Mr. Layton’s funeral to deliver a full-throated partisan manifesto for bike lanes, wind turbines, peacekeeping and other touchstones of the social-democratic platform. As hundreds of people leapt to their feet in wild applause, the funeral momentarily took on the air of an NDP pep rally.

But I think Mr. Lewis is deluded. The country is no more inclined to embrace social-democratic policies than it ever was. A seasoned, highly gifted politician made the most of an extremely rare political moment, which will not come around again. The truth is that the party without Jack is in deep trouble.

Outside in the public square, it wasn’t the NDP manifesto that moved the crowds. Above all, it was the word “civility.” I talked to Ken Kwan, who was there with his wife and two kids, who were dressed in orange T-shirts. “I want my children to learn about hope, about love and about generosity,” he told me. “I want them to know what this country can offer.”

It’s easy to dismiss the saturation media coverage and the elevation of Mr. Layton to secular sainthood as cloying and bathetic. After all, outpourings of public grief, however sincere at the time, usually don’t mean much. People have a good cry and go home, and the world goes on pretty much the way it did before.

But not always. The grieving over the death of Princess Di, for example – with all its wretched excesses of cellophane-wrapped flowers and canonization of the departed – was a turning point in British life. It forced the monarchy to bend to the will of the people and become more responsive and more human.

Perhaps Jack’s death will improve our civic culture too. At least we can hope.

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