Rafe Mair- Can the Conservative Party come back

Rafe Mair: Can the Conservative Party come back?

Rafe Mair- Can the Conservative Party come back
A young Peter MacKay (left) and Stephen Harper join forces in 2003

Can the Conservative Party come back?

Of course, but first, the Conservative Party must return.

Sound confusing?

It’s not. The pre-Harper party wasn’t remotely like his bunch. It’s not enough to get rid of Stephen Harper if you don’t also get rid of his party, which goes back to the Faustian bargain between Harper and Peter MacKay in 2003 when Canada’s version of the “Grand Old Party” was subverted then overrun by the Reform Party, a.k.a. Stephen Harper.

The Thatcher comparison

MaggieIt’s tempting to compare this situation to the UK Tories when Margaret Thatcher pinched the party from the “old guard”, but she was eventually tossed out by her caucus, while our version chose to go down with the ship rather than deal with their leadership problem.

Moreover there was no Sir Geoffrey Howe in the Canadian House of Commons to insert the dagger and no Michael Heseltine waiting patiently for the prime minister’s office key.

Mrs. Thatcher raised chippiness to an art form. Quickly gaining absolute control over her cabinet and servile caucus, she imposed her iherent nastiness on policy and thus on the people. In due course, the considerable good she did in the early stages was forgotten by Tories, including the grassroots, who just got pissed off with her.

Never having a whole lot to start with, Attilla The Hen, like Harper a quarter century later, had lost her common touch.

Again, like Thatcher, Harper had no respect for the House of Commons and the traditional and constitutional rights and prerogatives of its members.

Where, then, to look for the common touch and respect for Members of Parliament to act as an example for the survivors?

The Common Touch

How about the old aristocrat himself, Winston Churchill?

God knows I will not compare the two, but contrast, if you will, the attitude Churchill and Harper each brought to the PM’s office.

Let’s look at the Common Touch.

Winston Churchill surveys the damage after a German bombing raid
Churchill surveys the damage after German bombing

Churchill had every right to be publicly arrogant and uncaring about the people during the war years when he bore a burden unlike that of any leader in history. Yet after a serious bombing he would take to the streets in the East End which bore the brunt and, tears streaming down his face, and mingle with the residents who poured out to see him. At no time did Churchhill pretend by putting on overalls or trying to be what he was not; he looked like the prime minister he was, Homburg hat and gold watchchain, and the people who had just lost their homes surrounded him with affection.

They knew he cared – really cared.

During this terrible time, the House of Commons met regularly and debated the issues of the day. A number of MPs freely and fully criticized Churchill not just in broad terms but with details as to where they considered he was making serious mistakes. These criticisms were often nasty and came from bitter foes like Emanuel Shinwell and Aneuran Bevan. Without doubt, Churchhill could have brought an end to this but fully accepted it as part of the democracy they were all fighting for.

Then, not once but twice, came parliamentary moments of truth, Votes of Confidence, and here are his words about the first of those:

[quote]… I have come to the conclusion that I must ask to be sustained by a Vote of Confidence from the House of Commons. This is a thoroughly normal, constitutional, democratic procedure. A Debate on the war has been asked for. I have arranged it in the fullest and freest manner for three whole days. Any Member will be free to say anything he thinks fit about or against the Administration or against the composition or personalities of the Government, to his heart’s content, subject only to the reservation, which the House is always so careful to observe, about military secrets. Could you have anything freer than that? Could you have any higher expression of democracy than that? Very few other countries have institutions strong enough to sustain such a thing while they are fighting for their lives.[/quote]

Later in the War, speaking to an American audience, Churchhill said this: “In my country, as in yours, public men are proud to be the servants of the State and would be ashamed to be its masters.”

I am not suggesting that the Conservatives need find a Churchill to lead them, nor could they.

What they can and must do is develop the Churchillian attitude that ordinary people matter and that Tories are not, either by reason of their birth or status in life, superior to the people they serve. That one of Churchill’s lessons is easy to understand but probably very difficult for their sort to put into practice.

Learning from the Niqab issue

They can begin by understanding that the poor and the infirm of our citizens depend upon all of us as a society to help, without acting as if we were benevolent lords of the manor dispensing alms to the needy.

They must, as Justin Trudeau has demonstrated, treat all minorities and distinct groups of Canadians equally and with respect because that’s the proper thing to do, not because they’ll be criticized if they don’t. If the Tories don’t learn from the Niqab issue, they’ll be a long time in the wilderness.

Respect for Parliament

The Conservative Party was once the party of Parliament and extolled the rights and privileges attendant upon its members. I need not spend time telling you how under Harper they descended, with the cowardly consent of  caucus, into a reasonable facsimile of a tawdry dictatorship.

Certainly, in my constituency, one of the principal issues was the lack of accountability of our MP to the people. He wouldn’t ask awkward questions of the government or indeed utter a murmur of mild criticism of policies which clearly were at odds with the wishes of his Riding. I’m told this feeling extended right across Canada.

What seems certain is that the new Liberal government will be different. I was encouraged to see senior Liberal MP and Foreign Minister Stephane Dion quoted thusly in The Tyee:

[quote]We have been elected to change the policies of the country, but also to change the way these policies are decided – the process by which we may improve our democratic practices in Canada, our Parliamentary democracy and our democracy in general…a democracy that has been damaged over the last 10 years.[/quote]

Possible failure of the Trudeau government is all the more reason there must be a viable option available. It’s critical that our democracy return and that people believe once again that their Member of Parliament is important and not just a button to be pushed, from time to time, by the Prime Minister’s Office.

I might say that the NDP, as they re-group, might well apply Churchill’s lessons to themselves, since under the otherwise admirable Mr. Mulcair, they were just as cowed a caucus as the Tories.

Conservative reform

To bring back a Conservative Party that has a human face and heart, and cares once again for the parliamentary system is an awesome task. If my former MP is any example, the MPs left to the new Tory leader are unrepentant and brainwashed into submission. This is quite unlike the post-Thatcher Tory caucus in the UK which had itself turfed her out and quickly swung behind their new leader and won the next election.

Personally, I don’t give a damn what they do since, except for a brief period in the 70s when I was attracted by Red Tories like my friends John Fraser and Flora Macdonald, I’ve never supported the party and can’t imagine that I ever will again. It may be that they become like the Liberal Democrats in the UK and barely cling to life, leaving the Liberals in a position of covering the moderate right-wing and centre, leaving the NDP the rest.

That would be politically unnatural and sooner or later the Tories will return. To return to competitiveness, however, requires a complete reform of their attitude towards the public and our democratic traditions.

We’ll soon know whether or not the badly wounded Tories are aware of the essential political truths that Churchill bequeathed and, if they do, have the wit and guts to implement them.


About Rafe Mair

Rafe Mair, LL.B, LL.D (Hon) a B.C. MLA 1975 to 1981, was Minister of Environment from late 1978 through 1979. In 1981 he left politics for Talk Radio becoming recognized as one of B.C.'s pre-eminent journalists. An avid fly fisherman, he took a special interest in Atlantic salmon farms and private power projects as environmental calamities and became a powerful voice in opposition to them. Rafe is the co-founder of The Common Sense Canadian and writes a regular blog at rafeonline.com.

8 thoughts on “Rafe Mair: Can the Conservative Party come back?

  1. A point of interest that is valid – when Margaret Thatcher died people were dancing and cheering in the streets, chanting “the old witch is dead”. Quite a legacy for any former prime minister. I sure hope Harper’s passing won’t be celebrated in a similar manner.

    Good article Rafe – very enlightening.

  2. My response to your article’s title is, I hope not.

    However, I believe the plotting to regain government has been well underway for some time. The MPs who bailed, for whatever reason, the Moores and McKays and Bairds, I believe had seen the writing was on the wall for Harper and set about distancing themselves to await “the resurrection”, with one of them or someone close by playing the big guy.

    I believe snarky Ambrose will continue with her antagonistic attitude and may even enhance it, all to pave a path for the new, permanent leader to ride in on a white stallion, Pepsodent smile shining for all to see, syrup dripping from every word spoken a la that pretender over in Victoria.

    I also believe the total obedience was not only to Harper but to the folks Harper knelt to. I do not for one moment believe the Progressive Conservative Party can return. It doesn’t exist any longer except in the minds and hearts of “oldtimers” who soon will vanish. The new breed waving that flag carry none of the principles under which the party was formed and operated.

  3. We had a Canadian Government, than a Harper Government, now we got back our Canadian Government. To me the Canadian Government is a group of elected representatives under the leadership of the prime minister, who happens to be Mr Trudeau. I had my fill of the Harper Government. Please do not refer to this honorable institution as the Trudeau government. This is not fitting to Mr Trudeau and what he stands for.

  4. Rick is right and I didn’t make myself clear enough. I should have stated that there will always be the right wing base but the Conservatives can never win without the share of the Centre that has supported them in past victories. Unless they follow the Churchillian example, regain a common touch and recover there former respect for how parliament must run, they won’t win back the non ideologues they must have.

    This is not a new problem and this need is what gave rise to the Red Tories of the 70s that were both caring in fact and appearance and led by Speaker Fraser had a sincere love and respect for parliament and its traditions.

  5. The CONs still have their base.They will never become the Progressive Conservative party. They are not even the conservative party. They are reform/alliance, because for the most part that is who their base is. They’ve decided to continue on the journey that Harper was on and focus primarily on their base, in part because that’s where the CONs get their money from. Although when they do talk to Canadians they will present a milder tone along with better manners. In order for them to change the ideology that drives them Neoliberalism/ Evangelical Christianity they would have to go back to square one and start all over. They, more then anything would have to start talking and engaging with ALL Canadians not just the 1/3 who are their base. It would take courage and determination to do that. Watching them and listening to what they have to say, I have concluded that they are going to remain reform/alliance,continue to pander to their base and apart from changing their tone, they have no intention of getting rid of the goose that layed the golden egg, their base. They will try to win the next election by executing the same strategy that Harper did in 2011.The next time around though, they will not be the party in power, so they won’t be able to create deceptions like the Robo Calls, which also contributed to their 2011 win. For them to continue on as before, as if nothing has changed is what will keep them in the wilderness for a very long time. Democracy so beautifully explained by Churchill, is what CONs spent. especially in the last 4 yrs. dismantling. That same gang that assisted Harper in doing this to our country, never once criticized Harpers destruction of democracy mandate. In their total obedience to Harper, they sacrificed their independent thought and self worth. Finally I don’t think Canadians want them back. With their full attention on their base and the exclusion of the Canadian majority they don’t even operate as a political party. Their more like a cabal or cult. Thankfully now though they don’t have power. More then anything, under the CONs, it was our democracy that was at great risk. You make a really good point though in that having a healthy, credible, democratic opposition will keep the liberals in line simply for fear of them losing the next election.”Can the Conservative Party come back”? Only if their the Progressive Conservatives. Your post was a really good read.

  6. A wonderful piece, Rafe. I liked your lessons from Churchill.

    Rick, above, is correct that the right wing voters didn’t go anywhere… only losing 200,000-ish votes compared to last time. Amazing — even scary — support of a regime that deserved a good boot.

    I didn’t vote for Mr. Trudeau but I voted against the Conservatives. I wish the new government every success, which will be good for the country and help keep the Conservatives in a safer place.

  7. Come back? They didn’t go anywhere – don’t fool yourself with such false questions. The conservatives got the very close to the same number of votes they did last time (down less than 1%). Conservative voters didn’t change their mind or go anywhere. This time, FPTP didn’t work in their favour that’s all. This time, the Liberals got full dictatorial power with only a minority of voters, almost exactly the same minority as put Harper in control last time. New voters including substantially more natives than ever before and a large block of strategic voters in swing ridings (who will likely return to their Green and NDP voting habits) meant less seats won by Cons but no loss of his supporters.

Comments are closed.