Wichita, KS

In honor of Canada Day, in the fine federation (though these days, in the eyes of a majority of Canadians, less a federation than an Americanized nation, or at best a “multinational” country) to our north, here’s an old post of mine, written soon after Stephen Harper’s Conservatives eked out a win in the federal elections of 2006. The only thing I would I would change about it is that it says nothing about George Grant, a tremendously important Canadian thinker and a vital link in the Canadian “Red Tory” tradition. Other than that, I stand by it all. To my old friends in Toronto, Happy Canada Day!


Recently I read a column by John Ibbitson in The Globe and Mail, written on Canada’s federal elections last Monday. I followed the contest between Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party and everyone else fairly closely, at least for an American; we have close friends in Toronto, and Canadian politics and political thinking has always interested me. But there was another reason why I followed the campaign news from Canada, one that perhaps only makes sense in the context of my relationship to the rather paltry political continuum which marks the limits of most politics in the U.S.: in Canada, there are Tories, and I wish we had some here.

Except that the Conservative Party in Canada today, though called “Tory,” isn’t really, at least not in the way I like to use the term. What am I looking for? I’m looking for Red Tories in the original sense–the noble, old-fashioned “conservative” mix of religion, egalitarianism, self-government and national populism, which goes back to Benjamin Disraeli and John MacDonald, and found strong expression in Canada through the Progressive Conservative Party of John Diefenbaker and Robert Stanfield. We don’t have Tories in the U.S. Oh sure, someone will occasionally pull the term out of their hat, but it has no real meaning in the overwhelmingly liberal (philosophically speaking) terrain of American society: the number of people who identify their conservatism with a need to protect social goods and promote social justice and virtue through local community and state action is vanishingly small. It’d be wonderful to be able to vote for such a candidate someday, and so whenever an election is called in Canada, I find myself watching the Conservative party, hoping to see someone flying my preferred banner. That hope is mostly in vain though. Sure, the Canadian Conservatives are a lot more comfortable with social programs than American “conservatives” are; it’s a much more “moderate” or even, in a crude sense, “socialist” party as far as that goes, and good for them. But for all that, Stephen Harper didn’t run and win his minority government as a Red Tory; the fact is, he barely ran as a Tory at all. The Ibbitson column I mentioned above explains why:

[Whoever wins,] the Canada that Canada is becoming will carry on. The immigrants will continue to arrive by the hundreds of thousands each year; hundreds of thousands of native-born Canadians will leave, or be driven from, rural life. The Conservatives cannot stop these exoduses. And so either Mr. Harper will continue the transformation of his party, seeking to infuse the urban reality of Canadian society with a dynamic conservatism–and yes, the two can co-exist–or he will let his party and his soul become hostage to the resentful, rural redoubt that still lurks in the wings.

There is a posture of inevitability in this passage, which carries the assumption that “dynamic conservatism” is the only possible, respectful conservatism these days, the only conservatism that isn’t the refuge of “resentful” losers out on the farm. Of course, what Ibbitson really means by dynamic conservatism is the “conservatism” which has been polished into a bright sheen by Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. since the Reagan administration, if not earlier: that is, neoliberalism with some nice communitarian and localist rhetoric thrown in. It’s all about the suburbs and the corporations, tax cuts and law and order, growth and trade. The farm, the community, the nation: those are all well and good, but they need to be taught their place. And let’s not pretend that isn’t an attractive package! The majority of Americans, and with every passing year more and more Canadians as well, have embraced in practice (but perhaps more importantly in principle) a liberal and liberated and urbanized version of modern life, where commerce is quick and homes are interchangeable and borders are open and change is constant and the internet connects everybody anyway. What we want is our neighborhoods clean, our tax burden low, our civic obligations minimal and our government out of our business. Of course, for many liberals this would be the point where my analysis breaks down: a lot of the political muscle behind this “conservatism,” in the U.S. and, again, increasingly in Canada as well, comes from various Christian groups that have very strong opinions about how the government ought to involve itself in our (moral) business. Fair enough; certain elements of what might be called Toryism survive. But since for the most part they are not combined with anything like a genuinely populist and egalitarian socio-economic platform, the whole package of “dynamic conservatism” fails, at least in my view. But when liberalism–as expressed by both Canadian Liberals and American Democrats–mostly fails to make much of a communal or moral connection with the people (much less actually offer an alternative to the ideology of growth), all the people for the most part have left is the question of who to blame for high taxes and high unemployment and high crime, and the “dynamic” capitalists will always have a persuasive answer to that question, at least.

Yesterday, a blogger I frequently read, Laura McKenna, shared another one those stories she is so good at getting to the heart of: how her husband is being pressured to spend even more time at work and away from her and the kids so that he can “get ahead,” and how his boss wants him to carry a Blackberry–because, of course, there’s so much important work to be done that you really ought to make sure you can read the latest e-mails from The Man at any time of the day. A typical tale of high-pressure corporate life, you say; true, but also, as Laura notes, another bit of supporting evidence for her conclusion that “corporate life is the enemy of the modern family.” My friend and frequent antagonist Nate Oman takes exception to this conclusion: he’s no ally of those who embrace the “super-turbo-charged-24/7/365-at-the-office” ethos which characterizes so much of modern corporate capitalist practice, but doesn’t think the Blackberry supports such–on the contrary, he sees the Blackberry, and the world of constant and interchangeable information which it is just one very small part of, as a triumph of networks over hierarchy, a liberation of energy and activity (and time) which has torn apart the old socio-economic contract in favor of a much more meritocratic one. He admits that “a reward system based on results” is more competitive, less secure, and less forgiving that the old system, but as it is also more “flexible,” perhaps it is, ultimately, even more friendly to families than all that came before.

The modern world is, practically by definition, a flexible one. As political revolution, social atomization, and technological innovation makes for ever more options and opportunities, all we individuals want is to be better able to respond to it, to go with its flow, to bend with it. The old Red Tory idea–and it’s not just theirs; it’s an idea that existed at the heart of practically every serious populist or egalitarian movement of the past three hundred years–was that, of course, we need flexibility….but we also need to make sure everyone is guaranteed a place, a home, a society, a space beyond the pace of the market, wherein they can put down roots and so be able to bend without breaking or being bowled over. No one who isn’t psychopathically libertarian can honestly deny this, not even the neoliberals who call themselves “conservative” today. And so in America the Republicans associate themselves with the religious right, and at least manage to keep various family values issues on the table; and the Democrats (despite the wishes of some of their big-city blue-state mandarins) keep trying to keep farmers and unions and those concerned about consequences of globalization politically viable. And in Canada, the Liberals rightly defend their country’s attempt to make health care a duty of the whole; while across the aisle at least the Conservative government will presumably put a stop (for a while, anyway) to now ex-Prime Minister Paul Martin’s desperate last-minute promise to get rid of the “notwithstanding” clause in the Canadian constitution–supposedly a threat to rights of individual Canadians everywhere but in fact one of the truly and admirably localist (or at least regionalist) aspects of Canadian politics. So yes, there are still options for populists out there; some good compromises can sometimes be made, here and there. But for the most part, whatever their more superficial political differences, the way Nate sees the world is probably about the same way John Ibbitson sees the world–and, on the basis of the evidence, it’s a way of seeing the world that Stephen Harper has little problem committing himself to. I bet he carries a Blackberry.

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  1. Excellent article!

    As an avid Canuck FPR reader…glad to see some Canadian content….even if it’s only one day a year.

    Our Conservative Party leaves much to be desired…

  2. With all due respect to Mr. Russell Arben Fox I must disagree with him on a few points.

    The term “Red Tory” may have at one time referred to traditional Canadian Tories, but for the past 3 decades at least, it has referred to the element within the Progressive Conservative Party and now the Conservative Party that serve as the kept opposition to the Grits (the Liberal Party). They may, sometimes, invoked the principles of High Toryism, but they do so to support, not the traditional order of English Canada, but the revolutionary New Order brought in by Mr. Trudeau and his allies in the 60’s to 80’s. A member of the Conservative Party who supports the nanny state, the thought control campaigns of the Canadian Human Rights Commissions, taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand, same-sex marriage, and unlimited immigration, is a “Red Tory” today.

    Your suggestion that “egalitarianism” is part of Toryism is confusing. I can think of no sense of the term “egalitarian” that would apply to a true Tory. A Tory believes in a hierarchical, not an egalitarian, society. “Egalitarianism” would far better describe the liberalism masquerading as conservatism that you decry. By turning everyone into relatively richer or poorer members of a single class of “consumer” it has accomplished the old Marxist dream of a “classless society” far better than any attempt to actually institute Marxism could have done.

    I can see nothing admirable or “localist” about the notwithstanding clause. Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, allows both federal and regional governments to pass laws contradicting certain sections of the Charter but not others. It does not allow any level of government to pass laws that contradict official bilingualism, multiculturalism, or feminism. The parts of the Charter the government is allowed to ignore, are Sections 2 and 7-15. Section 2 includes such things as freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of thought, and freedom of association. Sections 7-15 include the basic legal rights of Canadians, such as the right to life, liberty and security of their person, the right to security against unreasonable search and seizure, the right not to be arbitrarily detained, etc.

    What is localist about allowing the federal government to pass laws that violate a person’s freedom of thought or which allow a person to be arbitrarily detained? That’s exactly what the notwithstanding clause allows the government to do.

    Having said all that, I am not a big fan of the current Canadian Conservative Party, or what currently passes as mainstream “conservatism” in America. I can see nothing conservative about globalization, open borders, and placing the interests of corporations ahead of families, communities, and the nation. I suspect, at the basic philosophical level Mr. Fox and I would be in close agreement about most of these things.

    Gerry T. Neal
    High (not Red) Tory
    Winnipeg, Mb.

  3. Thanks for the lengthy and challenging comment, Gerry. A few quick responses:

    [F]or the past 3 decades at least, it has referred to the element within the Progressive Conservative Party and now the Conservative Party that serve as the kept opposition to the Grits (the Liberal Party)….A member of the Conservative Party who supports the nanny state, the thought control campaigns of the Canadian Human Rights Commissions, taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand, same-sex marriage, and unlimited immigration, is a “Red Tory” today.

    I think you’re being a little hard on your home country there, Gerry, as well as on the current Conservatives, but basically I agree with you. Of course, as I said in my original post, there are no real Red/High Tories left, or at least hardly any. It doesn’t at all surprise me that the term has devolved to serve essentially as a description of socially liberal, “moderate” Conservatives; I’m saddened by the loss of a good concept, but not surprised.

    Your suggestion that “egalitarianism” is part of Toryism is confusing. I can think of no sense of the term “egalitarian” that would apply to a true Tory.

    If you mean by “true Tory” a supporter of the hierarchical, land- and class-based social and economic environment that held in pre-19th-century Britain, and thus the early years of Canada as well, then I would agree with you. But Disraeli and “One Nation Conservatism” changed much of that; there was a clear sense, at least amongst a certain cohort of conservative thinkers, that the preservation of national and cultural mores would require “labor and capital” to be more closely aligned, with the result that in Britain and Canada, “Red Tory” leaders advocated such egalitarian measures as trade unionism, job protectionism, fair (and family oriented) wages, and so forth. Don’t confuse all forms of egalitarianism with a crude Marxist kind of equality.

    I can see nothing admirable or “localist” about the notwithstanding clause….What is localist about allowing the federal government to pass laws that violate a person’s freedom of thought or which allow a person to be arbitrarily detained? That’s exactly what the notwithstanding clause allows the government to do.

    Again, I think you’re being a little hard on your country, though as one who lives there you obviously have a better grasp on the situation than I. Still, I have to confess that I am unfamiliar with so much as a single example of the “notwithstanding clause” being used to arbitrarily detain or imprison someone, or disrupt worship services, or shut down newspapers or websites, or anything of the like. My understanding is that the clause has been used almost solely for one purpose: to allow Quebec to maintain the linguistic flavor of its own distinct society by obliging local governments, schools, businesses, and other organizations operating in its borders to follow French-first or French-only regulations. And maybe I’m reveling a bit too much Quebecker sympathy here, but it seems to me that enabling a distinct group of people to exercise some control over their own linguistic/cultural future really is localist, or at least federalist, in a good way.

  4. Thank you for your response.

    I understand how you are using the term “egalitarian” now. I wonder though, if it is appropriate to describe the ideas and reforms of Disraeli and the original “one nation conservatives” as “egalitarian”. The ideal of equality was certainly in the minds of the organizers of the social revolutionary movements that were then developing across Europe. Conservatives like Disraeli (and Bismarck in Germany)had the practical motivation in the reforms they introduced, of trying to nip these revolutionary movements in the bud. Thus, while a lot of the reforms they introduced might seem “collectivist” or “socialist” by the standards of strict libertarianism, they were introduced, not to to bring about equality but to thwart those who demanded it and were willing to tear down the social order to get it.

    What the “one nation conservatives” were striving for, in my opinion, was not equality but a national unity, in which the classes saw themselves as part of a whole with specific obligations to the other, rather than as two sides in a conflict.

    With regards to the notwithstanding clause, the problem isn’t how the government has been using it, but what it allows the government to do. It allows the government to bypass everything in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that Canadians had already possessed as part of our basic prescriptive rights and freedoms under the Common Law, long before there was a Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

    I have no objection to Quebec’s desire to preserve her cultural identity. I wish English Canada were allowed to do the same. It is ironic, however, that the Bourassa government used the “notwithstanding clause” to protect Quebec’s language laws from the Supreme Court, considering that the Quebec government had refused to sign the repatriated Constitution (which incorporated the Charter) in the first place. To do so, they could not override the parts of the Charter about official bilingualism, which are exempt from the not-withstanding clause. So they had to use it to override Section 2 b which is supposed to guarantee Canadians “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication”.

    These very freedoms have been under vigorous attack by the federal and provincial human rights commissions in a campaign which started very shortly after the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was brought in. This campaign has progressed from targetting fringe groups like neo-Nazis, to targetting Christians, to targetting national media personalities. I’ll concede that the government agencies responsible have not had to rely on the notwithstanding clause yet. It seems to me, however, that the Charter, by taking rights and freedoms previously considered to be the inviolable property of all Canadians by prescription and turning them into paper guarantees which the government can override by invoking a single clause, has contributed significantly to creating an atmosphere in which these rights and freedoms are no longer regarded as sacred.

    Gerry T. Neal

  5. The notwithstanding clause was a noble attempt to reconcile some judicial review with the tradition of parliamentary supremacy. But it has failed, and no longer has much legitimacy in Canada.

    The problem with Russ’s defence of Quebec’s language laws is the premise that Quebec’s dminishing number of English speakers don’t have their own community. In the case that broke the notwithstanding clause for English Canadians, Valerie Ford, a many-generation Quebecker, posted a sign outside her shop saying “Laine/Wool”. For that she was vandalized and visited by the language police. She was charged and if she hadn’t either obeyed the law or got it overturned in court, she would have gone to jail.

    The Supreme Court of Canada are hardly free-speech extremists. They said Quebec could require French on commercial signs. It could further require that French be in larger type than any other language. But it couldn’t ban bilingual signs if the non-French part of the sign was in smaller type. (How much smaller was to be left to another case.)

    That was unacceptable to the purportedly federalist government of M. Bourassa, and he invoked the notwithstanding clause. English Canada howled, the Meech Lake Accord went down and Mulroney’s government never recovered.

    And rightly so. People should be able to sell wool, and call it that.

  6. Red Toryism is a tricky business it seems as in Britain David Cameron, philosopher Phillip Blond, and the Progressive Conservative Project are attempting to recreate the concept of a “one nation conservatism” that appreciates localism, the civic state, communitarianism, a “small is beautiful” socioeconomic vision while simultaneously supporting the natural family and traditional values. In contrast it seems the Canadian Red Tories (with the exception of the folks over at the Disraeli-MacDonald Institute for Organic Toryism) are socially liberal and embrace watered down socialism instead of a distributist view of economics.

    In the States the closest to a “one nation conservative”, “Red Tory”, or “progressive conservative” would be Russell Kirk and those who have followed his philosophy and example. Those at Front Porch Republic and Rod Dreher are also examples of American Red Tories I think. The problem is that those who embrace progressive conservatism in the U.S. are in the minority compared to libertarians, neoconservatives, and evangelicals. What needs to happen is for all all these Anglo-American-Canadian progressive conservatives to form a international network to advocate their principles, form policy think tanks, put out publications, and get their message out to the public.

  7. I moved to Canada about six years ago for reasons of family- I fell in love with and married a Canadian. Indeed, many times since I have wished that the United States had more red Tories. Honestly, Harper is more of a neoliberal himself; but he’s much more constrained by the parliamentary system than the neoliberals in the US. I will note that a few Canuck friends of mine still refer to Obama as a red Tory, but I usually let it pass without comment.

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