No words so sad as might have been:
Clark, then a backbench Tory MP, would not have contested the leadership if Lougheed, by that time Alberta’s premier, had wanted the job. As it was, Clark won the next federal election, in 1979, albeit with a minority. With Lougheed as leader, the Conservatives would have almost certainly have elected a majority government.
The history of the 1980s would have been different. Surely, there would have been no national energy policy if Lougheed had been prime minister instead of Trudeau. But would the Constitution have been patriated? Would there be a Charter of Rights and Freedoms? With Lougheed in 24 Sussex, would Brian Mulroney ever have become Conservative leader and prime minister?
Tempting though it is to imagine a Canada in which Joe Who had never lived in 24 Sussex, we should not get too carried away. Peter Lougheed was a patriot and statesmen, he was also a Red Tory. In many ways his outlook was very similar to that of Bill Davis, his counterpart and near exact contemporary in Ontario. Both men believed in the healing power of government. The difference was that Lougheed believed in the power of decentralized government. The Davis vision of Canada was intervention run from Toronto and Ottawa. The Lougheed vision was intervention run mostly out of Edmonton.
The iron law of history states that important figures must be evaluated in the context of their times. Blue Tories, in the modern sense of small government quasi-libertarian types, were about as scarce as hen's teeth in 1970s Canada. Conservatism in its modern understanding, as opposed to old fashioned Toryism with which it partially overlaps, dates to about 1987 with the founding of the Reform Party. The Mulroney years saw a more business minded version of Red Toryism, with some genuflecting to recently established Trudeaupian nostrums.
Lougheed, then, was the very best of a mostly statist lot. It is a sharp contrast that whereas Davis and Lougheed invested in long-term infrastructure development, their modern successors have squandered the recent prosperity through short-term vote buying. One can speak of a Lougheed Legacy and a Davis Legacy. Three decades hence it is very unlikely anyone will speak of Redford or McGuinty Legacy. Our vision has shrunk and so have our politicians.
While the success of Alberta has been written off by many, a disproportionate number of whom live in downtown Toronto, as a gift of the geological lottery, the history is rather less simple. Many of the natural blessings that fell upon Alberta also fell upon Saskatchewan. To have good fortune is one thing, to know how to use so well was Peter Lougheed's special gift. By contrast squandering opportunity is something for which the Saskatchewan NDP has always had an unrivaled skill.
Despite his considerable success in Alberta, four straight majority governments and a political dynasty that still stands, Peter Lougheed consistently refused to seek higher office. His view was that no political office allowed for a greater impact on the lives of ordinary Canadians than that of premier. The Prime Minister might get the glory but the power would rest with those who ruled the provinces. In that he was, and remains, correct. Something which the glory hounds in Ottawa should be reminded of from time to time.
It is a rule of Canadian politics that provincial premiers, unlike American governors, do not travel well at the federal level. Since Confederation not a single Canadian Prime Minister has ever held the office of premier, very few have even held any provincial level office. In the high precincts of Ottawa running for MPP or MLA is often compared to running for a condo board. Our provincial and federal systems run either parallel or against each other, our version of check and balance. There is no guaranteed that a Lougheed led Tory party would have claimed either a majority or minority victory in 1979.
Even before the battles over NEP, Lougheed had established himself as a defender of provincial autonomy. This would not have worked in his favour trying to win votes in the Ontario heartland that surrounds Toronto. It is in Ontario that national elections are usually decided. The primary concern of Ontarians in those days was national unity. Would they have backed so conspicuously Albertan a leader as Peter Lougheed? Joe Clark was enough of a non-entity to be an acceptable non-Trudeau in 1979. Yet even that low distinction was possible only so long as the PQ did not raise the spectre of a referendum. By 1980 the referendum was on the table and Trudeau was back.
Peter Lougheed likely could never have been Prime Minister. All and all that was likely our loss.