Guess who's endorsing Eric Hoskins in the Ontario Liberal leadership race?
The federal Liberals may have an unlikely ally in former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Roy McMurtry.
Last week, the former attorney-general of Ontario, who worked across party lines to help patriate the Canadian Constitution and create the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, endorsed provincial leadership candidate Eric Hoskins. And in an interview with iPolitics, McMurtry admits he would “probably” vote Liberal in the next federal election, too.
McMurtry, who went on to become chief justice of Ontario, said the Liberals have an opportunity to attract Red Tories — the fiscally conservative but socially liberal refugees from the Harper-era Conservative party.
“Those that I know are not very happy with the way things are going in Ottawa,” said McMurtry.
I rarely say nice things about Stephen Harper. Here is something very nice: Our badly coiffed leader has effectively flushed the Red Tories out of the party. There they go! Swoosh! In dumping the obnoxious qualifier "progressive" the PM has gotten rid of quite a few of the progressives. This isn't itself news. Back when the PC and Canadian Alliance merged nine years ago Joe Clark, in a surprisingly hysterical response, declared that the merger wasn't like a death in the family, it was the death of the family.
The PC dead-enders have mostly faded from view. From time to time an old stalwart gets interviewed and gripes, as Roy McMurtry just did, that the Harper Tories are a bunch of hang 'em high Rednecks with no concern for the poor and marginalized. This perception is based on precisely nothing except sloppy thinking and spending too many years taking the Globe and Mail seriously. The Harper government has stiffened some prison sentences, is planning on building new prisons to replace the system's aging infrastructure, all the while dramatically increasing social spending through the various transfer payment schemes to the provinces.
Clark, McMurty and the few remaining Red Tories in the Senate do not object to what the New Harperized Tories have done, not even to the party's occasional burst of rhetorical conservatism. Nope they object to the fact that Stephen Harper, Jason Kenney and John Baird do not begin every cabinet meeting with a prayer to the spirits of Tommy Douglas and J.S. Woodsworth.
Red Tories were never Tories. They were conservative progressives not progressive conservatives. Reading the interview with McMurty he bemoans that: “This (Conservative) government is not a progressive government." Really? We already have four "progressive" parties in the House of Commons (Green, Bloc, NDP and Liberal). Why must all five be offering slightly different versions of the same ideological gruel? Those on the Right understand ideological difference as part and parcel of a democratic society. Progressives don't. You can debate the fine details of how Leviathan works. Questioning whether there should be a Leviathan is as alien and revolting a thought as atheism would have been to Medieval peasants.
Those readers of a certain age, that is under forty, might be wondering why exactly people who proudly declare themselves as progressives insisted on joining parties with the name conservative somewhere in the title. The answer, gentle readers, comes in two parts: 1) Ambition 2) Political expediency.
Point one is easy enough to explain. In Ontario the Tories ruled for forty-two unbroken years. If you wanted to get elected you joined the Tories. If you wanted to rant against the injustices of life, and were unable to obtain tenure, you joined the NDP or Liberals. A similar phenomenon exists in Alberta today where you have a liberal premier pretending to lead a pseudo-conservative party, while the actual conservative have had to resort creating a new party and naming it after a flower. It's a very nice flower too but it would be nicer still if parties would label themselves properly.
Point two is a bit trickier. The old Progressive Conservative Party traced its origins back to the late 17th century English Tory party. That outfit, of which the current British Tories are a direct organizational descendant, believed in things like the royal prerogative and that society should be governed by a small Anglican oligarchy. In Victorian Canada Anglicans were somewhat thin on the ground, something that has become only more so as the decades have passed. Other religious denominations weren't very keen on letting the Anglicans have all the special favours.
As merit, capitalism and liberal democracy began to sweep the young colony, Canadian Tories found themselves increasingly marginalized. A clever young lawyer named John A Macdonald decided that rather than being conservative - meaning to conserve unearned privilege - the party should be progressive conservative. This was a term he used in correspondence at the time but was only added to the party's official name in the 1940s. In the intervening years the party would use terms like "Liberal-Conservative" instead.
What was a "Liberal-Conservative?" Basically someone who wasn't a classical liberal in Victorian Canada but still wanted to have a shot of gaining power. As industrial production replaced agrarian privilege the Tories, beginning with John A, decided that rather than trying to recreate the British landed aristocracy in Canada, which was doomed to fail, they would instead create a new type of aristocracy based on industry. This was the compelling political logic behind the protectionist National Policy. By creating a class of protected manufacturers they and their workers would have a reason to vote Tory.
Politically it was quite successful. The mere mention of free trade was political suicide for over a century. But times changed and people wanted more unearned freebies. Rather than just protecting industry from foreign competition, the Tories, after some initial resistance, dawned upon the idea of supporting the welfare state. Unfortunately the Liberals had already figured out this co-option strategy and were freely stealing ideas from the avowedly socialist CCF (later the NDP).
At the game of giving people free stuff they didn't earn, the Liberals were just better at it than the Tories. But rather than try a different approach, which would require risk and thought, it became the fundamental principle that the Tories would strongly support whatever the Liberals were saying, but in a slightly different way to provide the voters with the illusion of choice. This resulted in eight decades of only sporadically interrupted federal Liberal rule. The Ontario Tories were clever enough to have jumped to the Left of the Liberals early enough that the Grits were never able to capture the electoral high ground.
Canada's first actual conservative party dates from 1987 and the birth of the Reform Party. Whatever his failings, Stephen Harper has provided some political clarity in the muddled world of Canadian politics. That, sad to say, is something of an achievement.