The Hinge of 1980 and Tomorrow’s Federal Conservative Politics

The Hinge of 1980 and Tomorrow’s Federal Conservative Politics.

In the era of Louis Saint-Laurent, 1948-57, the Ottawa parliamentary journalists were a boozy but deferential crew. They used to line up daily in a row outside 24 Sussex Drive, notepads and pencils in hand, in descending order of clout, with the Globe & Mail correspondent in pole position, and when Saint-Laurent emerged, the G & M man would ask him, “Do you have any words for us today, Mr. Prime Minister?” Sometimes, he would deign to provide a few; at others, he would merely sweep on to his waiting car.

In those days, even scholarly biographies about Prime Ministers safely dead were still discreet about their private lives. Juicier gossip circulated only among personal intimates, or among journalists quaffing after-hours libations. But a new age was inaugurated in 1963 by Peter Newman’s Renegade in Power, an entertaining and heartless portrait of John Diefenbaker and his government, which appeared not only when Diefenbaker was still alive, but would still be House Opposition Leader for another decade. Mixing psychological pontification and gossipy revelation, it was the first Canadian book of its kind, and provided the template for many later ones over the next five decades by writers like Jeffrey Simpson and Lawrence Martin.

Most such books are quickly forgotten, largely written for their political moment. The combined impacts of the 1965-75 arrival of the baby boom, and the two subsequent decades of pop culture hegemony by the television networks, alike created a synthetic reality in which there was no past and no future, only an eternal present. While the newer generations of journalists by then were all university graduates, many came from undergraduate studies in political science and psychology. Since so much of politics is about current events and opinion, the historical intellectual formation of leading politicians usually received only cursory coverage.

However, there are some instructive lessons that can be learned from looking at the main personal influences on Prime Ministers in general; not those of the moment, but those that shaped them in their youth, usually about three decades preceding their arrival in power. Mackenzie King, for example, never entirely ceased to be an eccentric Edwardian. Lester Pearson was shaped by his experience of the First World War and the 1920s. Pierre Trudeau, after a youthful Quebec flirtation with Catholic political corporatism, drew his more enduring prejudices from French and British Marxist intellectuals he encountered in London and Paris in the late 1940s. Brian Mulroney drew on his own recollection of the Diefenbaker years.

In this light, the years from 1979 to 1984 now appear as a fateful hinge. The fumbling ineptness of the Joe Clark Conservative minority government of 1979 concluded with the loss of a Commons confidence vote, and an election that returned Pierre Trudeau to power one more time. He had shown his continuing attachment to Marxism in his approach to international affairs, but in domestic matters, his first decade in office had been preoccupied by the stagflation economy of the 1970s, and by the problem of PQ nationalism. However, in his unexpected last hurrah, he saw his last opportunity to apply what he had learned at the feet of Harold Laski at LSE in the late 1940s. He could at least apply socialist policy to the energy sector, to the fury of Albertans.

FIRA and NEP were, however, very rapidly revealed as disastrous failures. Their inherent difficulties aside, Trudeau’s timing could scarcely have been worse.. The 1960s wave of Canadian popular enthusiasm for economic nationalism had faded. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were convincing, not only many of their own citizens, but many Canadians, that a more lightly-taxed and deregulated capitalism was a better path to domestic well-being than state ownership. Worse, a dive in the world oil price took the schemes of Trudeau and Marc Lalonde down with it. Their statist policies in the end led to an actual increase in American ownership in the oil and gas industry. By Trudeau’s last years, the Royal Commission that he had launched to find a different economic course was reporting the advisability of something closer to free trade with the U. S., to which Brian Mulroney became a late but enthusiastic convert.

Stephen Harper, it is also worth recalling, was twenty-one in 1980, and was in the course of going through a double conversion. Once a young Ontario Liberal and Trudeau admirer, he switched to becoming an Albertan, an Imperial Oil employee like his accountant father, and a free-market economist policy wonk. He and other small-c conservatives could learn in detail about the failure of Trudeau statism in Peter Foster’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentices. Less often recalled, he and his politically activist contemporaries drew at least as important a lesson from another book of the time, Jeffrey Simpson’s Discipline of Power.

Simpson’s book above all instructed bright young wonkish conservatives about the prerogatives and pitfalls of Prime Ministerial leadership. Trudeau had fully understood the new political world, one in which the constant greatest threat to the government in power no longer came from the party opposition in the House of Commons, but from the media itself. He had greatly expanded and further empowered the PMO and PCO, allowing him to conduct something of a Divine Right quasi-monarchy, dealing directly with the public and sailing by Parliament and even his own Cabinet. The great secret was ‘discipline’ and ‘control of the message’. Clark’s complete failure in this regard did far more to damage his government than its policy choices.

Twenty-five years later, the lesson that Harper carried into his own minority governments was nicely matched to his personal temperament. He would create a Conservative government that would never again be made a media laughing stock, not by attempting Mulroney’s pursuit of consensus and somewhat unsuccessful cultivation of journalists, but by still further expanding and strengthening the PMO and PCO, and imposing a level of discipline and message control that would make Trudeau look like an amiable populist. Or to be more Machiavellian, he concluded that fear worked better than attempts to win affection. It is tempting to suggest that he may also eventually stumble, in his continuing Black Mass of the Trudeau years, by eventually making a return to the pure market ideology that was as firmly fixed in his own ideas thirty years earlier as Trudeau remained firmly fixed at the feet of Harold Laski, and try to do so at a time when unregulated capitalism has fallen into as much ill repute as statist socialism had in 1980.

This suggests a lesson for young conservatives today, small-c or large-C They may be already dividing themselves between ‘anti-ideological’ pragmatists and principled quasi-libertarians, a division that has gone on for a century or more. But both could learn something by looking at Trudeau and Harper together, and the 30-year time lag, and keeping a sense of historical perspective on the three decades that lie ahead. It is quite possible that, by 2040 or earlier, both the Canadian general public and the intellectual vanguard may have become as iiritated by rising Alberta as Alberta has long been irritated by Ontario and Quebec,, and equally fatigued with Harper’s dictatorially centralized control. The essence of true conservatism is a constant sense of history, including the realization that politics should be neither exclusively a matter of economic efficiency or equity, nor a mere rhetorically-shrouded opportunism. It should always recognize its obligations to the living, the dead, and the not-yet born.