We took a motor trip back in time
A lot of really smart people have defined the Western Canon, most recently, the distinguished American scholar Harold Bloom. (Harold Bloom is not to be confused with the equally distinguished American scholar Allan Bloom whose “The Closing of the American Mind“ needs to be on every real Conservative’s bookshelf and, along with e.g. Mill’s “On Liberty,’ needs to be re-read every year or so.
I am neither as wise nor as ambitious as either of the Blooms but I said, a few days ago, that “what we need to do is to propagate, in our classrooms, in the media, our own narrative which explains to all Canadians what is (and what is not) acceptable conduct in our civil society. We need to affirm that our enlightened, secular, Anglo-Saxon, liberal democratic values are the “gold standard” for all Canadians and all residents of Canada regardless of race, colour or creed. We have to make it clear that all those who seek safety in Canada, who want to make new lives or or just seek temporary refuge, must adapt to our norms and mores; they must leave old customs and old loyalties and old hatreds behind … or they must leave.” I needed to stop and think about what that “narrative” is and I went off, for other reasons, on a short trip which took us into our, Canadian, past, into our, Canadian, Conservative, heartland and into the regional base of our Anglo Axon, liberal, democratic institutions and values.
We drove into Dufferin and Wellington countries and, in a way, we drove back 150+ years, back to the origins of liberal Canada.
It’s important to define words. John Stuart Mill was correct: real liberty, and, therefore, real liberalism relates to the individual and, therefore, is measured for the individual and against the collective, which includes society at large and the state. The fundamental rights, which I hold to be life, liberty and property as defined by John Locke in 17th century England and privacy, as defined by Brandeis and Warren in 19th century America, accrue only to the individual and are always limited by the state and the church and the university, trade union, military establishment, and so on. Institutions that propose collective norms and values are all, more or less, conservative ~ communitarian ~ and are dangerous to liberty. But we have spent 10,000+ years learning how to balance our desires for safety and security and community with our individual rights. Some of the rights we surrender are pretty minor – like agreeing that we will all drive on this or that side of the road ~ others are very basic, like allowing the state to take some of our property, in the form of taxes, for what it decides is the common good. But 99.99% of us are reasonably content with the basic trade-offs. We agree that a formed, trained, disciplined and managed police force and fire department are better than small bands of individuals or groups offering their services to the highest bidders. There are still a few “rugged individualists” out there, even in the 21st century, but for all practical purposes we, all of us, have made our peace with the notion of society and civilization and all that and all that remains is to, continually, negotiate the “price:” how much society do we want and how much of our liberty, property and privacy is society worth? We are, it appears, sadly, too willing to trade property and privacy for, especially, security and we are, equally, sadly, willing to take risks with the liberty and the very lives of some of fellow citizens in pursuit of some perceived “common good.” So, liberal ≈ concerned, primarily, with rights for the individual, to protect her or him from all collectives; and conservative ≈ concerned, mainly, with the needs and prerogatives of the communitarian collectives, including the church and the state, itself.
For a while, in the 1870s, when Canada was newly formed and Lord Dufferin was Governor General there was a quite clear distinction between Conservative and Liberal parties: the Conservatives did, indeed, represent a wide array of communities, protecting the rights and privileges of each group while the Liberals did try to respect and protect the sovereignty and rights of the individuals. Of course there were overlaps and contradictions ~ it was a Conservative, Peel, who finished Wellington’s work and repealed the Corn Laws and the Conservative Disraeli who, in the 1870, passed a series of very liberal measures of in the field of health, housing, sale of food and drugs, factory conditions and agricultural tenancies.
But English liberalism was doomed by the most pernicious of all conservative doctrines: Marxism. Karl Marx gave a very thin but ver popular veneer to the sort of socialism that had never achieved much popularity except in a few, minor religious circles. His doctrine took communitarianism to its illogical extreme and, eventually, it and Conservative policies (and the question of Irish Home Rule) crowded out liberalism and left room for the overtly Marxist Labour Party to stand against the surviving Tories and, at the behest of Big Labour, for the NDP to eventually, supplant the co-operative CCF in Canada. But while the Liberal Party died (in Britain) liberalism flourished in the Conservative Party in Britain and in Canada.
It is time to remind everyone that the world is a logarithmic place and the bell curve explains most things at least as well as any other model.
I reminded readers, some moths ago, that the bell curve pretty much explains political leanings in Canada:
70% to 90% of us are in or around the centre. Only a handful of us hold, again generally pernicious, hard right or left wing views. The 70% are, generally, socially progressive to moderate and they hope that governments are fiscally prudent, even though many often vote against their (and our) own bet interests when it appears that we are all being promised something for nothing. It is, probably, not too surprising that John A Macdonald and George brown, two well educated Scots immigrants, one the leader of the Reform (now Liberal) Party and the other of the Liberal-Conservative (now Conservative) Party, should band together to promote the Great Coalition which made Canadian Confederation a reality. They were both men of their times: broadly liberal in social outlook but, by and large, flint hard conservatives on money matters; but Brown was a true liberal, a modern Conservative, therefore, in that he was a free trader while, Macdonald was a true conservative, a protector of the elites and their interests, and, therefore, a modern 21st century Liberal in economic policy. But both were a ‘normal’ mix, for the 19th century, of liberal individualist and Scots communitarianism. The small towns of Ontario still reflect many of the values of the 19th century Scots.
Both Conservatives and Liberals faced a truly conservative force in the shape of the Parti National in Quebec which, after the Red River Rebellion of 1885 and under the leadership of Honoré Mercier, turned language and religion into continuously divisive issues. Despite the social and political divides between les blues and les rouges in Quebec both were united in fear over the fate of the French Canadian ‘race.’
French-Canadian nationalism, which, now and again, under e.g. Premier Maurice Duplesis and Abbé Lionel Groulx, went beyond conservative communitarianism and became downright fascist, was and remains the most powerful single conservative force in Canada. Hard, right wing nationalism was, in Quebec, often mixed with left wing statist socialism to form a strange, usually unsuccessful, mix of policies that were (still are) equally damaging to the fundamental rights and freedoms of Quebecers (and, by extension, of all Canadians) and to the economic health and well being of Quebec and Canada. And so, throughout most of Canada’s history, there has been a constant tension between the liberal-conservative centre, centred in Ontario and Western Canada, and the deeply conservative French Canadian nationalist/communitarian faction centred in Quebec.
I know these are not the ways many 21st century Canadians are used to hearing the words “conservative” and “liberal,” but that is because of the (incorrect) ways in which a generation of less than well read American commentators have used them. It is important, for my thesis, that we use them, once again, correctly ~ notwithstanding what many Americans think.
The modern liberal respects and promotes the fundamental rights (Locke, Brandeis, et al) of the individual against all collectives, including the state; most modern liberals are Conservatives. The modern conservative wants to promote and protect the rights and privileges of groups, large and small, and to restrict the fundamental rights of the individual; many modern conservatives support the Liberal and New Democratic parties.
More to follow …