Our Conservative Roots

I was thinking, as I walk around my neighbourhood in Hong Kong, about roots, because we have some very interesting tree root systems here …


… and that led me to think about our, Conservative Party of Canada, roots. We are, as many have said, a disparate lot: most recently an almost unnatural alliance of the socially progressive, big spending PCs who were, too often, hard to tell from Liberals, except for their lack of support in Quebec, and the Reform Party which was, in itself, an uneasy 86032_138526alliance of fiscal hawks who had abandoned the Progressive Conservatives and the populist, social conservatives who formed the core of many prairie populist movements.  Somehow ~ and it does, now and again, seem like magic ~ Prime Minister Stephen Harper bound the ill assorted pieces together and held them together by dint of his own political skill and his ability to beat the Liberals.

But, there’s more to it than that. We, Conservatives, were a coalition from the very beginning, in Canada. We were, of course, the Liberal-Conservative Party under Sir John A, reflecting the alliances formed between Ontario and Atlantic Canadian Tories and Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine’s moderate Parti bleu in Quebec.  This was in contrast to the Liberals who were formed by the Clear Grits from Upper Canada and the Papineau’s radical Parti rouge in Quebec.

(So Quebec has always been central to both Conservative and Liberal political success in Canada and it was Quebec that gave us our modern Conservative blue and Liberal red icons ~ which are opposite to the Democratic blue and Republican red in the USA.)

But our roots are not about terms, especially not about the words conservative and liberal. 7b99f29a-5d3f-4035-9eeb-2e0c71b00da2-1360x204043812Those words took on quite distinct meanings in 19th century Britain when Gladstone and Disraeli led the two parties and when John Stuart Mill gave the term liberal its proper, modern meaning …  although a load of intellectually shallow and lazy Americans, led by e.g. Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley Jr debased the term by branding Roosevelt and the New Deal both “liberal” and bad. Roosevelt wasn’t a liberal in any meaningful sense of the word and the New Deal was anything but liberal, but, Buckley, especially, was a skilled polemicist and liberal came to mean, in America (and, by natural extension, in Canada), a mix of progressive, secular and mildly socialist. Now, modern, 21st century, Canadian Liberals ~ the sort led by Prime Minister Trudeau are all those things, but they are not liberals. Prime Minister Harper was, in the best traditions of both Gladstone and Disraeli, a real liberal.

Our roots go much, much deeper.

It is always tempting to look for our roots in ancient Athens … tempting, but wrong. The 1392116349-223.jpg-pwrt3.jpg-pwrt3ancient Athenian “democracy” in the agora was, to be charitable, just mob rule, and the mob was incited, most The-Loop_Kevin-OLeary-Taxes_960often bought and paid for, by a series of loud mouthed bullies and celebrities ~ so, I can hear some of you saying, not much different from Canada and the USA in the 21st century, right? Now and again, Thucydides, for example, the loud mouth bully also had some brains trudeau-clown610pxand good ideas, but, more often than not they were just unqualified pretty boys and clowns.

The Romans gave us something a wee, tiny bit better: rule by law. But the Romans are, rightfully, often best remembered as engineers and they “engineered,” rigged, their political system to ensure that while there were, indeed, laws, to protect and serve the interests of the common people, the plebeians, the system ensured that no law could stand if it ever threatened the privileges of the patricians ~ Rome’s equivalent of our Laurentian elites.

witan_hexateuchThe first time we find something that I think we can properly claim as a “root” of our, modern, liberal democracy is in Anglo Saxon England where, somewhat haphazardly to be sure, a council, called the Witan, advised and constrained and sometimes even elected the monarch for about 400 years, until the Norman conquest. The Witan (members of the Witenaġemot ~ the “meeting of wise men”) were the first privy council, the prototype of modern, Australian, British and Canadian cabinet government.

Next, in Norman times, came Magna Carta, echoes of which can still be heard in our great common law. Magna Carta itself was not as important as two men who, in their turn, gave it life. King John had no difficulty in persuading the Pope to disallow Magna Carta but the Simon-III-3British barons actually went into open revolt and, first, William Marshal, acting as Earl Marshal of England and 10733regent for the boy King Henry III, traded Magna Carta for an independent exchequer, and then Simon de Montfort, acting for the barons against the grown King Henry III, forced Magna Carta and parliamentary supremacy on to England.

william_cecil_1st_baron_burghley_from_npg_2The next big step was taken by William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who was, de facto, England’s first real prime minister. Cecil never allowed the words first minister or prime minister to be used because both had been, from time to time, used by Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell and Cecil was highly conscious of the ends both men met. The title wasn’t put back into service until Robert Walpole, the great man, took it in the 1720s. But Cecil was Lord Treasurer to a weak and, relatively, poor queen, and he needed to prevail in her privy council and in parliament. He was a master political (and especially fiscal) tactician and he established, despite the opposition of his queen, that she ruled through her council (cabinet) and with the consent of her parliament.

51HpaX9RHnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Of course there is one titan of the history of liberal democracy, American, British and Canadian, alike, and that is John Locke who, in the late 17th century, provided the intellectual fire for the whole shebang. It was as much the (long dead) Englishman Locke as it was the Americans Jefferson and Madison et al who authored the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Jefferson used Locke’s own words, thinking, correctly, that good people of good will in England would understand the righteous nature of the American rebellion.

3d796db1-587b-4b83-b948-3074a8fe7e80_thumbnail_600_600The 19th  century, as I have mentioned saw John Stuart Mill and the Duke of Wellington and Gladstone and Disraeli and, here in Canada, Sir John A MacDonald. Then in the 20th we had giants: Laurier, Borden and St Laurent (who I think would have been a Conservative, today) in Canada, and Churchill, Truman, Eisenhower and Thatcher on the world stage. They all form part of our legacy.

Those are our roots ~ Anglo Saxon, English, British and Canadian liberal democracy, with a lot of American influences … they bind our country and our Party, too …


… and hold us together, safe and secure.

But all this really says is that our “values” are part of our root system … our values are parts of the tree trunks and branches and leaves and they are all nourished and sustained through our roots. I have said before that it is easier to say what we are against (misogyny and inequality, for example) than to enunciate what we are for, but if we pay attention to our roots they will show us what we are for. For over 1,000 years we have been “for” some sort of representative (and later responsible) government so that we, the people, and not just one big, rich, powerful, loud mouthed, bully who happens to be the king or lord protector or president can decide on how we are governed. For hundreds of years we have been “for” ever increasing equality between sexes, races and creeds; for hundreds of years we have been “for” equality of opportunity for everyone; both for the fairly simple reason that we have seen, with out own eyes, that we all do bettarmy-be_all_you_can_be2er, in every way, when we can all make full contributions … when we can, as an old US Army slogan said, “be all we can be.”

img_2935While, for Canadians, our main “tap root” and the big roots in our family tree are European* (mostly Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, English and British, but with large, vibrant French and German and Italian and Ukrainian roots, too) and Judaeo-Christian we also have newer, smaller, but fast growing Atheist, Buddhist, Confucian, Daoist and so on roots, too, and while they must, often, find their nourishment in rocky, unwelcoming soil they are all adding value to Canada. Not all new roots can survive. Some beliefs and social customs cannot be brought to Canada, but we have e.g. a criminal code to deal with that. In general, however, we are a stronger and healthier society when we have a large, complex root system to nourish us all.

We, Conservatives, need to embrace our roots, all of them: the big, old, deep ones and the newer, smaller ones that are trying to take hold in often rocky soil. We, the Party and the country, will be better for it.


* And yes, I am conscious of our First Nations roots, I’m just not sure how strong they really are.

6 thoughts on “Our Conservative Roots”

  1. Ted – You describe the evolution of Government, not the evolution of democracy. The examples you cite are examples of the management of the demos, the plebeians, the mob.

    If you want the evolution of modern democracy I argue you have to look to Jean Calvin and John Knox and the presbyterian system. Every other system relies on top down management with the managers trying to figure out how to manage the plebeians so that the managers can stay on top.

    The presbyterian system pushes ideas up from the bottom from the local to the regional to the national to the general with accommodation being sought at every level. It resulted in witches being burnt but not demonstrably more than the managers burnt.

    The problem is that the old “church” demanded adherence to The Truth, the one truth and the only truth. The problem arose when The Truth was contested. People broke away and believed The Other Truth. Then there were National Truths. But once you have multiple Truths then Any Truth is possible. Then My Truth is as good as Your Truth.

    When you look at the evolution of churches you find that over time they fragment until you reach the modern where the modern liberal (or is that the classical liberal?) all have their own truth.

    And that is the problem with the Conservative Movement – it is an amalgamation of classical liberals each with their own idea of what liberalism is. Just as they each have their own idea of what a deity might be.

    Arrayed against that disparate mob you have those that are adamant there is The Truth and they know who has it. They call themselves liberals, or progressives, but their impulses are ancient.

      1. I don’t disagree that the machinery matters a lot. The HOW is indeed important.

        My point is that until John Knox’s rabble imposed their will on the monarch, Mary Stewart, the flow had been from Top to Bottom. The difference between Knox and Calvin was that Knox effectively took control of a sovereign state, with defensible borders (most days), its own army and navy and it own monarch. Calvin never had those advantages. The most that he and Zwingli could achieve was local suzerainty within a city.

        Luther merely exchanged Rome for the local Prince but the governing dynamic was the same. Henry followed suit with the continental princes.

  2. I think that Cecil was “ruling” while Elizabeth “reigned” before Knox took Scotland from the Catholics. Plus, it seems to me that if you go too far down that road you end up with Max Weber and while I think he got the symptom right, “protestant work ethic,” I also think he mistook the cause: it wasn’t “pre-ordained” protestant beliefs, it was the underlying “liberalism” that made bot protestantism and the (quite separate) work ethic attractive. The Northern Europeans, especially the English, had been growing more and more “liberal” since about the 7th century.

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