Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Radical Tories A Generation On

At my local bookstore, I noticed that Radical Tories by Charles Taylor (the journalist son-of-E.P. Taylor, not the philosopher or Liberian dictator) has been re-released.

Taylor has chapter-length sketches of a number of Canadian intellectuals and politicians he lumps together as, in some sense, “red Tories”: Conservative historian Donald Creighton, Liberal historian W.L. Morton, Liberal senator Eugene Forsey, nationalist poet Al Purdy, federal Conservative leader and underwear heir Robert Stanfield, dimunitive Toronto mayor and Conservative cabinet minister David Crombie and pessimistic political philosopher George Grant. Only Crombie is still alive.

The tendency Taylor was trying to define is a bit vague: nationalistic, anti-libertarian and supportive of British North American traditions, but not particularly programmatic. Taylor writes biographical and journalistic profiles, not manifestoes, and he says little about the issues of that day or this. There is not much about Quebec separatism, concrete economic policies or the Cold War.

My favourite bit is when Taylor takes George Grant to Woodbine race track, where he says something incredibly pompous, much to the disgust of Purdy.

“Red Tory” was never a well-defined term, and it never described a particularly influential trend in our political life. It has come to mean the opposite of what Grant or Taylor intended. Today it is commonly used to refer to someone who has no trouble either with the global market or Trudeau’s attempted erasure of traditional English Canada, someone pleased both with Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Mulroney’s free trade agreements, a libertarian lite. Crombie fits in with this more contemporary meaning of red Tory, but there is little evidence that he (or Stanfield) ever wanted to take some doomed Grantian stand on behalf of “our own” against the twin evils of corporate capitalism and post-ethnic post-Christian “rights-talk” liberalism.

The one "practical" politician clearly inspired by Taylor’s book was the Quixotic David Orchard. Orchard took seriously the idea of an economically nationalist progressive conservatism, and he and his followers briefly had significant influence in the post-Kim Campbell pre-fusion Progressive Conservative party. Orchard will be remembered, of course, for agreeing to support the egregious Peter Mackay in return for his signed promise not to liquidate the PC party, a contract cynically negotiated with the connivance of Brian Mulroney and as cynically breached.

I found Taylor’s book interesting as a teenager, before falling under the spell of doctrinaire Marxism. I no longer find economic nationalism and statism particularly appealing. But I recognize something of value in what Taylor was trying to do.

As Grant recognized and bemoaned, we British North Americans always had a profoundly liberal, as well as monarchical and Christian, tradition. We cannot counterpose to the religion of progress – in either its libertarian or egalitarian guises – with the Syllabus of Errors, or some idealized, reactionary medievalism. Our tradition – like it or not – is one of commercial and personal liberty, of technological progress and of relative social egalitarianism.

But our tradition was not one of economic determinism, on the one hand, or a belief in the infinite malleability of human nature on the other. Our founders recognized that economic issues (best handled, they thought, with a mixture of internal laissez-faire and government-subsidised infrastructure development) could never be as destructive or as important as religious and ethnic ones. They did not believe that people would forego their particularistic loyalties, but they did think that those differences could be managed within a framework of British institutions.

Since Taylor wrote, what he loved has been bashed both from the left (in the form of multiculturalism and the Charter) and from the right (in the form of the Free Trade Agreement and the Washington Consensus). All of these can point to some roots in the English Canadian tradition. But the true believers in both versions of progress are united in their embarrassment at the remnants of that tradition.

It is pretty easy for what Taylor was sketching to fall into the traps of nostalgia, racial-exclusivity, retrograde gender politics and economic illiteracy. Equally, there are domesticated Canada Council/CBC versions of "Tory" nationalism that are virtually indistinguishable from Annex bien-pensant socialism. And the literalist political example of David Orchard is not encouraging. But I think there's something worth rescuing.

No comments: