There is an old novel in which named political parties have disappeared. In their place are two broad groups: the ins (who hold office) and the outs (who forever campaign against the ins but never win). In Canada, one could argue that the ins of the twentieth century were the Liberals; the outs, conservatives of various sorts. Only periodically have conservatives been able to displace Liberals. And, they have done this only when they have been able to build a coalition across ideological lines that, in effect, unites a broad section of the outs behind them.
This is what Brian Mulroney did in the 1980s. His coalition was broad, including Bay Street conservative capitalist, western populists, social conservatives dismayed at Liberal support for gender equality, the welfare state, Charter rights, etc., Quebec “soft nationalists”, and Atlantic Canadian Red Tories, among others. Mulroney’s triumph was that he got this coalition to work for nine years despite the fact that these different groups of people don’t have a great deal in common, aside from their status as outs. Red Tories had little love of the Bay Street agenda; social conservatives did not see eye to eye with Quebec nationalists. Neo-cons were almost hyper individualists who maintained an unbounded faith in “the market”; Red Tories and social conservatives distrust the market and look to intervene in it for their own reasons ... and on down the line. Mulroney’s failure was that he could not transform this coalition of outs into a cohesive body. Ultimately, fractures on Quebec nationalism, free trade, social issues (like abortion and capital punishment), the democratic agenda so near to the heart of populists, scuttled the coalition.
Why is this a failure? It is not a failure just because the conservative party lost office. The Liberal party was out of office for nine years and in those nine years their commitment to their ideals did not waver. Intellectually, they responded to Mulroney coalition and its agenda with powerful re-assertions of the philosophical precepts underlying their policy agenda. Impressive bodies of work developed that defended the welfare state, multiculturalism, Charter rights, and a “progressive” conception of Canada. Liberals returned to office armed with a cost-cutting agenda but also armed with an ideology that allowed them to defend federalism, support diversity in society, accept advances in gay rights, and deflect the worst excesses of a waning neo-conservativism. In other words, the Liberals did not just get lucky in 1993. Indeed, their own political activism helped rip apart the Mulroney coalition. They were ready to take office. They had ideas and a vision of Canada that they could take to the Canadian public. You can like these ideas or dislike them (I’m no fan, to declare my bias) but that is what got the Liberals elected.
By contrast, Mulroney and his crew could never wield their coalition of outs into a coherent counter-vision of Canada: an alternative to the Canadian liberal project of nation. What held them in office was power. Disagreements will usually be blunted by the lure of power and one’s hold on it can soften most disagreements. What was the conservatives economic vision? Put Canada on a sound financial basis? If so, they failed miserably. What was their constitutional vision? A modified two nations? If so, they failed miserably. And, we could go on down the line. What is important here is that they did not fail just because they did not get their way. They failed because they did not convince Canadians that the had a vision of a future Canada that was worth accepting. By Mulroney’s second term, discontent was so rife it was ridiculous. The real problem was that Mulroney could not even convince disparate elements of his own coalition that he had a vision into which they should buy. Western populists rejected his efforts to accommodate Quebec distinctiveness and campaigned actively against it. Red Tories rejected his conception of continental integration and fought a civil war within Canadian conservatism -- that ended only recently -- against free trade. Bay Streeters were never willing to buy into the intolerance that seemed to come with the social conservative agenda.
Why write about this? Why tell us this history? Because this is precisely the same issue that Stephen Harper confronts today. Harper has been given an unusual opportunity. The Martin/Chretien civil war within the Liberal party combined with the sponsorship scandal and the intellectual exhaustion of the Quebec independence movement open up a space for the articulation of an alternative conception of Canada. (Personally, I would like the NDP to articulate that vision and I think they will have to, but that is the subject for another blog.) There is some indication that Harper and some conservatives (particularly provincial conservatives in Quebec) are willing to do this. Without some coherent ideal of Canada, some vision into which Canadians can buy, Canadian conservatives will be little more than a collection of outs held together by power. Their different and constituent basis of support of different sectors of his coalition will collapse into hostile factions. It might take a year, it might take three months, it might take four years, but it will happen if Canadian conservatism aspires only to “good government” and a “balanced budget” (to which, of course, all political parties in Canada aspire). This is the task before Stephen Harper, conservative leaders, and conservative intellectuals in Canada: they need to transform the Conservative Party of Canada from a collection of "outs" to a party tied to a social constituency that accepted a defined conservative vision of the country.
Will they do this? I don't know because the forces rending conservatism asunder are particularly strong. Moreover, the conservatives are vulnerable on certain policy areas where they shouldn't be, such as the environment (ideologically oriented conservatives should be able to mobilize the ideal of a collective public good that transcends individualism in support of an environmental policy that does not toady to big business). We have also, already, seen a break with the Newfoundland premier that will almost certainly cost the Conservatives their federal seats in that province in he next election. The real problem, however, is what a conservative vision actually means for Canada. So far, it is not clear but Harper seem to be assembling something akin to a go-easy liberalism and that, combined with the problems the Liberal Party is currently going through might be enough to keep him in power. I doubt, however, it will be enough (in the longer run) to satisfy the members of his own party.