Not since the death of Wilfrid Laurier in 1919 had a leader of the opposition died in office. So the country found itself in rather a protocol void after the death of NDP Leader Jack Layton.
Mr. Layton’s political beatification, including his own testament published posthumously, was a mixture of the calculated and the spontaneous. Without the central tragedy of his death, at the moment of his greatest triumph and at the cruelly young age of 61, it’s doubtful the whole affair would have achieved the resonance and poignancy it did.
Other political leaders who had been given state funerals had died after leaving office, their political trails blazed and finished. But here was someone who, having laboured in the relative obscurity of leading a third or fourth party, suddenly found himself and his party where they’d never been before, except perhaps in their dreams.
NDP strategists then wrapped this very human tragedy in the embrace of partisanship, a very normal reaction from them but something that gave the impression of events being used at least partially for political ends. Perhaps this is what Mr. Layton wanted, too. After all, he was offering political advice about what should happen after his death before he died. Rather than ask that any donations be sent to, say, the Cancer Society, he asked that they be directed to the fledging Broadbent Institute that’s supposed to become another left-wing think tank.
It has been often remarked that the outpouring of affection for Mr. Layton stemmed, in part, from his “vision.” Canadians, it’s asserted, hunger for what he offered them. That’s precisely what the New Democrats who helped to plan the events and write his beautiful letter, and spoke in Toronto at his funeral, wanted everyone to believe, for they believe it themselves. Let’s remember, however, that a strong majority of Canadians did not vote for Mr. Layton’s party, just as a majority did not support Stephen Harper.
Indeed, Mr. Harper’s party got more votes than Mr. Layton’s, and no one has yet described Mr. Harper as a visionary. Reading the election results properly would suggest a sizable minority of Canadians warmed to Mr. Layton’s vision, but the majority did not hunger for it at all. The largest number might just be anti-visionary voters of the kind that endorsed Mr. Harper.
Mr. Layton was a mainstream New Democrat, and there’s nothing wrong with that. His “vision,” if you wish to use that expression, was almost to the letter that of his predecessors. That this “vision” caught fire, and made Mr. Layton posthumously into a “visionary” offering the kind of politics for which Canadians hunger, must leave his predecessors as rather less effective than him – which does many of them an injustice.
Timing can be almost everything in politics, and so it was for Mr. Layton in the last election. He played the same hand he always played, only this time some of his opponents misread theirs.
Mr. Layton had one stunning triumph, and only one: the last election. He might have had more, or perhaps that election was his last, best innings. We shall never know. The unknowable – the possibility of greatness manqué – added to the beatification. Admirable as Mr. Layton was, it’s doubtful that, had he actually been prime minister and had to make hard decisions, he would have been so popular. That, too, we shall never know.
Unknowable, now, is whether the radiance of his memory (Mr. Layton was always more popular than the NDP) will light the path for his successor. These are trying times for leftish parties, with conservatives in office (or soon to be) in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, New Zealand, Sweden, the U.S. House of Representatives and a majority of U.S. state capitals. Whatever his admirable qualities, Barack Obama has certainly not been much of a liberal, let alone anything remotely like a social democrat.
No doubt, each NDP leadership candidate will insist that he or she best reflects Mr. Layton’s “vision,” the one, it’s asserted, for which Canadians so hunger.