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Conrad Black and his wife Barbara Amiel leave federal court in Chicago on June 24, 2011. (JOHN GRESS/John Gress/Reuters)
Conrad Black and his wife Barbara Amiel leave federal court in Chicago on June 24, 2011. (JOHN GRESS/John Gress/Reuters)

Lawrence Martin

The Tories should welcome back Conrad Black Add to ...

Conrad Black will be back in the slammer until next spring. He will then try to return to Canada, where he will seek to reclaim his citizenship he relinquished a decade ago to become a member of the British House of Lords.

He's not terribly popular in this country and, if you took a poll (the CBC did one), you'd find little enthusiasm for readmitting him. But for our Conservative government, there should be no reluctance to open the doors. Lord Black has played such a significant role in the renaissance of the right in Canada that he is owed the party's gratitude.

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We need go back before his years of trial and incarceration, to the late 1990s, when conservatives were divided and dispirited, their prospects dismal. Among other things, they needed a stronger, broader voice, a standard-bearer for their gospels. Against formidable odds, Conrad Black created a national conservative newspaper, the National Post, which became the flagship for the right. He also acquired the centrist Southam newspapers, the major print voices in many of the country's big cities, and moved them into the conservative camp.

He had always been a bane to the Liberals. Now with his new media presence, the right-side beliefs gained greater market share and credibility. The national discussion began to change, edging away from the old liberal consensus. With their push for a more American-styled approach to economic and defence issues, the Post and the other Black papers helped define the conservative agenda. They added considerable weight to the drive for the merger of the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance. They made life difficult for the Liberals, particularly with the Post's relentless pursuit of abuse of power by the Chrétien government.

Jean Chrétien retaliated by trying to block the media baron's peerage appointment. He brought back to life the 1919 Nickle resolution, a declaration without legal standing stipulating that Canadians could not receive British titles. Mr. Chrétien's invocation of it left Conrad Black no choice but to renounce his citizenship to get the appointment. It's a fact that needs to be remembered when he seeks to reclaim it.

Lord Black's highly publicized legal afflictions have done conservatives no favours, but they are outweighed by his impact on the fourth estate. When he reached deeply into his pockets to create his national paper, many thought he was deluded. The country already had a national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, and a conservative media chain, the Sun papers. Toronto already had three major papers. Many thought the Post wouldn't last more than two or three years.

But 13 years on, under different owners, it's still here as the purveyor of conservative creed, a paper that has brought to prominence an impressive stable of conservative writers who help drive the nation's news and policy agenda. It has lost a pile of money, is no longer very national, and won't publish on Mondays this summer due to financial woes. But even if it folds tomorrow, as Liberals might hope, its influence will have been felt.

You don't hear many prominent Conservatives defending Conrad Black today, but you have to wonder how much harder it would have been for their like to rise from the depths without him. You have to wonder how different the debate might have been if, say, a moneyed man of the left had created a national paper and bought the Southam chain.

Like him or loathe him, his influence has been preponderant. When the story of the rise of the right is written, Stephen Harper and Preston Manning will occupy prime place. But there were other architects (Tom Flanagan and Doug Finley, to name a few), and Conrad Black ranks among them. It's something conservatives should remember when he seeks to regain his standing in this country.

 

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