Let us be clear about one thing. The Conservative party that Canadians may elect on Monday is unlike any party, Conservative or Liberal, that Canadians have ever entrusted with the keys to the national capital.
The party of Stephen Harper is emphatically not the party of Sir John A. Macdonald, John Diefenbaker, Robert Stanfield, Joe Clark or Brian Mulroney. The Old Tories (if I may call them that) were consistently the most interesting party in Canada; for long stretches, they were our only interesting party. Unlike the Liberals, they were not obsessed with power (which they seldom enjoyed); unlike the New Democrats, they were not blinded by doctrine.
Old Tories were adaptable. They could be fiscally conservative and socially progressive, or vice versa. Depending on the proximity of the next election, they could be in favour of less government or more, defenders of the status quo or advocates of change. And they could take religion or leave it.
They could be maddening. Frequently unruly, they preferred scrapping among themselves to uniting against a common enemy. Booze -- scotch, usually -- was their lingua franca. While the Liberals would soberly debate which worthy Grit would get the next Senate seat, the Tories would come to blows over anything from bilingualism to the death penalty. On two occasions (Diefenbaker in the 1960s and Clark in the 1980s), the party demolished its leader. On one (Mulroney in the 1990s), the leader demolished his party. The Old Tories were never dull and often they were a lot of fun. This, alas, cannot be said of the Harper New Tories.
These three books may help to prepare us for the transition from Paul Martin's sloppy liberalism to Harper's scripted conservatism.
Radical Tories: The Conservative Tradition in Canada (Anansi, 1982), by the late Charles Taylor, is the oldest of the three, but it is still a gem -- a scholarly yet provocative study of the philosophical evolution of an important political movement. For many years a foreign correspondent for The Globe and Mail, Taylor was a careful craftsman and an elegant wordsmith. He uses the writings of historians Donald Creighton, W. L. Morton and George Grant, among others, to trace the reformist strain -- compassionate conservatism -- that ran through the Old Tory party from the days of Sir John A. to Stanfield, leader from 1967 to 1976.
"Real Conservatives are never ideologues," Taylor writes. The best Conservative statesmen have been true innovators. And (agreeing with Stanfield) "the true conservative is neither a doctrinaire supporter of private enterprise nor a diehard opponent of necessary reforms."
Taylor was able, in 1982, to view the future of the Conservatives with what he called "a stubbornly residual optimism." Whether he would feel the same optimism in 2006, when radical toryism has given way to the narrower social conservatism of the Harper era, is a question.
That answer may be found in the most recent of these three books: The Pilgrimage of Stephen Harper (ECW Press, 2005), by Lloyd Mackey, a Parliamentary Press Gallery veteran who writes about public affairs from the intersection of faith and politics. As Mackey sees it, Harper is very much a faith-based politician, as are many of his "so-cons" from western Canada. He is a devout Christian -- he and his wife Laureen Teskey worship at Centre Street Church, a huge evangelical congregation in Calgary -- and religion plays an important part in their family life.
A sympathetic biographer, Mackey maintains Harper has become more "nuanced" in his views since 2001, when he and several others wrote their famous (or notorious) "firewall" letter to Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, urging him to take more constitutional power into Alberta's hands. However, there is no evidence that Harper has modified his core views. For example, he still opposes same-sex marriage, although he has promised not to invoke the notwithstanding clause to cancel that right.
Harper comes across as being intelligent and controlled. But he seems devoid of the fun and love of the game that infuse the pages of my third selection: Life of the Party: The Memoirs of Eddie Goodman (Key Porter, 1988).
It would be hard to imagine two more different Conservatives than Goodman, a Toronto lawyer with a zest for politics, and Harper, an arid intellectual from Alberta. A lifelong Red Tory, Goodman was the happy warrior of the Conservative party. He brought an irrepressible ebullience to the backrooms of his party. Eddie knew everyone and just about everyone loved Eddie.
The press was charmed by him. Goodman tells an anecdote about the 1968 federal election. The Liberals had a charismatic new leader, Pierre Trudeau, and the Tories, trailing badly in the polls, were in danger of being swamped by Trudeaumania. Goodman called a press conference in Ottawa and said he had two announcements, the first one being confidential. "I informed the breathless press gallery that I had it on absolutely impeccable authority that Pierre Trudeau was a lousy lay and that Bob Stanfield went home every day for a nooner."
The 60 reporters laughed. Then he distributed a "poll" that he and another Conservative had fabricated that "showed" the Tories gaining everywhere. The reporters gasped. In the end, they didn't buy it, as Eddie knew they wouldn't, but they had a laugh, they accepted that there was still some life in the Tory campaign and, as Goodman hoped, they started to question the accuracy of other polls.
Memo to Stephen Harper: There is no law (yet) that says politics cannot be fun.
Geoffrey Stevens teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. His most recent book, The Player: The Life and Times of Dalton Camp, won the Drainie-Taylor Prize for best biography of 2003.