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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff delivers his keynote speech 'Liberal Values in Tough Times' at the annual Isaiah Berlin Lecture in London on July 8, 2009. (SANG TAN/The Associated Press)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff delivers his keynote speech 'Liberal Values in Tough Times' at the annual Isaiah Berlin Lecture in London on July 8, 2009. (SANG TAN/The Associated Press)

Globe Focus

Aren't you the guy who used to be on the telly? Add to ...

Michael Ignatieff lived in Britain for more than 20 years, and toward the end of that time he was as big a star as it's possible to be when you're a scholarly writer and not a half-naked Page 3 girl. He made television documentaries, co-hosted a popular BBC culture program, ran with the smartest literary crowd, was nominated for the Booker Prize and earned the dubious honour of being "the thinking woman's crumpet."

Nothing could lessen the public's interest in him - nothing, that is, except a role in Canadian politics. Mr. Ignatieff's return to London this week to give the annual Isaiah Berlin Lecture was greeted with approval by a largely Canadian audience at the National Liberal Club.

The British press chose to respond with an echoing silence.

Only one British reporter showed up to cover the speech. Asked where his colleagues were - and whether British readers might not like to know what had happened to their favourite charismatic, war-zone-visiting intellectual - the reporter shrugged and said, "I don't think too many people here care about Canadian politics."

Mr. Ignatieff might be the Leader of the Official Opposition in Canada, he might be a few steps away from the Prime Minister's office (or not, according to the most recent polls), but in London he's just That Guy Who's Not on Telly Any More. Or, as his former boss at the BBC, Kevin Loader, said in an interview this week, "I'm not sure how much people know about what he's gone on to do."

Inside the Gladstone Library of the National Liberal Club ("the spiritual home of liberalism"), the reception could not have been more different. Over a dinner of lamb and risotto and many toasts to progressive grandees of the past, the black-tie crowd greeted Mr. Ignatieff as the keeper of liberalism's flickering flame. He "came into political life to challenge all of us," said the evening's host, Lord Alderdice, "to give inspiration to his country, and a vision for the young people of the up-and-coming generation."

Lord Alderdice, former Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, also revealed that the Gladstone, a majestic, wood-panelled room, was in fact a Potemkin library, as the 30,000 books it once contained are now at the University of Bristol; indeed, when you touched a bookshelf, the faux volumes swung away, like a villain's hiding place in a Scooby-Doo cartoon.

I'm not sure how much people know about what he's gone on to do. Kevin Loader, Ignattieff's former BBC boss

In his speech, Mr. Ignatieff talked about how liberal values, especially in balancing individual freedoms versus community needs, are tested during trying economic times, and how this affects Canadians in particular. "We don't actually believe in big, but in good, government," he said. "Market deregulation may have led the global economy to the edge of disaster, but heavy-handed government intervention may only slow economic recovery."

Liberals accept "the necessity of deficit spending to get the economy going again," he said, "but we want the scarce resources of government to be invested strategically on public education, science and technology and the infrastructure, especially green energy, that creates long-term growth."

In the centenary of Isaiah Berlin's birth, Mr. Ignatieff paid respect to the liberal philosopher, the subject of his award-winning 1998 biography, for being "so committed to the possibilities of a compassionate politics." In the audience was Mr. Berlin's stepson, Peter Halban, and his literary executor, Henry Hardy, as well notable Canadians such as financier-writer Christopher Ondaatje and historian Margaret MacMillan.

The speech took potshots at conservatives of the past ("there is such a thing as society," Mr. Ignatieff said, rebutting Margaret Thatcher's famous phrase) and the present, referring directly to Stephen Harper: "In December," he said, "the current Prime Minister sought to survive a constitutional crisis of his own making by playing region against region and language group against language group. In our country, this is a dangerous game."

He also addressed the issue of attack ads, saying, "In our country, a politics that arouses ethnic and regional resentment, creating wedges in order to mobilize a conservative base vote, is playing with fire."

Not many of Mr. Ignatieff's former London associates would have pictured him on a podium, engaged in partisan debate. "I don't think anyone foresaw him strutting across the stage of international politics," said Mr. Loader, who was one of the creators, 20 years ago, of the BBC's live culture program The Late Show . He hired Mr. Ignatieff as one of the four hosts, and the former academic quickly "became the good-looking intellectual one. He was quite well-known, he had a reputation as something of a cultural polymath."

In those days, Mr. Ignatieff could be found reporting from Bosnia, or co-writing the screenplay for the Ralph Fiennes film Onegin , or hanging out with novelists Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan, both of whom attended his wedding to former BBC publicist Zsuzsanna Zsohar.

In a brief press conference before Wednesday's speech, Mr. Ignatieff said that coming back to London was an emotional experience, because it's where he met and married his wife. Being in London these days is interesting, he said with a rare flash of humour, because British government officials now open doors to him: "That didn't use to happen."

If Mr. Ignatieff displayed a woodenness in his press conference that made Gordon Brown look like Elvis, he came alive after the speech, when the hot-button issue of his absence from Canada was raised.

The question came from a man who had sailed from Montreal to Liverpool in 1968, and felt that his 41 years in England had not made him less of a Canadian. He wondered how Mr. Ignatieff felt having his loyalty to Canada questioned.

"I felt when I lived in England my attachment to Canada was deepened, not rendered more shallow,' Mr. Ignatieff replied, his answer growing more impassioned by the second. He pointed out that 2.7 million of Canada's 33 million citizens live outside the country at any one time, and one-fifth were born outside its borders.

"You've got to watch where you go with this stuff. Are you saying that people who live outside the country are less good Canadians than people who have never left? I don't think so. Are you saying that Canadians born in another country are less good Canadians than people who were born here? I don't think so. You start with this stuff and it ends up not being about me, but about the national identity of our country, and who we call a Canadian."

At that point, all talk of liberalism over, it was time for a toast to the Queen, and then a journey out into the cold London night.

Elizabeth Renzetti is a member of The Globe and Mail's European bureau.

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