Modern conservatism has been going through an identity crisis.
While U.S. President Donald Trump’s election may seem to have been the catalyst for this soul-searching, it’s not a new phenomenon. It’s been going on since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher came to power four decades ago. Such leaders don’t come along very often. When they do, they leave an imprint that – unless their successors take heed – can become a rut.
That is exactly what has happened to conservatism in the anglosphere countries, including the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia. The Reagan-Thatcher years were characterized by supply-side economics, free trade, deregulation and downsizing the welfare state. Support for these policies became the measure by which conservatives defined themselves.
What many self-proclaimed conservatives seem to have forgotten is that Mr. Reagan and Ms. Thatcher were products of the postwar expansion of government intervention in the economy and the personal lives of individuals. Reaganomics and Thatcherism, hence, sought to restore balance between the responsibilities of the state and the individual.
Mr. Reagan and Ms. Thatcher were not, strictly speaking, conservatives at all. They were in fact classical liberals, placing the onus for success on the individual. Ms. Thatcher’s notorious 1987 declaration that “there is no such thing as society” epitomized this philosophy.
Inspired in part by the big bangs Mr. Reagan and Ms. Thatcher set off in their countries, former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney also embraced privatization, deregulation and free trade. Where he broke with the Reaganites and Thatcherites was on supply-side economics. Mr. Mulroney introduced the goods and services tax, without which Jean Chrétien’s Liberals might never have been able to balance the budget.
Somewhere along the way, conservatives went off track. Tax cuts, deregulation and free trade became ends unto themselves without any consideration for their consequences for working-class citizens. Inevitably, the latter revolted. The result was Donald Trump’s election to the White House in 2016 and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
Those events thrust conservatism into the full-on existential crisis from which it has yet to emerge. Conservatives should not let this crisis go to waste. They should embrace it as an opportunity to reconnect with their past while modernizing conservatism for the 2020s.
As the federal Conservative Party embarks on choosing its next leader, it must first settle on what it stands for. That has become increasingly hard for Canadians to figure out in recent years as the party put developing talking points over policy development. The party’s 2019 election platform was a visionless potluck of empty promises. It sure wasn’t conservative.
Some Conservatives have come to recognize the need to get serious about policy, at least in abstract terms. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has aligned himself with the “reform conservative” movement that has emerged in the United States. It emphasizes social mobility as the focus of policy and suggests a more activist role for government in ensuring equality of opportunity through wage subsidies and German-style apprentice programs.
It’s a good start. But Canadian conservatism needs to be more than a carbon copy of whatever becomes of its U.S. counterpart. Since John A. Macdonald and Georges-Étienne Cartier, Canadian conservatives have always made national unity a core value. They have believed that Canada – despite its regional, linguistic and ethnic differences – is much more than the sum of its parts. That without a shared purpose, Canada might not exist.
Conservatives also believe in something called Canadian society, defined by common values and goals that set us apart as Canadians. Conservatives do not believe that Canada is a country with “no core identity,” much less the world’s “first postnational state,” as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau so strangely told The New York Times in 2015.
Conservatives believe Canada has a very clear core identity. It is an outgrowth of the “peace, order and good government” clause in the British North American Act of 1867 that has made this country’s institutions so strong and its politics so much saner than those of most of its developed-world counterparts. It is an extension of our linguistic and cultural duality, which has always led us to favour honourable compromise over ideological or moral victory. It is the mindset with which we now seek reconciliation with Indigenous nations.
That’s why Conservatives seeking to use a leadership contest to shift the party in a populist direction or purge the appeasers (otherwise known as moderates) should first look in the mirror. Because the person looking back probably isn’t a conservative at all.