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editorial

Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves as he walks off the stage in Calgary after giving his concession speech following the federal election last fall.Mark Blinch/Reuters

The announcement on Wednesday of Stephen Harper's imminent retirement from politics caused a massive outpouring of emotion, said no one ever. The former prime minister is uncuddly and uncommunicative in public, and was autocratic and insular behind the walls of the Prime Minister's Office. As Canadians examine their feelings about Mr. Harper, they are hampered by the fact they are saying goodbye to a stubborn loner who was genuinely uninterested in being liked.

For his supporters, his indifference to popularity was a sign of maturity and experience. He was not a star; he branded himself as Canada's Thankless Manager, willing to make the tough, unpopular decisions. He portrayed himself in one TV advertisement as a solitary figure, alone in his office late at night, with only his Beatles mug for company as he pored over files of great national consequence. He wasn't on a team; he was the team.

But after a decade in power, Mr. Harper's solo act and cold political calculations had become turnoffs. Voters took his majority and handed it to Justin Trudeau last October. No longer leader but still an MP, Mr. Harper became a spectral presence in the House of Commons, slipping in to watch as the new government systematically erases his legislative legacy, and then floating away before the media could catch him. Having maintained a steadfast silence since the election, he will be gone from Parliament by the fall.

How can a man who dominated the public eye for a decade suddenly go quiet? Does he have anything at all to say to us?

Maybe not. Mr. Harper's solitary political goal was to make unalloyed conservatism a valid ballot option in a country ruled for decades by Liberals and red Tories. He succeeded to a degree, but then let an authoritarian nature overwhelm his own principles. He constantly redefined conservatism as whatever he thought it should be in the moment, no questions asked. It was never a conversation among Canadians, or even his own party.

He ended up burdening the Conservative Party with the perception that it contains an ugly strain of political partisanship that seeks to win at all costs, brooks no dissent, and feel no obligation to explain itself to the outside world. Undoing that legacy will be the biggest challenge faced by his successor.