Remember the old Progressive Conservatives? In this era of raw populism, the name sounds quaint. But of course it was progressive Tories who spearheaded the party from the days of John A. Macdonald right up until Stephen Harper, right up until hard-edged conservatives devoured them like cupcakes. Old Tories went underground. They cowered under Mr. Harper's command. There's been no fight in them.
But there are exceptions. There is fight in Tom McMillan. About 350,000 words worth of fight. The environment minister in Brian Mulroney's government has published a mammoth memoir, an insider's account that claims that an open-minded Tory Party was turned into an Americanized party of prejudice following the conservatives' merger of 2003.
If traditional Tories don't take the party leadership back now, it's all over but the cryin'. That's what the Prince Edward Islander, an architect of the Canada-U.S. acid-rain accord, contends in Not My Party: The Rise and Fall of Canadian Tories from Robert Stanfield to Stephen Harper. How can there be a future for a party, he writes, that leaves behind the well educated, the young, the urban, the non-religious? The remaining support ceiling is too low. Only against terribly weak Liberal leaders can it compete.
"Let's call a spade a spade here," Mr. McMillan says in his call to arms. "The Reform/Canadian alliance party had its roots in ethnic hostility. The initial shoots came from anti-French, anti-bilingual, anti-metric [read European] and anti-Quebec pockets of resentment."
These shoots, as he points out, resurfaced in the most recent election campaign with party positions on the niqab, a snitch line and its embrace of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford. In the current leadership race, making the most noises are hardliner Kellie Leitch and Kevin O'Leary, who draws stylistic comparisons to U.S. president-elect Donald Trump.
Mr. McMillan also served as a long-time policy adviser to former Tory leader Robert Stanfield, "the best prime minister Canada never had," as some called him, and as Canadian consul-general in Boston. His book goes to excessive lengths – a tough editor would have come in handy – to paint Mr. Stanfield as a saint.
That's fine and well. Mr. Stanfield was indeed a leader of deep intelligence and integrity who never stooped to the low-grade tactics of Mr. Harper and company. But Mr. Stanfield lost three elections, won zero. Mr. Harper won three, losing only two. What good is having a leader of moral altitude, critics of Mr. McMillan's book can rightly argue, who doesn't win?
Well, any conservative leader can win by playing to raw prejudicial instincts, counters Mr. McMillan, whose book makes the case that Mr. Mulroney, an old Tory did win and ran a far more open-minded and tolerant party than Mr. Harper. Like Mr. Trump, they "rile up" emotions "against an artificially created enemy."
Before reprising some Reform Party propensities, Mr. Harper was smart enough to moderate the party, to play to the middle. But for too many Canadians, the last campaign showed the real Mr. Harper.
The populist brand of conservatism has also taken a hit north of the border from the example of Mr. Trump, even though he won the U.S. election.
It all suggests there may be a market for the progressive conservatism Mr. McMillan yearns for in his book, which is illuminating and remarkably candid. But he's not confident there can be a return, not unless the old Tories who were "intimidated to the point of paralysis," get passionate enough to "fight fire with fire." So far it's not evident.
He sees the leadership race, which has a couple of progressive candidates, as boiling down to whether Conservatives want a John A. Macdonald party or one guided by U.S. values. Do they really want a party, he says, that is intolerant, anti-intellectual, laggard on climate change, soft on gun control, down on nation-building programs?
Mr. McMillan can't believe his old party went that route. He's bracing himself, as perhaps he should, against it going that way again.