Photo by Geoff Robins

Buckle down or buckle under

If Canada’s conservative party can’t hold together, they can resign themselves to opposition status

Artillery Row

Canada’s conservatives have spent substantially more time in opposition than in government in the last century. Why? Switch out ideology, and the similarities between the Conservative Party of Canada and the Labour Party in Britain are apparent. Both are parties largely consigned to oppose the natural governing parties of their respective countries. Both are divided between what you might call a pragmatic wing, and an ideological grassroots, that have different visions of what the party is ultimately for. Both are largely forced to react to their main rival party who mostly get to set the terms of debate. And both have a habit of infighting that more often than not consigns them to opposition.

The leadership election to replace Scheer ultimately became a proxy contest

Canadian conservatism faces renewed fissures that threaten its credibility both as a governing force and as a movement that has any serious political vision or ambition once it achieves government. The most recent federal election produced a parliament very similar to the previous parliament, namely a strong Liberal minority with a Conservative caucus just shy of 120 seats. Conservatives again received more overall votes than the Liberals, just like in 2019. And just like in 2019, the failure of the Conservative to form government has produced internal conflict and discontent. In the aftermath of the 2019 election, a broader debate played out over social conservatism and its place in the party and Canadian society, all centred on then-leader Andrew Scheer and his personal social conservatism and inability to offer clear answers on questions about issues like abortion and LGBT rights. The leadership election to replace Scheer ultimately became a proxy contest about a “true blue” versus “red tory” conservatism.

O’Toole won the leadership back in the fall of 2020 as the more conservative “true blue” option that would “take Canada back”. But after winning he attempted to pivot to a more centrist and moderate approach that was aimed at victory in a general and not just a leadership election. The pivot was always going to present a problem for O’Toole if he failed to form a government. Parts of the conservative base feel betrayed by O’Toole, and O’Toole’s continued leadership of the party now stands for the future of the movement.

The conventional narrative amongst Canada’s chattering classes is that in order to win, Canadian conservatism needs to essentially become liberal-lite. It has to be socially progressive and just a bit more fiscally conservative. People that fit this template are well-represented in the professional managerial class and public discourse in Canada. But it’s a pointless worldview, amounting to little more than controlled opposition based on a kind of liberalism just a few years behind. A moderate and serious conservatism doesn’t have to look like this.

Some will call themselves anti-globalists, but in reality are obsessed with America

It’s worth asking whether this kind of conservatism is actually worth anything, and whether it can actually win. Compare this approach to the conundrum of a committed Labour supporter, considering whether the kind of moderation required for Labour to win makes Labour government something that even matters. But this is just half of the problem that faces Canadian conservatism: while a certain chunk of the movement and media might prefer to just be liberals a few years behind, the rising alternative within the movement is something even more unpalatable.

Canada hasn’t quite been hit with the “populist” movements that swept the western world in recent years, but that doesn’t mean that it is completely absent. The pandemic has served as a catalyst for populist politics in Canada. While it still represents a small segment of the population, it has grown substantially in portions of the conservative base. This presents a real problem for the conservative movement. An increasingly fractious coalition, divided between two unappealing or unpalatable options, is not a recipe for political success.

Some people will call themselves anti-globalists or Canadian nationalists, but in reality they are hyper obsessed with America and importing MAGA-style politics here. Their supposed patriotism consists in being American “patriots”, hating Canada and turning our politics into American proxy wars. It’s paradoxically a form of hyper globalized politics.

Although it represents a relatively small fringe within the conservative movement, MAGA enthusiasts overlap in many ways with the broader populist chunk of the movement. This overlap comes at the vector of COVID politics and broader right wing “anti-globalism”. COVID has (figuratively) broken the brains of a lot of people across the political spectrum. There’s plenty of deserved criticism to be made of governments and the decisions they’ve made over the last 18 months. So many of the public health measures we’ve put in place, and still have, are largely hygiene theatre. There are real and legitimate concerns about vaccine passports and mandates.

This is not a governing ideology; it’s an ideology of pure opposition

But for many in the more populist wing, just like in the United States and elsewhere, the response to COVID represents incipient fascism. In Canada especially, this kind of politics has become intertwined with other popular themes on the populist right around issues like globalism and climate change. Justin Trudeau helped set alight the World Economic Forum’s supposed “great reset” after he used the term in a video clip that went viral. The great reset has now become mixed in with other populist and anti-globalist themes about the pandemic, from COVID not being real or vaccines being some sort of planned population control operation. In Canada, as well as where Conservatives tend to dominate in the West and in oil country, this gets mixed in with fears about climate change being another scam or elite-orchestrated crisis to radically remake the world.

There’s nothing fundamentally conservative about this kind of politics. We do have a serious need for a healthy scepticism of our establishment class and most of our elite and governing institutions. But this kind of politics moves far beyond a healthy scepticism into a kind of contrarianism that is anti-institutional and deeply distrustful of any kind of established knowledge. This is not a governing ideology either; it’s an ideology of pure opposition.

Thus the challenge for Canadian conservatism is deeper than just one part of the coalition being extreme and the other part moderate. Canadian conservatism, and the conservative movement more broadly, have to figure out how to present a serious conservatism that speaks to important issues whilst remaining recognizably conservative. If it becomes a progressive fiscal conservatism it’s pointless, and if it descends into a contrarian angry populism it will decline into a fringe movement. The challenge for conservatives is not simply about how to deal with a loud minority out of step with the broader populace, it’s how to build a conservatism that can hold the movement together.

This piece was adapted from a longer essay from the author’s newsletter on Canadian conservatism. 

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