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Red Tories victims of the Big Shift

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TORONTO — Writing recently about two generations of Trudeaus reminded me of the first political convention in my Canadian experience. And the hot new political book — The Big Shift — further stoked those memories.

It was 1967, the centennial of Confederation, the year of Expo, and the last time that the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. That September, the federal Progressive Conservatives met at the old Maple Leaf Gardens to select a new leader.

Being in the country less than two years, I didn’t know much about the Tories. There was, of course, John Diefenbaker, the former prime minister. In addition, there was John Robarts, the premier of Ontario. If you lived in Toronto and had any interest in politics, he was a very familiar figure.

Genuinely larger than life, the disputatious and mercurial Diefenbaker had been unable to consolidate his huge 1958 general election victory. And having lost consecutive elections in 1963 and 1965, his subsequent ouster as party leader wasn’t a big surprise, although the humiliating brutality of its execution left scars within the party for years.

As for Robarts, there was a widespread expectation that he’d run for the job. After all, he was the powerful premier of Canada’s most populous and prosperous province. But he took a pass.

Two provincial premiers, however, did run — Nova Scotia’s Robert Stanfield and Manitoba’s Duff Roblin. After five ballots, Stanfield emerged triumphant.

Being a Red Tory, Stanfield put significant emphasis on accommodating Quebec in order to keep it in Confederation. So support for official bilingualism and the concept of deux nations became part of his platform. The love, however, wasn’t returned. In three elections as Tory leader, he never won more than four of Quebec’s 74 seats. He was gone by 1976.

Nowadays Stanfield is referred to as the "greatest prime minister Canada never had." And it’s easy to understand the thinking behind that. He was, by all accounts, intelligent, decent and competent. Canada could have done worse.

Still, one doesn’t have to be a deep cynic to see something else at work. It’s easy to express "respect" for Stanfield because, like Joe Clark after him, he was someone Liberals could always be confident of beating. And if perchance he did manage to win an election, his incumbency would be brief and non-disturbing — sort of like the Liberal B-team minding the shop while the A-team took a quick breather.

Another key figure was Dalton Camp, the Toronto advertising man who orchestrated the campaign to oust Diefenbaker and then helped Stanfield win the day. He too was a Red Tory — of the most pronounced sort. As Robert Fulford astutely put it, Camp had "a lifelong task of persuading Tories to act as much like Liberals as possible."

But in terms of political success, the triumph over Diefenbaker was as good as it got for Camp. Not only did his man, Stanfield, never go all the way, but his own two attempts at winning a parliamentary seat came to nothing. And he remained a pariah to many. Killing the king can do that to you.

Even more telling, Camp’s mission of philosophically remaking his party ran aground. Were he alive today, he certainly wouldn’t be a Stephen Harper man.

With respect to The Big Shift connection, a key component of the book’s thesis is what it calls the "Laurentian Consensus," defined as a common set of assumptions held by those "who up until very recently controlled the political and cultural levers of the country." In effect, these assumptions imply a shared mindset about what Canada is and what it requires by way of governance. Red Tories in general, and Stanfield and Camp in particular, certainly hewed to that consensus.

So too did the CBC. For 10 years, the Morningside radio show featured a weekly "three wise men" panel of former politicians: Dalton Camp, Eric Kierans and Stephen Lewis. One was a Red Tory, one a left-wing Liberal, and the other an NDP socialist. While the discussion may have been witty and urbane, the range of opinion hardly represented Canada’s political diversity.

But then again, when you believe that all wisdom is contained within your own narrow parameters, who needs diversity? Indeed, it might even confuse things!


Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for more than 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.


—Troy Media


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