Only ‘true’ conservatives need apply

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“ONE of us.”

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/04/2022 (290 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

“ONE of us.”

In the heyday of Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s rule of Britain in the 1980s, this was the conservative litmus test she applied to assess her cabinet of weak “wets” or staunch “dries.” A similar current is running through the leadership race now consuming the Conservative Party of Canada.

Only “true” conservatives need apply, according to front-runner Pierre Poilievre’s campaign. True conservatives are anti-carbon tax, anti-COVID-19 mandates, and pro-freedom in all its guises. This uncompromising stance is defining conservatism as the basis for a radically different Conservative party from anything seen before.

And it was inevitable.

The CPC leadership race is just the final act of the 2003 merger of the Reform/Canadian Alliance party and the Progressive Conservative party. Until now, the two legacy parties of the CPC maintained an uneasy but genuine relationship within the federal party. A shared history of vote-splitting that produced Liberal majority governments kept both factions in check for the greater Conservative good.

No longer.

Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau has now beaten three Conservative leaders in a row, including the party’s first and only winning leader, Stephen Harper. To movement conservatives, compromise and moderation doesn’t win elections. Andrew Scheer’s inability to justify his socially conservative views and Erin O’Toole’s flip-flop from right-wing leadership candidate to moderate-middle election campaigner proved that. No more. Time to choose a “real” conservative leader.

Conservatives have long exhibited populist tendencies. Prairie populism helped launch the Reform Party. But the rise of more extreme international populist forces, propagated via social media, has infiltrated conservative parties everywhere this past decade, including Canada.

From Brexit to Trump to COVID-19, populist anger, alienation and fear, led by economic dissatisfaction and identity grievances, have overturned traditional conservative values and policy nostrums. Nationalism, nativism and anti-elitism are more mainstream in Canadian conservative circles than ever before.

“Take back control” and “Make America Great Again” were the national sovereignty messages of Brexit and Trump. “Freedom” is the personal sovereignty message of Pierre Poilievre.

Two years of COVID-19 disruptions have infected our politics. Public-health measures designed to keep people safe have been recast by conservatives as illegitimate tools of individual oppression and government overreach. This reached its nadir in the month-long trucker convoy occupation of Ottawa and other parts of Canada.

Poilievre’s embrace of their cause is turning them into retroactive folk heroes in conservative circles for “standing up for freedom” — never mind the conspiracy-driven fallacies and grievance paranoia about COVID, vaccines and masks they wheeled into the public square.

Poilievre’s main opponent, Jean Charest, has it all wrong — embracing the extreme doesn’t “disqualify” Poilievre from becoming leader of his party; it validates him.

Federal conservatives have long seen themselves as a minority presence and party in Canadian political life. Too intermittent in government to become establishment, and too agitated by government’s very existence to abide it, federal conservatives exhibit an almost-atavistic distaste for the institutions, processes and conventions of that political life. It is the classic outsider view.

A distinctive form of outsider conservatism is now emerging — one that is unapologetically individualist and populist. It seeks to marry the party’s base of rural and western-Canadian values of small government, individual opportunity and community religiosity with suburban family strivers anxious about affordability and upward economic mobility.

This holds no room for progressive political traits of community and society. Government as a “force for good” would never be uttered by its adherents.

Under Thatcher, “one of us” never became “them or us.” The weak wets still held high office in the party and government she led. Will a new Conservative Party of Canada fashioned around being a “true conservative” allow the same? Will there be room for conservatives who believe in a more limited but real role for government in society? Or those conservatives who believe acting on climate change is necessary, even if Canadian energy still matters? Or conservatives who believe individual freedom still comes with collective responsibility?

Likely not. Canadian politics is more polarized than ever. That makes fighting for the political centre increasingly illusory. The real fight is to drag the centre to your side and keep it there. Compromise and moderation risk alienating your voter coalition.

Conservatives are determined this time to choose a true-believer leader who will offer “a choice, not an echo” to the Liberals. This was the title of an influential book by American conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly in 1964. Her battle cry was avidly taken up by Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Moving hard right, he led his conservative party to an historic defeat that same year. But it created a movement that paved the way for Ronald Reagan’s conservative revolution that reshaped America.

Last year’s status-quo federal election may be the last one for quite a while.

David McLaughlin was Clerk of the Executive Council in the government of Manitoba in 2020-21. He was campaign manager for the PC Party of Manitoba in the 2016 and 2019 elections.

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