Conservatives can be a quarrelsome lot. When not waging political battles with liberal and progressive foes, they squabble among themselves over what is the purest form of conservatism. One can almost hear them paraphrasing the line from Snow White: mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the truest conservative of all? Articulating such ideological purity may prove intellectually satisfying, but it comes at a cost, namely, an inability to hear the demands of the electorate and an accompanying ineptitude at seizing and retaining the necessary political power to implement a conservative agenda.
Ron Dart enters this intramural squabbling by arguing that there is a conservative stance superior to the ascendant one in Canada and the United States. Current dominant, anti-statist conservatism tends to champion capitalism, free trade, economic opportunity, individual rights, and occasional military interventions when these values are perceived to be threatened. The social, economic, and political order these anti-statist conservatives wish to establish and protect traces its intellectual origins to John Locke, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke. Dart characterizes this adulterated tradition as “Blue Tory,” exemplified most recently by Stephen Harper and George W. Bush. But in many respects, Blue Tories are merely classic liberals who are, perhaps, a bit more tolerable than contemporary progressives, such as Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama.
Dart’s alternative to blue conservatism is Red Toryism. These reds trace their intellectual lineage back through a series of Anglo-Catholics, particularly Richard Hooker. Moreover, per Dart, Henry VIII has virtually nothing to do with this High Anglican tradition since it draws heavily on a recovery of patristic sources. Consequently, the economic, social, and political convictions of Red Tories are undergirded by a theology less tainted by the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Puritanism, and other modern errors stressing the primacy of the individual over the collective. Red Tories, for instance, are dedicated to promoting the common good, and believe this is best achieved through a centralized political authority that seeks to conserve a way of life for a particular people grounded in a particular tradition and customary practices. In contrast to its blue counterparts, Red Toryism prefers nationalism over globalism, community stability and equality over individual opportunity, protectionism over free trade, and socialism, or at least a closer affinity to it, over capitalism. (I will leave it to others what to make of the rise of populist politicians around the world, both on the left and right, and whether they are effectively becoming Tory red, or at least pink.)
For Dart, red conservatism is clearly preferable to the blue option, and his book is largely dedicated to arguing why this is the case. The principal heroes of Dart’s narrative are John Strachan, Stephen Leacock, and George Grant (with some important cameo appearances by C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and Robert Crouse). Dart uses their work not only to outline the primary principles of Red Toryism but also to launch a withering, invective-laced criticism against liberals, progressives, and political leaders on both sides of the Canadian border. But this book is mostly an account of an in-house dispute among conservatives, and Dart is clearly a partisan in the red-blue conflict. Other than being a bit too tidy, I have no quarrel with this dichotomy. Rather, what I find most troubling about Dart’s narrative is that he does not mention several significant economic, social, and political issues the Red Tories either have failed to address or have addressed inadequately. This is a serious oversight in propounding an alternative model for economic, social, and political ordering.
For example, how do Dart and his fellow Red Tories intend to address the problem of poverty? In their desire to conserve a way of life they invoke a strong centralized state, nationalism, protectionism, and proto-socialist policies, “solutions” that arguably in the past have served to perpetuate widespread impoverishment. Protectionism, for instance, always serves to impoverish the many while enriching the few chosen cronies. To the credit of the Blue Tories Dart decries, over the last few decades they have at least helped millions of people escape dire poverty and establish a nascent middle class on a global scale through an emphasis on decentralized political authority, free trade, and economic opportunity. Is the prospect of improving the material well-being of the masses simply irrelevant to Red Tories?
I don’t think Dart’s oversight is wilful, but is instead due to a blind spot, or better, a deafness endemic to the Red Toryism he embraces: namely, in the urgency to conserve there is a corresponding failure to read the signs of the times, and respond accordingly. This failure prompts a purity of thought and action that becomes divorced from power, including the power to conserve. There is nothing inherently untoward in conservatism’s adapting or even amending convictions in reaction to changing circumstances, for such change may result in better conserving what is most important in a particular tradition. Is red conservatism imperilled by expanding the range of freedoms and liberties among a greater number of individuals? To invoke an admittedly extreme example, do Red Tories wish to reinstitute slavery and child labour because of tradition and custom? Is not conservative tradition and custom strengthened by conserving these reforms?
We can perhaps gain some greater clarity on this endemic deficiency by turning our attention to one of Dart’s premier heroes: George Grant. In his masterpiece, Lament for a Nation, Grant recounts the demise of the Diefenbaker Progressive Conservative government in 1963. Earlier that year the prime minister refused a US request to place nuclear warheads in Canada. This refusal infuriated the Kennedy administration, which saw this perceived intransigence as failing to fulfill Canada’s NATO obligations, and galvanized Liberal opposition, which accused the Tory government of alienating an important trading partner and ally. Diefenbaker was both vilified and satirized by the press and leftist intellectuals, portrayed as a relic hopelessly out of touch with current events. Subsequently, the Tories lost the election.
According to Grant, Diefenbaker’s defeat was due to a shrewd coalition of liberal intellectuals and corporate interests, eager to gain the favour and accept the ruthless support of the Kennedy administration. The election also marked the death of Canada as a nation, and it effectively became the northern outpost for the American Empire. Grant mourned this loss, and his lament is moving, sombre, and at times bitter. I am not able to assess the accuracy of Grant’s post-mortem of the 1963 election, but he believed it was true, and it shaped his subsequent work. For Grant, the American Empire was largely a cozy alliance of government and corporations, working together to impose their order on the world. It embodied the universal and homogenous state, a beast to be feared and resisted because it is predicated on power rather than justice. Consequently, Grant engaged in endless and insightful criticism of this peril, a resigned warning of the dreadful fate awaiting North America. In pursuing this critical enterprise, however, Grant developed an allergy to almost anything American. (Multiversities and corporations were his favourite targets.) But his parallel attempts at preserving any shreds of remaining Canadian national identity were correspondingly myopic, because he largely reduced being Canadian to being not American. His attention was so devoted to indulging a critical reaction that he refused or was unable to create a genuine alternative.
Grant’s extensive and articulate description of Diefenbaker as a deeply flawed politician is an often overlooked aspect of Lament for a Nation. Diefenbaker, according to Grant, was largely deaf to the challenges he faced, and it cost him the election. Politics is a practical exercise in achieving what is possible, an art the Tories ignored in 1963 (and ironically in large measure that Grant disregarded in the years following). To pursue relentless criticism is to effectively abandon the conservative task. Conserving something requires the requisite power to conserve it, and the acquisition of that power often requires a compromised practice of hearing and accommodating the vox populi. (An aside: I don’t think it accidental that a clever writer for the television series Due South named Constable Fraser’s deaf wolf Diefenbaker.) If the wicked triumvirate of progressive intellectuals, corporate interests, and the Kennedy administration were responsible for Diefenbaker’s demise, he was complicit in digging his own grave. The defeated prime minister may have taken comfort in remaining true to what may now be regarded as his Red Tory convictions, but no Red Tory has ever governed again.
To indulge in endless criticism is to also sequester oneself from the difficult task of governing. Grant did dabble in politics from time to time, but his public persona was that of the ardent critic who was almost always a bit above the fray. Yet his lament cannot account entirely for this stance; it is also due, in part, to his insufficient theology. Grant was a man of deep Christian faith, and his convictions profoundly shaped his work. Central to those convictions was the theology of the cross based on his reading of Simone Weil. To be a follower of Christ requires one to embrace a life of affliction, and to be attentive to those most afflicted. The cross certainly lies at the heart of Christianity, but so too do the resurrection and ascension. Despite the affliction pervading human life, the resurrection promises hope, and the ascension calls us to govern creation in anticipation of the parousia. In the absence of Easter and ascension, Golgotha disfigures Christian faith by privileging the prophetic to the virtual exclusion of the pastoral, priestly, and kingly (governing) functions of Christian discipleship. Following Oliver O’Donovan, the resurrection does not merely affirm Jesus, but vindicates created order.
To be clear, Grant’s critical works are masterful, and should be welcomed and cherished. His exposure of the darkness of late modernity as darkness is especially prescient, and it is a pity that he is not widely read south of the Canadian border. Yet his criticism is stilted, because, other than an occasional and undeveloped allusion, he virtually omits resurrection and ascension from his thinking. Consequently, the world takes on an entirely cruciform shape. But that is not the full story. This is all the more ironic given that Grant took his emphasis on the theology of the cross to mean dealing with the thing as it is. If the thing at stake is the world, then in addition to the cross we must also factor resurrection and ascension into our thinking. In other words, we must hope, and we must engage in the hard, admittedly compromised task of governance in this time between the times. Grant, to the best of my knowledge, never extensively reflects on what this hope and governing might mean within his cruciform criticism, particularly in respect to the tasks of establishing and governing a just social and political order.
Dart’s book has an even more pronounced cruciform character. This is especially the case in his polemic against progressives, liberals, and Blue Tories (particularly those residing south of the Canadian border), for all they seemingly can do is create greater affliction in the world. Yet in embracing such self-indulgent criticism, Dart has insulated his beloved High Tory tradition by effectively reducing it to a sectarian enclave. And like any sect, such an insular voice can be, and is, easily ignored or dismissed as irritating or perhaps quaintly eccentric. Dart fails to address a simple question: In respect to economic, social, and political ordering, what exactly would he prefer, and is this good news for those who apparently would not benefit from conserving a way of life he purportedly commends but does not explain in much detail?
Dart mentions in his book that an artist commissioned to design a commemorative coin for Canada portrayed a lone wolf howling at the moon. He dedicated his work to George Grant. It is also an apt image for Dart. Such howling can be pleasant, but it does nothing to help feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and heal the ill. Does not the High Tory tradition have anything to contribute to fulfilling these tasks that Christ expects of his followers, particularly in terms of what is possible and practical within the context of current circumstances? And if it does not, then why should we listen to its incessant critical voice?