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A young Peter MacKay (left) and Stephen Harper join forces in 2003

A young Peter MacKay (left) and Stephen Harper join forces in 2003

Can the Conservative Party come back?

Of course, but first, the Conservative Party must return.

Sound confusing?

It’s not. The pre-Harper party wasn’t remotely like his bunch. It’s not enough to get rid of Stephen Harper if you don’t also get rid of his party, which goes back to the Faustian bargain between Harper and Peter MacKay in 2003 when Canada’s version of the “Grand Old Party” was subverted then overrun by the Reform Party, a.k.a. Stephen Harper.

The Thatcher comparison

It’s tempting to compare this situation to the UK Tories when Margaret Thatcher pinched the party from the “old guard”, but she was eventually tossed out by her caucus, while our version chose to go down with the ship rather than deal with their leadership problem.

Moreover there was no Sir Geoffrey Howe in the Canadian House of Commons to insert the dagger and no Michael Heseltine waiting patiently for the prime minister’s office key.

Mrs. Thatcher raised chippiness to an art form. Quickly gaining absolute control over her cabinet and servile caucus, she imposed her iherent nastiness on policy and thus on the people. In due course, the considerable good she did in the early stages was forgotten by Tories, including the grassroots, who just got pissed off with her.

Never having a whole lot to start with, Attilla The Hen, like Harper a quarter century later, had lost her common touch.

Again, like Thatcher, Harper had no respect for the House of Commons and the traditional and constitutional rights and prerogatives of its members.

Where, then, to look for the common touch and respect for Members of Parliament to act as an example for the survivors?

The Common Touch

How about the old aristocrat himself, Winston Churchill?

God knows I will not compare the two, but contrast, if you will, the attitude Churchill and Harper each brought to the PM’s office.

Let’s look at the Common Touch.

Churchill had every right to be publicly arrogant and uncaring about the people during the war years when he bore a burden unlike that of any leader in history. Yet after a serious bombing he would take to the streets in the East End which bore the brunt and, tears streaming down his face, and mingle with the residents who poured out to see him. At no time did Churchhill pretend by putting on overalls or trying to be what he was not; he looked like the prime minister he was, Homburg hat and gold watchchain, and the people who had just lost their homes surrounded him with affection.

They knew he cared – really cared.

During this terrible time, the House of Commons met regularly and debated the issues of the day. A number of MPs freely and fully criticized Churchill not just in broad terms but with details as to where they considered he was making serious mistakes. These criticisms were often nasty and came from bitter foes like Emanuel Shinwell and Aneuran Bevan. Without doubt, Churchhill could have brought an end to this but fully accepted it as part of the democracy they were all fighting for.

Then, not once but twice, came parliamentary moments of truth, Votes of Confidence, and here are his words about the first of those:

… I have come to the conclusion that I must ask to be sustained by a Vote of Confidence from the House of Commons. This is a thoroughly normal, constitutional, democratic procedure. A Debate on the war has been asked for. I have arranged it in the fullest and freest manner for three whole days. Any Member will be free to say anything he thinks fit about or against the Administration or against the composition or personalities of the Government, to his heart’s content, subject only to the reservation, which the House is always so careful to observe, about military secrets. Could you have anything freer than that? Could you have any higher expression of democracy than that? Very few other countries have institutions strong enough to sustain such a thing while they are fighting for their lives.

Later in the War, speaking to an American audience, Churchhill said this: “In my country, as in yours, public men are proud to be the servants of the State and would be ashamed to be its masters.”

I am not suggesting that the Conservatives need find a Churchill to lead them, nor could they.

What they can and must do is develop the Churchillian attitude that ordinary people matter and that Tories are not, either by reason of their birth or status in life, superior to the people they serve. That one of Churchill’s lessons is easy to understand but probably very difficult for their sort to put into practice.

Learning from the Niqab issue

They can begin by understanding that the poor and the infirm of our citizens depend upon all of us as a society to help, without acting as if we were benevolent lords of the manor dispensing alms to the needy.

They must, as Justin Trudeau has demonstrated, treat all minorities and distinct groups of Canadians equally and with respect because that’s the proper thing to do, not because they’ll be criticized if they don’t. If the Tories don’t learn from the Niqab issue, they’ll be a long time in the wilderness.

Respect for Parliament

The Conservative Party was once the party of Parliament and extolled the rights and privileges attendant upon its members. I need not spend time telling you how under Harper they descended, with the cowardly consent of  caucus, into a reasonable facsimile of a tawdry dictatorship.

Certainly, in my constituency, one of the principal issues was the lack of accountability of our MP to the people. He wouldn’t ask awkward questions of the government or indeed utter a murmur of mild criticism of policies which clearly were at odds with the wishes of his Riding. I’m told this feeling extended right across Canada.

What seems certain is that the new Liberal government will be different. I was encouraged to see senior Liberal MP and Foreign Minister Stephane Dion quoted thusly in The Tyee:

We have been elected to change the policies of the country, but also to change the way these policies are decided – the process by which we may improve our democratic practices in Canada, our Parliamentary democracy and our democracy in general…a democracy that has been damaged over the last 10 years.

Possible failure of the Trudeau government is all the more reason there must be a viable option available. It’s critical that our democracy return and that people believe once again that their Member of Parliament is important and not just a button to be pushed, from time to time, by the Prime Minister’s Office.

I might say that the NDP, as they re-group, might well apply Churchill’s lessons to themselves, since under the otherwise admirable Mr. Mulcair, they were just as cowed a caucus as the Tories.

Conservative reform

To bring back a Conservative Party that has a human face and heart, and cares once again for the parliamentary system is an awesome task. If my former MP is any example, the MPs left to the new Tory leader are unrepentant and brainwashed into submission. This is quite unlike the post-Thatcher Tory caucus in the UK which had itself turfed her out and quickly swung behind their new leader and won the next election.

Personally, I don’t give a damn what they do since, except for a brief period in the 70s when I was attracted by Red Tories like my friends John Fraser and Flora Macdonald, I’ve never supported the party and can’t imagine that I ever will again. It may be that they become like the Liberal Democrats in the UK and barely cling to life, leaving the Liberals in a position of covering the moderate right-wing and centre, leaving the NDP the rest.

That would be politically unnatural and sooner or later the Tories will return. To return to competitiveness, however, requires a complete reform of their attitude towards the public and our democratic traditions.

We’ll soon know whether or not the badly wounded Tories are aware of the essential political truths that Churchill bequeathed and, if they do, have the wit and guts to implement them.

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