Canada’s Crusader for Conservatism

‘What is the secret of Stephen Harper’s success in a liberal society? Refusing to be bogged down by ideology and giving people what they want’

Dispatches Politics
Stephen Harper: The Canadian prime minister has revolutionised politics in his homeland 

When thinking of Canada, I strongly doubt that the first thing to pop into most people’s heads would be “bastion of political conservatism”. Yet in this liberal country, prime minister Stephen Harper has carved out an impressive reputation as one of the world’s most successful centre-right leaders. 

Through two minority Tory governments (2006 and 2008), and since May 2011 at the head of a majority government, Harper has balanced strong leadership with a confident domestic and foreign policy agenda. Canada may be a middle power, but our prime minister will accept nothing less than a seat at the top table. 

This has been aided in large part by well-received political and economic policies. Harper’s unwavering stance in support of Israel, passionate defence of democracy and fierce opposition to global terrorism has won international praise. He has no fear of gradually reducing the size of government and the bureaucracy, cutting bloated social programmes and bringing down income tax rates. Meanwhile, the Canadian economy is in relatively good shape as compared to the US and Europe.

So, what is Harper’s secret of conservative success in a liberal society? What lessons can he teach David Cameron, the US Republicans and other centre-right Western leaders about maintaining their convictions and still winning elections? 

Maybe I can shed some light. I’ve known Harper since 1996. Although we weren’t close friends, we met every so often and used to keep in fairly regular contact. We discussed everything from Canadian politics to, believe it or not, traditional Christmas music. I also worked in the Prime Minister’s Office as one of his speechwriters during the first minority government.     

Harper is a highly intelligent, well-read, and astute political thinker. He’s a great admirer of past conservative leaders like Ronald Reagan, Sir Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. He holds a master’s degree in economics from the University of Calgary, and is always engaged when it comes to Canada’s financial health and future success. Harper understands campaigning, having first won a federal seat in 1993, and enjoys the subtle art of strategic warfare during an election. He’s also a conviction politician: doing what he feels is right, no matter the personal cost in terms of popular opinion and support.

Yet for many years, Harper was one of Canada’s most underestimated and misunderstood public figures. He was difficult to classify, often characterised as a voice of moderate conservatism or an extreme right-winger out of touch with mainstream thinking. He was viewed as a policy wonk who couldn’t identify with the common man. He was a decent public speaker, but hardly an inspiring figure: he lacked charisma, and was considered wooden. In short, he was everything they teach you in Politics 101 not to be when running for public office. 

Political conditions were also not to Harper’s advantage. The Liberals had formed the government for nearly 75 per cent of Canada’s political history. Generations of voters, from established families to new immigrants, were comfortable with them and often refused to consider alternatives. Even when a Tory won a federal election, as Brian Mulroney did on two successive occasions (a rarity), the Liberals would come roaring back in popular support before long. In the world of give and take in federal elections, Canadian conservatives were given many headaches — and took many hits.  

There was also another pressing concern. From 1987-2003, Canada’s two main centre-right parties, the Progressive Conservatives and Reform Party (later the Canadian Alliance), had been fighting each other tooth and nail. The PCs had formed government on various occasions, but collapsed from 157 to two seats in the 1993 federal election. They were on life support and leaning far more to the left. Reform/Canadian Alliance originally started in western Canada, and had gradually gained the trust of many right-of-centre conservatives. Unfortunately, it was struggling to get more support in Eastern Canada, the key to winning power. 

Harper, like many other Canadian conservatives (myself included), was frustrated with this lengthy stay in the wilderness. He had been involved in all three brands: executive assistant for a PC MP, Reform MP from 1993 to 1997, and Alliance leader in 2002-03. He even left politics for a spell, due to personal frustration with conservative politicians and the continuing division of the two centre-right parties. Upon his return, Harper made it his personal mission to “unite the Right” for good. He successfully merged his party with the PCs in December 2003, and quickly became Conservative Party leader. Less than three years after resolving this mess, Harper became Canada’s 22nd prime minister.   

How did he do it? Over and above his intellectual prowess and ideological beliefs, Harper has always been pragmatic. He knew that the real enemy for Canadian conservatism was the Liberal Party and the priority should be to remove it from power. At the same time, he also knew many Canadians didn’t trust Conservatives or conservatives (alas, a common problem for centre-right leaders). Harper understood that conservatism wasn’t run by one person, party or agenda. The movement was bigger than the leader. Hence, the only way for conservatism to succeed was to rebrand its ideological component and recreate its political component to fit with real or perceived Canadian values. 

This was accomplished in two different ways. 

First, the prime minister became a strong proponent of “incremental conservatism”. Tom Flanagan, a University of Calgary professor (and former Harper confidant), defines this as “endorsing even very small steps if they are in the right direction, and accepting inaction in areas that can’t feasibly be changed right now, but opposing government initiatives that are clearly going the wrong way.” Second, Canadian conservatism gradually morphed into  a new phenomenon, which I have called “Harpertism”. As I explained it in the Ottawa Citizen, Harper “became the figurehead for Canadian conservatism, adjusted it, modified it, and rebranded it as a moderate — and heavily watered down — version of fiscal conservatism. In my view, Harpertism is neither good nor bad; it just is what it is. Yet the way it occurred was simply brilliant: it developed under the radar, caught most people off-guard, and led Conservatives back to the promised political land.” On a personal note, while I’ve been critical of Harper for his reduced commitment to fiscal conservatism, there’s no denying that his strategy has worked.

Harper’s quest was therefore to shift conservatism from being perceived as a long-standing negative philosophy into a positive force for change. To do so, an informal ten-year plan was established to create a “conservative Canada”. This would involve removing decades of extensive left-wing brainwashing about the need for a nanny state. In both minority and majority governments, the Harper Tories have consistently taken a slow, methodical approach to running the country effectively as well as removing archaic Liberal values. They have demonstrated that the Left’s long-standing description of the “scary” Conservatives and their “hidden agenda” was nothing more than tomfoolery designed to frighten the public at every turn. 

So, the Tories instituted a moderate fiscal conservative economic plan that would appeal to a wide range of individuals and groups. Targeted tax cuts were favoured rather than broad-based tax relief, and while small reforms to private healthcare were championed, a commitment to universal healthcare was maintained. At the same time, foreign policy positions got stronger. Canada took a leadership role in Afghanistan, and publicly condemned despots and totalitarian regimes like Syria. Israel was strongly defended, but a two-state solution was endorsed in various speeches. Walking out of the United Nations when a tyrant like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was speaking was encouraged, but suggestions of leaving the UN were barely uttered.

The transition didn’t always go smoothly. Harper, a strong leader who rules with an iron fist and demands fierce loyalty, ran both the 2006 and 2008 minority governments as if he had a majority. Coupled with the fact  that the Tories have no natural allies in the House of Commons, parliamentary sessions went through wild fluctuations of compromise and aggression. Opposition parties often threatened to bring down the government but Harper rarely blinked, telling them to go ahead. In December 2008, it nearly happened: there was an attempt at a coup, in which the opposition signed a deal in principle to bring down the government. But Harper was able to prorogue parliament at the last minute and the opposition alliance quickly dissolved.

Surprisingly, this near-defeat made Harper even more popular. More Canadians began to admire his intelligence, political savvy and tenacious leadership skills. They had grown to like the fact that the prime minister was a conviction politician. He worked hard to improve some of his flaws — public speaking, people skills — and succeeded. The economy was chugging along nicely. Canada’s new role on the international stage proved that a middle power could have real influence if it was willing to speak up. The Tory tent began to encompass more people than ever before. 

And the biggest change? The Liberal hegemony over Canadian values had collapsed like a house of cards. In July 2011, shortly after winning the election, Harper made this powerful statement to supporters: “Conservative values are Canadian values. Canadian values are conservative values. They always were . . . and Canadians are going back to the party that most closely reflects who they really are: the Conservative Party, which is Canada’s party.” Three successive election wins, combined with voters becoming more comfortable with a Conservative government in power, had led to a generational shift in attitudes. What had been Liberal in Canada was now Conservative. It was going to be difficult for left-wing parties to change this perception anytime soon.

This is Harper’s secret. He succeeded where many other conservatives failed by refusing to be bogged down by ideology and by giving the people what they wanted. He changed the hearts and minds of voters by refusing to settle for second-best — because he wanted Canada to be great. He dismantled negative associations with conservatism and showed how it could benefit society by promoting individual rights and freedoms over constant government interference. He blended moderate policies with principled actions, in the process turning a policy wonk into a powerful, confident      leader.

Thanks to Harper’s efforts, we are more prosperous, confident and better-off in (formerly) liberal Canada. If other centre-right leaders follow this forward-thinking strategy, there’s no reason the same thing can’t happen in their countries.