The Strange Death of Liberal Canada

The darling of progressive intellectuals, Michael Ignatieff has just led his party to a shattering and possibly terminal election defeat

Michael Ignatieff always appeared to be the predestined man, scion of a noble Russian family, including one of the last Tsar’s ministers, and of a prominent Anglo-Canadian family of academics and business leaders. He was a star in one of Canada’s most exclusive schools, and an alumnus of the University of Toronto, Oxford, and Harvard. He became a well-regarded university lecturer and a prize-winning author, and not only in the suspiciously log-rolling and back-scratching world of Can(adian)Lit(erature). He was shortlisted for the Booker and endorsed by Isaiah Berlin, a professor and mentor at Oxford, as his biographer.

He acquired a reputation as an expert on human rights and gained credibility by being independent-minded and not just another cypher of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch attacking every foreign policy initiative of the United States. He was rewarded with a prominent civil rights chair at Harvard. There were problems of abrupt changes of position, including his very public and rigorous endorsement of the Iraq War followed by his eventual complete recantation when WMD were not discovered, as if that were the only reason for disposing of Saddam Hussein, or the principal one given by the US government, or even by Ignatieff himself. 

His father, George Ignatieff, was a very respected diplomat and public servant, and prominent member of the Liberal establishment that staffed the senior civil and diplomatic service from 1896 to 2006, and governed Canada for 80 of those years. The Canadian Liberals were the most successful party in the democratic world throughout this time, basically because they were the only pan-Canadian party that alternated English and French-Canadian leaders; because they were not the party that imposed conscription on an unconvinced French Canada in 1917; and because they sold themselves in Quebec as the party that would make Canada work for Quebec, and in the rest of the country as the party that would keep Quebec in Canada, by whatever combination of bonne entente and force majeure was required.

Part of the genius of the Canadian Liberals was the habit of selecting leaders in an unpredictable and exotic manner that was rivalled only by the Holy See for mystery and surprise. The Commonwealth’s longest serving prime minister, W.L. Mackenzie King (22 years), was a Harvard alumnus, a defeated former junior minister, and long resident in the United States when he was elected to a 29-year stint as Liberal leader, following the death of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who had been Liberal leader for 30 years. King’s successor, Louis St Laurent, had never dreamt of entering public life in his 60 years until King tapped him for the succession. Lester Pearson, a mentor of George Ignatieff, was a career foreign service officer when he got the call, and Pierre Trudeau was an underemployed academic with inherited wealth, who had never even supported the Liberals, when he was recruited by Pearson. Between them these five men led their party for 97 consecutive years, 66 of those as prime minister. 

No party that has ever had to fight a real election has had as serene and durable a conviction that it was the natural party of government as the Canadian Liberals. From 1896 to 1984, the Liberals won 15 full terms to four for the Conservatives. Through the years since the death in 1891 of Sir John Macdonald, the founder of the country as an autonomous confederation in 1867, and of the Conservative Party, that party was essentially a catchment for disparate elements who happened not to be Liberals, in particular grumpy prairie farmers and the Toronto financial community, who could not agree on anything except their dislike of the Liberals. From 1891 to 2006, the Liberals had eight leaders, seven elected to full terms as prime minister, and the Conservatives had 19 leaders, only four of whom were elected to full terms as prime minister.                            

The Liberal fortress was first sacked when the Conservatives finally chose a leader who spoke French and knew Quebec intimately, Brian Mulroney; and in 1984 he shattered the Liberal stranglehold on Quebec. The status of the Liberals as Canada’s indispensable guarantor of the integrity of the country evaporated. Mulroney produced a constitutional resolution plan that ultimately foundered on objections from Newfoundland and native people (Plains Indians), while his Quebec support defected to the separatists and his western support to a regional grouping; Mulroney retired, still master of a parliamentary majority. But his successor presided over the reduction of a Conservative majority in Parliament of over three hundred to a total of two Conservative MPs (not including Mulroney’s successor as prime minister, Kim Campbell, whose next post was consul-general in Los Angeles).

The next three Liberal leaders, John Turner, Jean Chrétien, and Paul Martin, only had 22 years as leader and 13 as prime minister, as the great Liberal mystique had gone and all that was left was a severely fragmented opposition. That enabled Chrétien, a stout-hearted federalist veteran of a whole generation of Quebec political battles, but a rough man who was not always comprehensible in either official language, and who almost lost the 1995 independence referendum in Quebec with a wail of appeal on its eve not to “break up the country”, to remain in office for ten years. He became the only elected prime minister in Canadian history to be evicted from that office by his own party. 

His successor and finance minister, Paul Martin (it was a little like Paul Keating pulling the rug out from under Bob Hawke in Australia in 1991, though the Australians, as usual, were more colourful personalities), was handed a grenade with the pin pulled by Chrétien in a scandal involving Liberal largesse to supporters in the  1995 referendum. By this time Stephen Harper, former head of a conservative taxpayers’ activist group, had united the old Conservative Party with the western renegade conservative party of which he, an Albertan, had been a founder. Harper brought down the Liberal government in 2006  and defeated Martin at the polls.  

The next Liberal leader, Stephane Dion, was the first in 119 years not to be prime minister. Dion only won the leadership after Martin was defeated at the polls. Michael Ignatieff, who had been parachuted into a safe constituency to the very audible disgruntlement of the incumbent Liberal, blew his campaign for the leadership, having started as the favourite. This was where the Ignatieff predestination script started to go horribly wrong. Two years later, after Dion had committed the Liberals to a mad adherence to the Kyoto Accords that would have impoverished Canada, Harper was re-elected with an enlarged minority government.

After his rout at the polls, Dion attempted a hare-brained coalition with the unofficial opposition parties, the comparatively socialist New Democrats and the federal representatives of Quebec separatism, who had replaced the Liberals as the principal beneficiary of the large tribal vote from Quebec. Ignatieff had abstained from this insanity and was anointed leader by the party elders. 

He began as the idol of the Canadian national media, which almost unanimously assumed that he could force and win an election at will. He was the Liberal leader and Dion, it was felt, had been aberrant. Ignatieff would restore power to its natural holders. 

But that status was irretrievable; neither Quebec nor the rest of Canada believed a word of it. The separatists had most of the Quebec MPs; Quebec’s ability to blackmail Canada had been reduced by its demographic decline and the rise of the far western provinces, wealthy in oil and other natural resources, and by the astute, bilingual Harper, who made tax cuts and economic growth good politics, and brought Canada through the 2008-09 recession with flying colours. 

There had been recurrent reports of Ignatieff undercutting members of his own party. His championship of civil rights was ultimately tainted by his endorsement of oppressive collective rights in Quebec, such as the imposition of unilingual French commercial signs. Ignatieff was trying to pander to Quebec with outworn constitutional and cultural overtures. He held a portentous “thinkers’ conference” that advocated more daycare and soft power (a concept that, if it works at all, only does so when the country practising it has a real power alternative).

He “lost no sleep” over the Lebanese dead at Qana, one week, and denounced the events there as an Israeli war crime the next, having previously bought into the piffle about the lack of “proportionality” of Israel’s response to the endless rocket attacks against Israeli civilians by Hamas in Gaza. Ignatieff’s intelligence is conceded by all, but not his judgment or even his intellectual ethics. 

Ignatieff’s claque in the cultural establishment, such as Adam Gopnick in the New Yorker, who declared him prime minister presumptive in 2009, signed on to Ignatieff’s right to govern. But Harper, though not especially popular as a somewhat desiccated and unspontaneous man, was yet competent and authoritative and delivered prosperity. He began to assert Canada’s new position in the world as rich, benign, prepared to enter places like Afghanistan, and much better governed than the debt-ridden United States, the floundering EU and geriatric Japan.         

Canada had suffered from being a mainly resource-based economy in the long era when lack of demand meant there was a glut of almost everything Canada produced: base and precious metals, energy, forest products. But once importers China and India, with nearly 40 per cent of the world’s population, began achieving economic growth rates of 6-10 per cent a year, Canada (and Australia) boomed. 

Canada’s self-conscious tugging at the trouser leg of the Americans and British, and even, at particularly grim moments, the French, ended. Harper proved an unruffled professional and a cunning political hard-baller: he ran advertising blitzes portraying Ignatieff as an elitist snob who had returned to Canada after an absence of decades to become an instant prime minister. 

The opposition parties, believing they could win a campaign, passed a resolution of contempt of Parliament because one of Harper’s ministers had given disingenuous answers to a parliamentary committee about the cessation of aid to a development agency that had been very censorious of Israel. The public didn’t want an election, blamed it on the opposition, and considered Ignatieff not as heir to King and Pearson and Trudeau but as an ineffectual dilettante. The harder he tried to be a populist leader, as in his implausible exhortation, “Rise up, Canada!”, the more absurd he became. 

Quebec dumped the separatists from the federal Parliament, where they were a nonsensical anachronism, and voted for an unknown slate of New Democrat flakes and kooks, making that party, hilariously, the mainly French, official opposition. The country deserted the Liberals in droves and gave Harper a strong mandate with a conveniently splintered opposition. Ignatieff was defeated in his own constituency, retired from politics the day after the election and accepted an academic position at the University of Toronto the day after that.  

His foray into public life has been a disaster. He has led the former party of government, the most successful political party in the democratic world, to the brink of extinction with less than 20 per cent of the vote, and doomed it to petition frivolous rivals for a merger. But as a result of the Liberal attempted suicide, Canada is within sight of a genuine two-party system for the first time since 1917. This is progress.

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