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Make Canadian Conservatives Interesting Again

The candidates need more of that old Red Tory zest and appeal, not just more of the same.

Election night, October 21, 2019 in Montreal, Canada. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)

On January 13, the race for the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) officially began. Following the Tories’ October general election loss, Andrew Scheer—the anodyne, fiscally focused 40-year-old who has been party head since 2017—announced his resignation, triggering a scramble among his would-be successors. As of this writing, the major candidates include former Cabinet minister Peter MacKay and Ontario MP Marilyn Gladu. Erin O’Toole, Rick Peterson, and Derek Sloan, have also thrown their hats into the ring. They’ll have some time to make their respective pitches—the party won’t vote on a new leader until its convention meets in June. 

Hanging over the leadership contest is the still-unresolved question of why the Tories lost. After all, 2019 should have been their year: the sitting prime minister was dogged by scandal even before documentary evidence of him wearing blackface on multiple (!) occasions emerged, competition from the Greens and the New Democratic Party had divided the left and bled Liberal votes, and the Tories led in the polls for much of the campaign. 

Despite these advantages, the Conservatives failed to capture a parliamentary majority, and Trudeau retained a shaky hold on power. A variety of narratives have emerged to explain this: some blame Scheer’s personal stances on abortion and gay marriage (supposedly poison to Canada’s socially liberal electorate), while others point to a lack of substantive policy proposals and an overconfident campaign high on its internal polls

These explanations are valid, so far as they go. But the Tories have a deeper issue: they have become profoundly, irreducibly boring. One feels bad for picking on Scheer, who seems like a thoroughly decent person, but he was an uncharismatic leader whose lack of charm and ability meant he was mainly playing defense against Trudeau (who, even with the blackface scandal, was able to turn his good looks and ease with the media to great advantage). Yet this problem extends beyond the party leader. Terrified of alienating Canada’s centrist electorate, the Tories ran on tinkering with the economy, mild criticism of Trudeau the man, and nothing else. 

“We’ll lower your taxes and loosen some regulations,” they said to voters, “and instead of a smug dilettante coasting on looks and family name, you’ll get a government of competent ministers.” On almost every other subject—immigration, foreign policy, social issues—the Conservative platform was effectively indistinguishable from the Liberals’. 

Ironically, the very reason that the Tories avoided staking out more definitive stances—fear that the electorate’s default ideological position is moderate leftism—meant that, given the choice between an actual left-wing option and pallid “conservatism,” these voters ended up defaulting to the Liberals, NDP, and Greens.

Is there a way for the Canadian right to escape this trap? One answer may be to look to its past, specifically the tradition of Red Toryism. Less a systematic ideology than a loose tendency, its adherents blended progressive stances on economics with populist social positions and a robust conception of Canadian national identity. Red Tories were skeptical of laissez-faire fundamentalism and held a communitarian view of society, one in which the state could play a large role in shaping the lives of its citizens.

Lacking a rigid orthodoxy, they created space for flexible policies and talented, creative leaders; some of the country’s greatest statesmen (Sir John A. MacDonald and Sir Robert Borden, for example) and most original thinkers (Donald Creighton, George Grant) came out of this milieu. As journalist Geoffrey Stevens put it, Red Toryism made the Conservatives “consistently the most interesting party in Canada; for long stretches, they were our only interesting party. Unlike the Liberals, they were not obsessed with power (which they seldom enjoyed); unlike the New Democrats, they were not blinded by doctrine.”

In their prime, they also delivered results. The largest parliamentary majority in Canadian history was won in 1958 by John Diefenbaker, a quintessential Red Tory. Diefenbaker ran as an economic nationalist, pledging to end what he called the Liberals’ “Canada Last policy” by promoting domestic production, protecting industry and agriculture from foreign competition, and achieving a favorable balance of trade. To make full use of the country’s natural resources, he expounded a “Northern Vision,” promising to develop the economic potential of the vast Canadian north. 

He also sought a more independent and influential course on the world stage. Once elected, he would resist American efforts to position nuclear weapons on Canadian territory and successfully pressure the Commonwealth to expel apartheid from South Africa. In other words, Diefenbaker offered a creative, compelling platform, and voters rewarded him for it.

The difficulty with looking to Red Toryism in 2020, though, is that neither the standard-bearers nor the constituency are in place. “Red Tories” are still discussed in Canadian politics, but what is meant has shifted considerably. When originally coined in the ‘60s, the term referred to people like Diefenbaker—economically progressive, with pragmatic but recognizably conservative social views and a strong sense of national identity. As used in modern Canadian politics, however, it means almost the inverse—“Red Tories,” a recent CBC article has it, are “so named for their fiscal conservatism and liberal views on social issues.” 

There are several candidates in the current leadership race (notably Peter MacKay, probably the odds-on favorite at the moment) who meet the new meaning of Red Tory; there is scarcely anyone who could plausibly run under the old definition. Yet given the recent successes of “one-nation conservatism” elsewhere in the Anglosphere, this seems like a missed opportunity. 

The utter loss of relevance is a consequence of the last three decades. Throughout much of the 20th century, Red Toryism in the older sense was a significant—and often dominant—strain of Canadian conservatism. However, the 1980s brought with them a heady mix of neoliberalism, Western alienation, and endemic party infighting that combined to end the movement’s influence. 

It began within the Progressive Conservative party, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney abandoned the Canadian right’s traditional protectionism to endorse free trade with the U.S. In 1987, another blow came as more stridently free-market, socially conservative members peeled off to form the Reform Party, finding a base for their pseudo-Reaganite agenda in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. As Reform grew to become the country’s second largest party, the rump Progressive Conservatives languished both electorally and ideologically. 

A divided right enabled Liberal election victories in 1993 and 1997, and in the hopes of retaking government, the two parties merged in 2003 to form the modern Conservative Party. Under Stephen Harper, this united front mostly reflected the neoliberal commitments of the Reform Party—advocating free trade, deregulation, and fiscal discipline at home, and deference to American priorities abroad.

After back-to-back losses on the Harper/Scheer script, is anyone positioned to take up the Red Tory mantle? One contender is MacKay, who is rumored to have had a tryst with Condoleeza Rice. Charismatic and experienced, MacKay has long been seen as a representative of the (newer) Red Tory tendency. But his relationship to this persuasion is complicated. He started his career in the ‘90s as a Progressive Conservative, and quickly rose to become party leader. However, once in power, he betrayed an earlier pledge and merged his party with Stephen Harper’s Reform, enabling the latter’s consolidation of the right (and securing successive cabinet posts for himself).

MacKay is also viscerally opposed to the social conservative wing of the party (Andrew Scheer’s views on abortion and gay marriage, he contended after the election, constituted a “stinking albatross” around the Tories’ neck) and flexible to the point of ambiguity on economics. That calls his ability to advance a Red Tory-style agenda into serious question.

Another candidate cited as a potential standard-bearer is Erin O’Toole, a moderate Ontario MP and (unusually for Canada) a military veteran. O’Toole also ran for the leadership in 2017, and has indicated that his campaign would take a big-tent and Millennial-friendly approach. However, his lower name recognition and considerable overlap with MacKay give him longer odds. Though Harper himself is unlikely to run, the orthodox “Blue Tory” faction will have at least one major candidate in the race. This will probably be Pierre Poilievre, a young and assertive fiscal conservative who gives off strong Paul Ryan vibes. As the campaign heats up, look for a two-way race between MacKay and Poilievre as the most likely endgame.

Canadian conservatives shouldn’t be under any illusions. In the original (and, I submit, the most interesting) sense of the term, there is no Red Tory currently in the race, meaning that party members would have to create demand-side pressures if they wanted a change. And given the fact that any platform must win a plurality among an effectively center-left electorate, they would have to be both judicious and creative in their policy approaches. The historic marginalization and ideological looseness of Red Toryism makes it difficult to sketch what the nuts and bolts of such a platform might look like. But it would have to be comfortable with bigness (perhaps pushing for massive national infrastructure projects, like MacDonald’s transcontinental railway or Diefenbaker’s proposed Northern Vision) as well as smallness (pro-natalist policy changes or a more thorough-going embrace of environmental concerns). A Red Tory turn might give the Conservatives a better shot at beating Trudeau in the next go-round; at the very least, it will make them more fun to watch.

Luke Nicastro is a defense analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He has an MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago.

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