It has been said that the only things certain in life are death and taxes, but in Canada, there’s one more thing you can count on, and that’s conservatives – both fiscal and social – accusing the Conservative Party of “abandoning” its principles and “deserting” its core constituents. It’s no great surprise then that a handful of prominent Canadian conservatives are now doing just that.
There is no question that the Harper government’s record, from a narrowly conservative perspective, has been unspectacular, something for which conservatives are completely justified in holding them accountable. The critics are wrong, however, to blame the politicians alone for this unsatisfying performance.
The primary role of politicians is to get elected and stay elected. Sure, the purpose of getting elected is to implement a particular policy agenda, but that’s true only to the extent that it’s possible. To achieve anything in the way of policy, politicians must often perform the delicate and unpleasant task of balancing principle with popularity, pursuing only those policy objectives that are acceptable to the largest number of people at any given time, and setting aside those that are not.
To be successful, politicians must be adept at mediating multiple conflicting interests. Pragmatism, flexibility, and the ability to compromise – within reasonable limits, of course – are vital qualities to have in politics, especially in a country as large and as diverse as Canada.
On the other hand, these very same qualities render politicians singularly unsuited to be the exclusive, or even the main, source of conservative ideas and defenders of conservative principles. That role can only be filled by an independent conservative movement.
Freed from the inherent constraints of electoral politics, those individuals and organizations that comprise an independent conservative movement are able to develop and promote policy alternatives in a way that no political party can. By explaining conservative principles to the public and highlighting their benefits, these individuals and organizations expand the envelope of what’s possible for a conservative party to achieve in office, while reducing the scope of what non-conservative parties can impose.
Unfortunately, such a movement doesn’t really exist in Canada. The reason for this isn’t the desertion of conservative principles by its elected adherents though, but the lack of vision and committed leadership among conservatives outside of the political arena.
There’s no doubt that conservatives in Canada are sincere in their desire for change, but they aren’t very serious about promoting it. Support for independent conservative organizations in this country is tepid at best. As a consequence, most of these organizations are forced to operate as little more than volunteer clubs rather than the professional institutions they ought to be. Mediocrity is the rule, rather than the exception, and the results show.
For their part, the heads of many these organizations seem only too eager to surrender leadership of the conservative movement to the politicians, a convenient – if subconscious – way of evading any blame for its weak condition. Those who do fancy themselves leaders more often than not lack the knowledge and skill to competently represent their followers. Time and again their amateur interventions undermine their objectives and discredit the movement as a whole.
Compounding this is the attitude of at least some prominent conservatives that conservative organizations should act as surrogates of the Conservative Party when that party is in office, promoting its needs rather than challenging its thinking.
Given all this, is it any wonder that a Conservative government would settle into policy fecklessness, while principled conservatives feel bitter and abandoned?
The frustration of conservatives in Canada is understandable. The answer, however, is not to punish the Conservative Party for compromising its principles in order to remain politically attractive – as disagreeable as that may be – but to alter the environment that makes such compromises necessary in the first place. Politicians will always compete for the middle of the political spectrum and they are right to do so. The key for the long-term success of conservatives is to define where the middle of the political spectrum is.
To accomplish this, not only must there be institutions promoting conservative policies and defending conservative principles independent of the political party, these institutions must be adequately funded and competently run. By failing to provide this support and accountability, it’s grassroots conservatives and their leaders who have abandoned their ideas and principles, not politicians. Criticism of the Conservative Party is a healthy thing, but it would be a lot more credible if those doing it weren’t guilty of the same offences they accuse the politicians of.
It’s time for Canadian conservatives to stop the blame game, to stand on their own two feet, and to assume responsibility for the advancement of conservatism in Canada themselves.
Let’s let the politicians follow us for a change.