Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 10/14/2008 by Mark Tubbs.
Recommended. An engaging and insightful backstage-passes-only look at Canada’s 20th century conservative luminaries, with abundant relevance for today’s political scene in North America.
The day on which this review is posted happens to be the day of Canada’s 2008 federal election. Today Canadians will go to the polls to elect their local federal representatives. In turn, the leader of the party which garners the highest amount of elected seats becomes Prime Minister.
I freely confess that as of a couple of weeks ago I was quite torn regarding my own voting strategy. Unlike in the United States, the Canadian electorate cannot assume nor demand any candidate’s position on abortion, for example. Even candidates of the Conservative Party, the party with which most evangelical Christians in Canada would identify, may not be any more pro-life than the candidates put forward by the more liberal, progressive parties.
This all adds up to an individual political conundrum for someone like myself, who occupies neither of the two political extremes Christians tend toward; on one hand, looking for the Christian Values Warrior amongst the candidates – and invariably being disappointed by him or her – and on the other hand, morosely declaring that a vote for any party is a wasted vote, thereby neglecting to participate in the privilege of the political process. I’ve always voted Conservative in the past (Progressive Conservative, actually, when that was what the party was called), and have given much thought lately to the question of what true conservatism is. Then I came across a book I had first read as an undergraduate ten years ago, Radical Tories by Charles Taylor. I remembered being gripped by it when I had first read it, and was pleased to note that its publisher had re-released it. In its pages, author Taylor wrestles with the selfsame questions I was asking myself. But what had his conclusions been? And would I be able to locate a copy in time to review the book before the federal election? Well, reviewing does have its perks. House of Anansi put a copy of the second edition of the book in my hands by the next week, and I have spent some enjoyable hours reacquainting myself with the conservative tradition in Canada, gaining some much-needed perspective on the upcoming election, all the while relishing Taylor’s delicious turn of phrase.
Hailed as “one of the hundred most important Canadian books ever written” by the Literary Review of Canada, the compilation of works was overseen by Margaret Atwood, who should be familiar to readers outside Canada’s territorial confines. Radical Tories has stood the test of time, having been first published in 1982 and recently republished in 2006. Rather than a dry discussion of political theory, journalist Taylor has written a book that is narrative in style and expansive in scope. Beginning with the staunch British imperialist Stephen Leacock, now better known as the humorist of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, and concluding with Toronto’s former ‘tiny, perfect mayor’ David Crombie, Taylor meets and mingles with the dominant conservative luminaries of the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. “They were a diverse lot, with different outlooks and roots in different regions,” reports Taylor, “but they were hardly a cross section of anything, except the conservative temperament.” This diversity makes for interesting reading indeed.
Before I go any further, I should note that Taylor rebuffs the neoconservative movement of the 70s, 80s, and beyond. The neoconservative movement is essentially an ideologically liberal strain in terms of the role of government and the primacy of the individual. Laissez-faire economics, unrestrained private enterprise, ever-accelerating technological advancement, and much more are hallmarks of the neoconservative. Taylor, on the other hand, advocates a different kind of toryism – a sort of radical toryism – as the way forward for conservatism. The following are quotes I thought salient to the condition of the contemporary conservative movement in the western world, politics as a whole, and to life in general:
Continuity does not rule out change. [Canada was built upon] a conservatism which through responsible government had come to terms with democracy…and was prepared to move with the times when the need for change was proven.
It was Edmund Burke who saw the state as a partnership not just among the living, but among those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born. This was at the core of Burke’s philosophy, and it is essential to any conservative vision.
Put simply, red tories are conservatives with a conscience. Respecting tradition and order they are also concerned with social justice and are willing to use public power to curtail private greed…red tories might be the most authentic of Canadian conservatives, and that some form of red toryism might offer the best hope for our future.
The conservative principle of hierarchy – which arises from a diversity of talents – must be balanced against the principle of equality – arises from the absolute worth of all men.
The true conservative is neither a doctrinaire support of private enterprise nor a diehard opponent of necessary reforms. While conservatives had always favoured a limited role for government…they were never afraid to use the power of the state for the national good, and they did not place private enterprise on a pedestal. While conservatives stressed the importance of order, this meant not merely ‘law and order’ but also social order. In turn, this implied concern for the poor and disadvantaged, concern for the environment and concern for the effects of economic growth.
In opposition to liberal individualism, the tory sees society as an organic unity in which everyone has his duties as well as his rights.
Tories have a sense of reverence. Defending human dignity, they also recognize human fallibility: man is not the measure of all they survey. They know that we are part of some larger order, which we can only dimly comprehend, and which must command our highest allegiance. This is the ultimate source of this optimism.
If there is a drawback to the book, it is that a reader lacking interest in the Canadian political philosophy scene might be bored by the way the personnel of the book dominate its narrative flow. Even to a modern-day Canadian, virtually every figure in the book – with the possible exception of Leacock – is unknown, and this is for the worse. I would recommend you avoid the book if you don’t like meeting new people.
If there is a drawback to the author, it is that despite his thoughtful conservatism and his acknowledgement of a ‘higher order’ outside of the created world, he admits that unlike one of the subjects of the book, the moral philosopher George Grant, he possesses no sure faith. However, his Wikipedia entry indicates his religion as ‘Anglican,’ which I can only hope demonstrates a newfound life of faith between the writing of this book in 1981 and his death by cancer in 1997.
Does the book deliver on Taylor’s seminal question, “Was there any form of conservatism which made sense in our modern era?” Insofar as the book points to the future, it cannot answer the question definitively. Will ‘red toryism’ rise again? Perhaps, if its adherents follow the counsel of Robert Stanfield: “To gain strength, the Conservatives need a few simple principles which the public can support. The Conservatives could win if they could create an impression that the party’s basic concern was about the quality of society.” And once they have created this impression, they would do well to press on with the substance of the quotes above. Such is a recipe for true conservatism, seemingly lost in the present age.