The conservative civil war is older than people think

Every news story, editorial, or blog post about this election has said that it will be a watershed in Alberta’s political history. The province of political dynasties is on a precipice that happens only once every few decades, and this election will either be a repeat of 1993 when the reigning dynasty was able to reinvent itself or of 1971 when even the weight of history could not withstand the winds of change.

What is this election about? From a purely political standpoint, this is a battle between the factions of the conservative movement in Canada that have been at war with each other for decade. Alison Redford is the vanguard of the possible return of Torydom to Alberta. By ‘Tory’, I do not mean the colloquial term describing Canadian conservatives in general, but the specific strain of Canadian conservatism that traces its lineage all the way back to John A. MacDonald, but is most personified by the Tories of the second half of the twentieth century like Robert Stanfield, Dalton Camp, Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney, and  Peter Lougheed. Redford is merely the latest standard-bearer of a prestigious political pedigree.

Danielle Smith and the Wildrose, on the other hand, are part of the ‘new right’, the rise of which has been ascribed to populist champion Preston Manning and his intellectual allies such as Tom Flanagan, Barry Cooper, Rainer Knopff, Stephen Harper, and, ironically, now-Tory Ted Morton. However, this western Canadian brand of conservatism is older than the 1980s, and can be traced back to prairie populists like John Diefenbaker, Ernest Manning, and William Aberhart.

(Colby Cosh’s piece on the Wildrose and Kevin Libin’s piece on Alison Redford discuss the political pedigrees of both leaders.)

The details are usually only of interest to political scientists, historians, and journalists, but suffice it to say that the 2012 Alberta Election is merely the latest flare-up of a long-standing conservative civil war. The fight between moderate Tory elites and populist and ideological conservatives does not just describe the duel between Redford’s PCs and Smith’s Wildrose but is the same battle fought by Robert Stanfield’s faction of the federal PCs against the Diefenbaker loyalists in the 1960s.

So what about the Ralph Klein years? How could Ralph’s PC party—a party that led a decade-long scorched earth campaign against the debt decried even by his successors—be the same party as that of Peter Lougheed, who started government corporations and supported the National Energy Program?

It wasn’t.

The anointed successor to Don Getty was fellow Tory Nancy Betkowski, but she was defeated by populist Ralph Klein. Ralph Klein was more of a populist than a true conservative because, though he was (in)famous for slaying the dragon that was the deficit, he was known as a Liberal before entering provincial politics, and government spending during his final term could hardly be called conservative. His populist appeal, however, remained constant throughout his political career.

Moreover, there was a zeitgeist in the 1990s of paring back the welfare state. 1993 was the peak of the Alberta Liberals, and, like Klein, opposition leader Laurence Decore also ran on a platform of deficit-slaying. One has to wonder if anything would have changed in the 1990s had Decore won; I personally believe the Liberals would have slashed-and-burned just as much as Klein did, if not moreso, just to prove that Liberals could govern austerely. This popular sentiment was seen on the federal level too, where—in one of the greatest ironies in Canadian political history–the spiritual successor of the Liberal Party’s left wing, Jean Chretien, also slashed-and-burned and led one of the most fiscally conservative governments in Canadian history during his first two terms.

But, I digress.

The battle between Redford’s PCs and Smith’s Wildrose is a proxy for the struggle between the two visions of Canadian conservatism. The former is more moderate and driven by a cadre of elites who broker between segments of society. The latter is more ideological and populist, relying on plebiscitarian mechanisms to make decisions rather than brokerage done by elites.

This tension is easily seen in the controversy over social issues that has dominated the coverage of this election campaign. In the increasing social liberalism of today, it is not surprising that social conservatives have made their home in populist parties. As the members of the new right have argued, (ironically, one of the biggest champions of this argument is Ted Morton) there is an alliance between Liberal elites and ‘rights-seeking’ individuals (gays, feminists, environmentalists, etc.) to use the courts to bypass the usual legislative channels in order to achieve social change and expand the welfare state to provide service to the aforementioned groups. Thus, while libertarians, social conservatives, and fiscal hawks may have disagreements with each other, they are united in their common opposition to the welfare state and its allies. They argue that old-school Tories, because they rely on brokerage, do not have the backbone to stand up to ‘special interests’ and that these groups do not even have to go through the courts anymore because they can simply approach a government that is all too happy to accommodate their requests.

The Tories, meanwhile, argue their support for these groups is not anything revolutionary, but simply an acceptance that society has changed. Furthermore, as the Tories are more typified by technocratic governance through elites, academics, and professionals rather than the ‘common sense governance’ advocated by populists, Tories more readily accept the intellectual push for change that tends to predate popular acceptance.

Anyone who has been following Alberta politics has seen Redford’s technocratic tendencies and Smith’s repeated invocation of the populist mantra of ‘common sense politics’.

Progressive ‘conservatives’ versus ‘real’ conservatives.

Elites versus populists.

Technocracy versus common sense.

No matter how you describe it, the Alberta 2012 election is another chapter in the long-standing internal rivalry within the Canadian conservative movement—a rivalry that has been a civil war since the post-Diefenbaker days, and a rivalry that was only recently pacified at the federal level when the Canadian Alliance absorbed the Progressive Conservatives in 2003. Which side will win in Alberta remains to be seen. Toryism outside of the Maritimes is confined to Alberta and Manitoba. Elsewhere, it has had to ally with the Liberals (as is the case in British Columbia and Saskatchewan) or has been taken over by the new right altogether, as is the case with the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party.

Popular interest in politics might wane after April 23, 2012, but the followers, practitioners, and students of politics will watch with interest as the two conservative factions continue to do battle in Alberta’s 28th Legislative Assembly.

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About jbsantos
Polling, politics, PR and outdoor pursuits.

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