Michael Ignatieff, Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2013. 205 pages
Tom Flanagan, Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart 2014. 248 pages.
Michael Ignatieff (PhD history, Harvard), and Tom Flanagan (PhD political science, Duke) are intellectuals who entered the Canadian political arena, paid the price, and lived to tell the tale – in the form of these two books. Writing books is what intellectuals do, and they know what they are getting into, but as evidenced by these books they can be unprepared for what awaits them in – or after leaving – the political arena. As a PhD who also dabbled in (Quebec) politics, these books have a particular resonance for me.
Clearly Flanagan’s and Ignatieff’s experiences are not comparable. Tom Flanagan was apparently quite satisfied with the job he had done when in 2005, after five years, he left the Stephen Harper team, having served as chief of staff among other top positions. (He returned briefly to work in the party’s war room during the 2005–06 campaign.) He explains the prevailing attitude at the time: “When the Liberals seemed to be in power forever, Conservatives concluded that part of their secret of success was ruthlessness … We concluded that we would have to beat them at their own game, and we did. Harper led the way.”
He was nevertheless unprepared, seven years later, for the reactions of his erstwhile colleagues to “the incident” (see box). Back at the University of Calgary, and despite acting at the time as unpaid adviser to Alberta’s Wildrose party leader Danielle Smith, Flanagan the public intellectual complains bitterly that, in effect, he was treated as a politician and not the academic he now was. It is from this standpoint that he uses his own experience to expand on what he sees as a wider phenomenon, one that threatens academic freedom. Much of his discussion of the threat to academic freedom is quite persuasive, though its academic tone makes it less than compelling reading for a wider public.
This cannot be said about Ignatieff’s Fire and Ashes. Its author is a fine writer. Ignatieff too reflects on his experience, but this is not a dispassionate analysis. Rather, it is the expression of the still raw feelings of a modern Icarus who fell abruptly to earth after flying too close to the sun of political power. A public intellectual who had never been a politician, a Canadian who hadn’t lived in his country for 30 years, Ignatieff let himself be convinced that he could be prime minister. He attributes his failure to his being unprepared for the reality of contemporary Canadian politics, in part because it had moved to the right during his absence, but mainly because it had sunk, under Harper, to a level of nasty partisanship that he was unequipped to play.