Kevin Little defends Red Tories but offers little hope. On the plus side, New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservatives won a landslide this September on a platform of lavish and often superficially egalitarian promises – for example, the PCs were the only major party that promised to reverse tax cuts for the wealthy. Next door a very Red Tory, Jamie Baillie, became leader of the Nova Scotia PCs. But rearranging furniture in the bunker will not slow the extinction of an outdated ideology.
The Red Tory conceit is that social democratic policies and economic protectionism can be deployed to support more traditional social relationships. Old elites maintain their place while giving everyone else enough money and services to keep them quiet. Lip service is paid to hard work and fiscal restraint. The core contradiction in the Red Tory idea, that old societies can harness modern economies, is exposed in the record of profligacy and debt that marks Red Tories in government, at both the federal and the provincial level.
Little posits that Atlantic Canada, the last bastion of a Red Tory idea now expunged from the federal and most provincial Conservative parties, struck some sort of economic bargain with Upper Canada at Confederation, giving the region the right to take transfer payments in exchange for the destruction of our manufacturing sector and subsequent declines in productivity. The reality is more prosaic, as old cultural and commercial elites traded the risks and promise of a modern society for a quiet and well subsidized decline.
As a result, economic development in Atlantic Canada took on characteristics of underdevelopment usually seen in poor countries, with transfer payments taking the place of international assistance. Local elites have benefited, in cash and influence, from kowtowing to policies enjoying popularity in Ottawa or in “have” provinces, and have been rewarded by voters benefiting from jobs or job-creation programs.
Red Toryism, like all ideologies that look nostalgically to an imagined past, inflicts economic and social costs on the majority. New Brunswick has lavished hundreds of millions of dollars on preserving increasingly unprofitable resource-based industries, and disguised its inattention to health and education programs through comfortable accommodation with public-sector unions. The costs of these actions have been borne by the 56 per cent of the province’s residents who have low literacy skills and find themselves trapped in a cycle of underemployment. The opportunities of the modern world are largely closed to them.
Red Tories use the welfare state to fend off upstart entrepreneurs and political reformers who challenge their comfortable inefficiency. Patronage is warmed over and described as egalitarianism – as if a snowplough operator does not realize that his job depends on which politician he supports come election time. Economic development agencies distort the business environment, making the politically well connected competitive regardless of whether their goods or services appeal to buyers. Many ambitious Atlantic Canadians, without the restrictions on mobility that limit the citizens of poor countries or the connections needed to do well at home, vote with their feet and move away.
Trying to revive the brand in the face of its failure in practice, Little, Baillie and others look for salvation in etymology: conservatism’s shared root with conservation. British Prime Minister David Cameron is praised for his green-friendly talk of the “big society” and for replacing his party’s Thatcher-era logo with a green tree. But even Little notes that the Cameron lifeline is fraying. Cameron is governing as a deep-Blue Tory, as the environment takes a back seat to swingeing government spending cuts.
Red Tories have been reluctant to enter battle in another area, tradition, which could offer political purchase. There has been no coherent, mainstream Red Tory defence of the core Enlightenment values of freedom, responsibility and tolerance. This may be because the cultural vein those freedoms mine is not compatible with the Red Tory mindset, which favours more limited freedoms.
The Red Tory model can survive only when other governments, quicker to accept the costs and benefits of economic and social openness, stand ready to share their wealth. Just as the self-image of British Toryism – the country squire who treats his peasants right, thus earning the doffing of the cloth cap – was a fiction invented by the elite to conceal a rigid class structure, so too do Red Tories deny the reality of modern Canada. Like it or not, our successful governments have followed a more neoconservative (British Columbia, Alberta) or social democratic (Saskatchewan, Manitoba) path.
The way ahead seems depressing for Atlantic provinces emerging from the cocoon of Red Tory stasis. Britain fell into stagnation after 30 years of postwar consensus before being overtaken by the Thatcher revolution. So the Red Tory consensus that has dominated Atlantic politics will likely be washed away by a neoconservative wave brought in by a tide of debt and deficits and an aging, shrinking population. As with all such waves, there will be needless destruction.
A possible alternative can be seen in the region’s largest economy where a New Democratic government, led by a self-described “conservative progressive,” was elected in 2009 and has taken steps – including a hike to the HST and cuts to spending – to address the looming crisis. The NDP did not campaign on many of the reforms now being introduced and they have provoked dissent inside and outside the party. Darrell Dexter’s option may yet fail, but it does provide a realistic alternative to the Red Tories’ weak traditional medicine and the “starve the beast” prescription of the neocons.
The Red Tory Little defends is kinder than Stephen Harper or Mike Harris, but less honest. The offer of a free lunch in exchange for economic dependency and elite control, made more palatable by warm words about culture, community and collectivity, is unsustainable. The future will be decided the day the transfer payments stop. On that day, the Red Tories will die. Then the poorest region of our country can set about deciding what sort of future it wants.