On February 6, 2014, Stephen Harper celebrated (or at least one presumes that he celebrated) his eighth anniversary as Prime Minister of Canada. Although not an unusually long time in office by Canadian standards, this milestone places him ahead of several prime ministers who left their mark on the country: Mackenzie, Bennett, Diefenbaker and Pearson to name a few. By the end of 2014, on the fairly safe assumption that he is still in office, Harper will rank as the most durable Conservative prime minister since John A. Macdonald. Assuming that the next election is in October 2015 and that Harper leads his party into that election, he will have been Prime Minister for nine years and eight months, a term of office exceeded only by Macdonald, Laurier, King, Trudeau and Chrétien. If Harper’s party wins enough seats in that election to keep him in office for a while he will easily surpass Chrétien, who was Prime Minister for ten years and one month.

What does Harper’s successful career to date tell us about the state of Canadian politics in the second decade of the 21st century? Has the centre of gravity of Canadian party politics shifted sharply and decisively to the right? Is Canadian party politics becoming less consensual and more polarized? Are we witnessing the Americanization of our political system? Have the recent changes been so fundamental that we have entered an entirely new party system, our fifth since Confederation, as a former student of the present writer has argued? How significant a figure will Harper appear to be in the evaluations of future historians? How does he relate to the past history of conservatism in Canada? And, to pose the last question as crudely as possible, is he really as bad as the chattering classes of Canada seem to believe he is?

Harper and King: The resemblances

While I cannot definitively answer any of these questions, I will begin the discussion by suggesting that, of the 21 prime ministers who preceded him, the one that Harper most resembles is William Lyon Mackenzie King. Without access to Harper’s private papers, and without the opportunity to have known him personally as a leader, employer or colleague, I can only make this assertion very tentatively, but the similarities are striking and interesting. This is not to say that Harper will last as long in office as King did, an accomplishment that is probably impossible for any democratic leader in the present era. Nor is to suggest that Harper is likely ever to be ranked as the greatest Canadian prime minister, an accolade that was posthumously (and in my opinion erroneously) bestowed on King by a committee of distinguished historians in 1997.1 However, the parallel is worth pursuing.

Even Harper’s worst enemies will probably concede that, like King, he is a skilful and effective politician. Like King also, he is totally lacking in the quality that is nowadays usually referred to as charisma. To say the least, neither King nor Harper could be credited with the oratorical talents of Pericles, Lincoln, Churchill or even Laurier. Neither ever said anything particularly memorable, unless one counts “not necessarily conscription but conscription if necessary” to King’s credit. Neither seemed or seems particularly comfortable talking to ordinary voters, in the populist style of a John Diefenbaker or Jean Chrétien. Both are devout Protestant Christians from middle-class Ontario families. Unlike any of our other prime ministers, both had postgraduate training in economics. Both left politics for a while to work in the private sector, and then returned to become successful party leaders and prime ministers. Even Harper’s reputed fondness for cats and King’s well-documented fondness for dogs suggest a warmer and more sentimental side to their respective personalities than is superficially obvious from their political behaviour.

Most significantly, perhaps, both were successful in reinventing, or at least rebuilding, a party that had fallen on very hard times, and thus prevented a radical change in Canada’s party system. The Liberal Party that King inherited from Laurier in 1919 at the age of 44 had been totally shattered by the issue of conscription, with most of its leading figures outside of Quebec joining Borden’s coalition government. On top of that misfortune, what remained of the Liberal base outside of Quebec was seriously threatened by the sudden rise of the Progressive Party in the west and rural Ontario. By 1921 about half of Canada’s people (Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta) were living under Progressive or United Farmers provincial governments. It might have seemed a safe bet that the Liberal Party of Canada, like its British counterpart, would dwindle away to insignificance over the next few years. That it did not do so is mainly a consequence of the political talents of Mackenzie King.

The Conservative Party of which Harper became the leader ten years ago, also at the age of 44, seemed in an equally sorry state. The Progressive Conservatives, after winning back-to-back majorities under Brian Mulroney, had been reduced to a humiliating total of two seats in 1993 under the hapless Kim Campbell. Preston Manning’s Reform Party, like the Progressives in King’s era, had flared up suddenly out of the west, but with the difference that its gains were mainly at the expense of the Tories rather than the Liberals. Making little headway in Ontario, the Reformers adopted the new label of Canadian Alliance, but stumbled under the inept leadership of Stockwell Day. The Progressive Conservatives had rebounded modestly from the nadir of 1993 but their strength was concentrated mainly in Atlantic Canada. Harper’s achievement was to weld these two right-of-centre parties into a united Conservative Party, led by himself, that could challenge the Liberals. Like King before him, he became prime minister just two years after taking over the party. Again like King, he was able to win a parliamentary majority after five years of leading a minority government.

King and Harper accomplished these feats by appearing moderate, pragmatic, ambiguous and cautious, although certainly not very inspiring. There were no bold and creative but risky initiatives like Laurier’s reciprocity agreement with the United States and creation of a Canadian navy, or Mulroney’s Meech Lake accord, goods and services tax, and Canada-U.S. free trade agreement. All of the above initiatives, it must be noted, were not without merit but all contributed vastly to the electoral defeats of the governments that had introduced them. King and Harper knew and understood that fact and acted accordingly. That this caution on the part of King and Harper was not merely the result of lacking a majority in the House of Commons is suggested by the fact that King after 1926, and Harper after 2011, continued to act in much the same cautious and uninspiring way as before.

Moderate or extreme?

4_flickr-3406663745-original Richard Lewis _ newsteam.co.uk Crown CopyrightIn response to the previous paragraph, some will protest that Harper has moved far to the right of centre, and has contributed to a significant polarization of Canadian politics. In certain respects this is true: to bring the ex-Reformers into a united right-of-centre party he had to throw some red meat in their direction, which his government did through an economically senseless and fiscally irresponsible reduction in the GST and a continuing obsession with crime and punishment, even though crime rates in Canada have been declining for several years. He also abolished the long-gun registry, a well-meaning Liberal initiative that was unpopular in rural Canada and that may or may not have been worth as much as it cost.

In other respects, however, there has been less radical right-wing innovation under Harper than is sometimes attributed to him. The welfare state has continued to operate much as before and the response to the economic crisis that began in 2008, including the rescue of General Motors and Chrysler, was Keynesian rather than hard-line conservative. There was no serious effort to abolish same-sex marriage, although Harper had talked about that issue while in opposition, or to restrict access to abortion. The recognition of the Québécois as a nation, while it was no more than a symbolic gesture, is not what one would have expected from a government of the extreme right. The buildup of our military forces (which I personally support) had actually begun under Paul Martin, and eventually petered out under Harper in response to fiscal realities. Multiculturalism, which the Reformers had criticized, has been enthusiastically embraced by Harper’s government, just as it was by Mulroney’s. (Contrary to conventional wisdom, and as I argue in my latest book,2 multiculturalism is not a Liberal invention; John Diefenbaker has a better claim to be considered its father than Pierre Trudeau.) While some left-of-centre critics have complained about the Harper government’s commemoration of the War of 1812, this criticism seems perverse coming from people who for decades accused Canadian conservatives of being too pro-American.

One area in which Harper does seem extreme is foreign policy – specifically his unconditional support for Israel and his hostility to American efforts to seek détente with Iran. Whether this reflects his religious faith, his political convictions or merely his realization that many Jewish voters could be pried away from their traditional support for the Liberals is not clear. It has complicated his relations with the Obama administration and is almost certainly deplored by Canada’s professional foreign service officers. However, it must be remembered that Diefenbaker, Clark and Mulroney were all more sympathetic to Israel than the Liberals, so Harper is not breaking completely new ground in this area either. Also, there have rarely if ever been warm relations between a Conservative Canadian prime minister and a Democratic administration in Washington.

On the whole Harper has manoeuvred rather deftly between the hardliners who came mainly from the Reform Party and the moderates who are mainly former Progressive Conservatives. There are relatively few ex-Reformers in his cabinet. Of course, his government’s centre of gravity is somewhat to the right of the Liberals, but that is what one expects of a Conservative government. Whether one likes him or not, he has made comparatively few of the blunders (such as Joe Clark’s decision to move our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem) that can quickly undermine a prime minister’s reputation.

Have the so-called Red Tories been permanently eclipsed, and if so, is Harper responsible for this development? Probably no term has been more frequently misused (and overused) in recent Canadian political discourse than Red Tory, and it is well to recall what Gad Horowitz really meant when he invented the term almost half a century ago.3 Genuine Red Tories, who combined reverence for the monarchy and other traditional institutions with misgivings about laissez faire and a willingness to use the state on behalf of the economically disadvantaged, were never in fact very common in the Progressive Conservative Party, although Diefenbaker probably deserved the label. They could also be found in other parties, especially the CCF and NDP. (Horowitz cited Eugene Forsey, a CCF member who later became a Liberal senator, as an example.) Today, however, the term Red Tory is often used to describe Conservatives who combine economic laissez-faire with a liberal position on “social” issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, which is almost the opposite of Red Toryism in the original sense. There are many Canadians who share these characteristics and who vote Conservative, but probably few of them care much about the monarchy. Calling them Red Tories simply confuses the issue. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call them Blue Grits.

Overall, the contrast between Harper’s government and previous Conservative governments has been overstated. Joe Clark (or was it Robert Stanfield?) once observed that no one is as popular in Canada as a former leader of the Conservative Party. Whoever said it first, what he meant was that in retrospect the party’s previous leader always looks better to the liberal intelligentsia than the present one, whatever they thought of the previous one when he actually held the office. This liberal nostalgia, if justified by the facts, would suggest that the party has steadily deteriorated throughout its history, which hardly seems probable. I would concede, however, that the first Conservative leader, John A. Macdonald, was also the best prime minister Canada ever had.

Change or continuity with the past?

Are we entering a new party system? About 15 years ago Kenneth Carty argued that the 1993 election, in which the Bloc Québécois became the official opposition with the Reform Party in third place, marked the beginning of our fourth party system, with the second having begun in 1917 and the third in the early 1960s.4 More recently, Brad Walchuk has argued that the Harper era marks the beginning of a fifth party system. As evidence he cites the rise of social media and the use of the internet for two-way communication; the reliance of parties on financial donations from individual supporters rather than corporations, unions or the state; the establishment of elections on fixed dates, at least in theory; and increasing references to the family in party propaganda.5 These are more profound changes than those of the 1960s (which were not in fact very significant), although the first, obviously, cannot be attributed to Harper or the Conservatives. Whether they are as important as the changes wrought by the conscription crisis of 1917 – or for that matter the depression of the 1930s, which is ignored by both Carty and Walchuk – may be doubted. It is certainly true, however, that the dramatic changes of 1993 were of short duration; the Reform Party has disappeared and the Bloc has dwindled into insignificance. In some ways the emergence of Harper’s Conservative Party as a replacement for the old Progressive Conservatives marks a return to the status quo ante.

Walchuk’s reference to the use of “family” rhetoric is interesting, but what I find even more interesting and significant is the dramatic increase, on both sides of the Canadian-American border, in rhetorical appeals to the “middle class.” Bill Clinton was, I think, the first North American politician to give such prominence to this expression, but the practice eventually spread to Canada, where it is nowadays common to all parties. In November 2013 the Globe and Mail conducted an online poll of its readers in which 80 per cent of the respondents expressed the view that the “middle class” was in decline. What this seems to mean is the perception that incomes are becoming more polarized between rich and poor, with fewer families close to the median income. Be that as it may, people with incomes close to the median are not the middle class – they are the working class. John Porter suggested in the 1960s that a true middle-class standard of living required an income about twice the Canadian average, and that is still true today.6

4_7119599641_a44c5130ff_b_United Nations Photo flickrFlattering the working class by calling them the middle class, a term that originally meant something quite different, may persuade more of them to vote for conservative parties. Implicitly, this practice suggests that the only people who fall below the “middle class” are those who depend on government handouts and pay little or no tax. Left-wing parties or politicians who fail to make the necessary obeisance to the “middle class” can be accused of catering to that (presumably undeserving) group at the expense of the hard-working and the deserving.

This rhetorical sleight of hand is not of course the only or even the main reason for the increasingly conservative tone of North American politics. More important factors are the shift to a service economy and the decline of collective bargaining in the private sector, developments that have lessened the distinctiveness and class consciousness of what used to be called the working class and made it plausible to tag them with the “middle class” label. Furthermore, globalization and the ignominious collapse of Europe’s Communist regimes have totally undermined the credibility of even the modest degree of economic planning and public ownership traditionally associated with the left. In response, left and centre-left parties have redefined themselves by emphasizing issues and policies, such as environmentalism, gay rights and sympathy for Aboriginal peoples, that mainly appeal to people with a university education, and that mainly rely on the courts rather than on parties and elections to pursue their agenda. Right and centre-right parties can therefore mobilize the working class (a.k.a. the “middle class”) against “elitist” liberals who are presumably out of touch with ordinary people.

Does this mean that politics is becoming more polarized? In the United States, yes, but less so in Canada. The current level of partisan polarization in the U.S. Congress is abnormal and unprecedented, which is why its institutions, designed to minimize the influence of “factions,” are working so badly. In Canada, as in other Westminster systems, the parties were always polarized and cohesive, even at times when the ideological differences between them were relatively mild. For example, Conservatives have been accusing Liberals of “socialism” for many decades, and even the Red Tory Diefenbaker indulged in this kind of rhetoric on occasion. Again, the contrast between past and present fades considerably when examined more closely.

In their unsympathetic (and unfinished) biography of Mackenzie King, H.S. Ferns and Bernard Ostry suggested that successful Canadian politicians must cater to, but not exacerbate, the ethnic and cultural cleavages of the country while keeping their eyes on conflicts related to the economy. The politician must decide which kinds of issues, the cultural or the economic, are most prominent at any given moment, while striking a balance between them. Ferns and Ostry concluded that Mackenzie King was a master of this game and that this “explains why he succeeded where men superior to him in many respects and capable of commanding more affection and regard failed.”7

Many things have changed in Canada since the age of Mackenzie King, but much remains the same. Stephen Harper, like Mackenzie King, has understood and mastered the political and social environment within which he operates. There is no need to love him, but it would be unwise to underestimate him.


1 J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer, eds., Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada’s Leaders (Toronto:Harper Collins, 1999), p. 10.

2 Building Nations from Diversity: Canadian and American Experience Compared (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014).

3 Gad Horowitz, Canadian Labour in Politics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968), p. 23.

4 R.K. Carty, William Cross and Lisa Young, Rebuilding Canadian Party Politics (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000).

5 Brad Walchuk, “A Whole New Ballgame: The Rise of Canada’s Fifth Party System,” American Review of Canadian Studies, 2012, pp. 1–17.

6 John Porter, The Vertical Mosaic (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965), pp. 130–32.

7 H.S. Ferns and Bernard Ostry, The Age of Mackenzie King: The Rise of the Leader (London and Toronto: William Heinemann, 1955), p. 4.