Shed a sympathetic tear for Joe Clark and the Progressive Conservative Party, meeting at this very moment in Edmonton for their convention. Did you know? Do you care now that you do? Will any of the reporters drained dry from Liberal leadership overfiling in Chicoutimi — at an event of such self-importance and inconsequence, that one can compare it only to a Speech from the Throne — even bother to fly across the country for the sad-sack Tories?

One of the rare recent mentions of the PCs has come from the leader of the Canadian Alliance (“Resignation puts pressure on right to unite: Harper”). Yoohoo, yoohoo, we’re here, too.

Let me do restitution then. But there’s a problem. It often seems the only issue the Tories are eager to discuss is whether they should merge with the Alliance to “unite the right” and thus challenge the mighty Liberals. All right. The answer is no. Everyone can go home now. And why not? Because conservatives are not right wing, at least not inherently so, any more than socialists are inherently vegetarian.

In a recent article, Ian Gilmour, a Tory MP in the U.K. for thirty years, quotes Disraeli, the greatest 19th-Century Conservative leader: “In a progressive country, change is constant; and the great question is, not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of the people, or in deference to abstract principles and arbitrary and general doctrines.” That puts it nicely.

I’ve always felt it would be useful for Tories to focus on the “conserve” in conservatism, just as leftists ought to pay more attention to the “social” in socialism. There are many good reasons for the conserving impulse. For instance, what is, is, rather than being a mere theory, a grand projection no one can actually see or test.

Besides, words, which ideas and principles are made of, are slippery and malleable. Ideas and principles are therefore susceptible to fanaticism and misuse. Manners, customs, laws, traditions etc., which already exist, are far more resistant to manipulation.

Here’s my favourite: The future is impossible to predict or control; so implementing ideas often leads to unexpected results and even the opposite of what you anticipated. The list is long. Finally, there is the democratic element in the “conservative attitude.” What the people have chosen, created and maintained deserves respect.

There is a nice flexibility to this kind of conservatism. Why? Because once a new program or element is embraced by the people, it becomes something to be tended and conserved. Take public health care. It was introduced here by the change-oriented left of the last century but has become so valued by Canadians that it is described, though hardly treated so by politicians, as a sacred cow.

So last year’s radicalism can become this year’s conservatism, as the boundaries shift. David Orchard of Saskatchewan began as the head of a leftish anti-free-trade group, which argued that free trade would destroy the family farm and other things Canadians cherish. He ran against Joe Clark for leader of the PCs last time around and placed second. It was widely seen as a kind of scandal or joke, but you can see the sense it makes.

Meanwhile, right-wing conservatives such as Ralph Klein or Mike Harris take pride in their commitment to drastic change based on ideas — the Common Sense Revolution, the Reagan Revolution. They are dedicated to smashing what was created in the past, in the name of abstract visions or a thought process (“common sense”) that created them. They are all about ideas (when they are not about money) and, in that sense, share more with 20th-Century ideologies such as fascism and communism than they do with Burkean or Disraelian conservatism — with the odd addition that their vision of the future really harks back to the laissez-faire days of early, unregulated capitalism and the free market.

Politics can be such a muddle. During the free-trade election of 1988, a senior citizen in Whitehorse told me: “We used to be told we were Tories because we were against free trade and the Liberals were for it. Now it’s the reverse.”

And what about the legacy of Jean Chrétien? What legacy — if you eliminate the Mulroney component in all he has done: embracing free trade, cutting taxes, slashing social programs, obsession with deficits? The PCs of Brian Mulroney were not so much wiped out by the Chrétien Liberals in 1993, as they ascended to heaven, their earthly mission fulfilled while their souls transmigrated into the new government. The PCs in Edmonton are trying to whip the party back to life but are uncertain of just what carcass is in the coffin, while the “left” is pretty well the only force trying to “conserve” things Canadians hold dear. What a muddle.

(This column is dedicated to the memory of Dalton Camp.)


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.