Roots of the Conservative International

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In his Guardian essay (here, and introduced in his post below), Jeet raises a very interesting question: just what was it that caused political conservatives in Canada and the United States to first join hands? As he correctly points out, Canadian conservatives have traditionally been more suspicious of America than have their liberal counterparts: “No truck nor trade with the Yankees” was Conservative Party leader Robert Borden’s winning slogan in the federal election of 1911 — the popularity of his cause aided, no doubt, by the statements of U.S. politicians like “Champ” Clark, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who said he supported free trade because he hoped “to see the day when the American flag will float over every square foot of the British North American possessions, clear to the North Pole.” Canada was the good son of the British imperial family; while America was warring with the mother country, embarking on a radical republican experiment, unsuccessfully invading its northern neighbour, and descending into the hell of full-scale civil war, Canadians continued to swear loyalty to the crown, peacefully built a sovereign parliamentary democracy, and generally behaved themselves. Compared with America we’ve been the true conservatives right from the start.

It’s different today. Canada now has an influential and explicitly “conservative” political movement that has strong informal links to its American counterparts, and that all-but-openly admires the policies and electoral successes of the Republican Party. Unlike Jeet, however, I don’t see the Free Trade Agreement of 1988 as the initiator of this sea change. I’d go further back to the advent of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, which gave anti-communists and free-marketers two transnational icons to look up to. For the first time in the post-war world (from a conservative point of view), the eventual triumph of socialism no longer seemed inevitable. My sense is it was then that Canadian conservatives began to embrace a kind of “Western world” conservatism that laid the foundations for the eventual success of policies like free trade, stronger defences, and smaller (or at least more slowly-growing) governments, in places like the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand – not coincidentally, the same group of countries that Francophobe right-wingers have recently been fond of referring to as “the anglosphere”.

While conservatives in various countries found their common economic policies to be of some inspirational value, they found their shared opposition to the Soviet Union and detente to be positively binding. Indeed it’s this same “national security conservatism” that continues to strengthen links between right-wingers in the Western world. Support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq was and has remained a litmus test dividing true believers around the world from their centrist or left-wing brethren, as has, more equivocally and tacitly, support for domestic policies like illegal surveillance, arbitrary and indefinite detention, and torture.

Though free trade is certainly aligned with the free-market philosophy of classical liberalism (itself closely aligned with – if not perfectly equivalent to – 1980s-style neo-conservatism), it frequently and increasingly competes with national security conservatism, which distrusts the capitalism-fueled rise of China, the independent economic power of the European Union, and the secret plans of oil-fund investors from the Middle East (see here for an earlier essay of mine on the un-American consequences of worldwide capitalism). A few more steps in this direction and you’re in the neighborhood of people who mutter about “international bankers” and “cosmopolitan elites”. Take another step and you’re shaking hands with John Birch.  

Let’s turn around then and take the broad view, for underneath the specific case of the growth of Canada-U.S. conservative alignment lies a deeper and more general trend. While global media barons like Conrad Black, and – more permanently – Rupert Murdoch have indeed played an important role in internationalizing and standardizing conservative doctrines, this development is a perfectly natural result of the processes of globalization to which we are all subjected: on the left, the NGO community and anti-globalization movement are themselves now international and largely standardized phenomena, and it is a cliché of War on Terror discourse that insurgents and terrorists in wildly diverse locations habitually share techniques and information about how to fight the armies of modern states. Globalization is not new, nor is it by definition immoral. It is real and growing, however, and as we note symptom after symptom – as non-English languages die off, as popular culture becomes universal and syncretic, as politics in one country echoes and aligns with politics in another – we should bear in mind that with every gain in efficiency, we register at least one loss in diversity. And Canada’s traditional conservatism is not the least of such losses.

8 thoughts on “Roots of the Conservative International

  1. Mark: I’m not so sure it’s true to say that the old PC were “so easy to beat.” The fact is that the old PC’s did from time to time win large majority governments (as under Diefenbaker) which is more than you can say of the ever shifting parties run by Manning, Day, and Harper.

  2. I suppose it remains to be seen whether or not the latest incarnation of the Conservative Party will outperform it’s predecessors, the Progressive Conservatives, Reform, CCRAP or my personal favorite, the short lived “Rebel Alliance”.

    However, I think they are in a better position to do so with a clearer identity – it’s easy enough to know what I’m getting when I put an X next to Liberal, Green, or even Reform on a ballot. I wouldn’t know what a Canadian Alliance, New Democrat, or, a “Progressive Conservative”.

  3. Nice post, Ian. I recall that George Grant says a lot about this topic in Lament for a Nation (1965). He writes that Diefenbaker was the last true Canadian conservative, and look what happened to him: brought down by the Liberals in 1963 for not allowing American nuclear missiles on Canadian soil and ridiculed by the media into the bargain (Grant doesn’t mention Peter Newman’s book about Diefenbaker, but it is lurking in the background of his analysis). After Diefenbaker, Grant argues, it is full-speed ahead for continentalization.

    Whatever the strengths of weaknesses of Grant’s view, there is no question he himself was an old-fashioned anti-continentalist conservative. The two people who lead the Conservatives after his book was published, Robert Stanfield and joe Clark, also both had a Red Tory streak, which is in line with your chronology of a key change occuring in the early 1980s (Clark giving way to Mulroney in ’83).

    I love this passage, by the way: “A few more steps in this direction and you’re in the neighborhood of people who mutter about ‘international bankers’ and ‘cosmopolitan elites’. Take another step and you’re shaking hands with John Birch.”

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