Canadian Conservatism & the State

By Graeme Garrard 

For many today “the state” means above all the “Deep State,” an unaccountable cabal of entrenched and shadowy figures who secretly control the government. It is no coincidence that this phrase originates in the United States, whose founding act was a violent revolution against the British imperial state. It has long been a characteristic of the American right in particular to see the state as the principal enemy of freedom and the market as the natural sphere of liberty, even if things have never been that simple in practice, including for Republican governments.

Conservatism in Canada has not historically shared such scepticism about the state. On the contrary, the Loyalists fled to Canada out of loyalty to the Crown, the British form of the state. The prime mover behind the creation of a unified Canadian state in 1867 was the Conservative leader Sir John A. Macdonald who, as Prime Minister, enacted laws to protect and promote Canadian industry from foreign (mainly American) competition as part of his “National Policy.” He also led the way in building an all-Canadian railway in an expensive and ambitious private-public partnership (as we would call it today). In 1911 the Conservative leader Sir Robert Borden defended the same protectionism as Macdonald against the Liberal policy of free trade with the U.S., a stance that won him the election that year. The government of Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett gave Canada the CBC, the Bank of Canada, the Canadian Wheat Board, progressive income tax, a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, health insurance, and expanded pension programmes. By contrast, as in Britain, Canadian liberalism was for most of its history the main political ideology of limited government, free markets, individual liberties, and continental free trade, and the Liberal Party was its main institutional expression.

By the time of the 1988 Canadian general election, in which Brian Mulroney won his second majority, the roles and identities of the parties had largely reversed. Then, it was the Conservatives who favoured North American free trade which the Liberals opposed (at the time, although not later). And the Conservatives had traded their positive view of the state for the Liberals' traditionally benevolent view of the market. They became proponents of deregulation, rolling back the welfare state, privatization of Crown corporations, and restructuring of the workforce to increase industrial and economic flexibility in an increasingly global market. Their political role models were now Reagan and Thatcher and their ideological inspiration came from Smith and Hayek. Today the Conservative Party of Canada is the party of North American continentalism, the very opposite of Macdonald, Borden, Bennett and Diefenbaker.

To the extent that the Conservative Party today adheres to this pro-market, pro-American, small-government, free trade outlook, it has become, strictly speaking, an anti conservative party. This is because the core of conservatism — as a general political and social disposition shared across the Western world — is the preservation of what is valuable and traditional, and that requires a strong state in an age when market forces are overwhelming and damage the goods that conservatives have usually sought to protect. Until fairly recently, the conservatism of the Conservative Party favoured the active use of the state to restrain market forces to support established communities, protect traditional practices, and preserve the special character of Canada in North America. The state has always been essential in Canada to maintain its independence and to preserve its particular identity against the hegemonic power of private American capital and popular culture. This was once common wisdom in Canadian conservatism, from Macdonald to Diefenbaker, but no longer. 

The older form of conservatism is more consistent, plausible, and attractive than what passes for conservatism in Canada now, which is actually an anti-conservative, continentalist market ideology. The emergence since the 1980s of a more aggressive and globalized form of capitalism that bears increasing resemblance to its earlier, 19th century, laissez-faire form has greatly strengthened the case for a more traditional, pro-state, market-sceptical conservatism to counterbalance it.

“Conservatism” is a notoriously slippery term that has always been difficult to pin down. Many writers, particularly those most sympathetic to conservatism, deny that it is a political ideology or philosophy, which implies a degree of self-consciousness and systematization that is thought to be alien to the fundamental spirit of conservatism. Michael Oakeshott described conservatism in temperamental terms, as “a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be.” He was following Burke, who wrote approvingly of a “disposition to preserve” that resists full theoretical expression. But Burke also admitted that he was reluctantly “alarmed into reflection” by events in Europe, leading him to write his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). This was a decisive step from conservatism as an innate, unreflective propensity or disposition to conservatism as a self-conscious political ideology. Hence Burke’s status as one of the first and foremost theorists of conservatism, which has by now become fully theorized as a system of ideas about politics and society, although its definition remains hotly contested.

At its most general, we may say that conservatism is a preference for existing institutions, communities and practices over innovations. Conservatives value traditional, established identities, customs, and forms of life that promote human goods and have stood the test of time. While they do not reject all change, the burden of proof lies with its proponents and the standard of proof is higher for conservatives than for others. This scepticism towards change is usually based on a conception of social and political life as complex, delicate, and more easily destroyed than constructed. Hence the characteristic conservative instinct to defend and nurture established institutions and ways of life and to preserve as much of them as necessary reform allows.

Outsiders can help us to see this. For the Canadian-born Oxford philosopher (and ex-analytical Marxist) G.A. “Jerry” Cohen (1941- 2009) conservatism is anti-utilitarian since it affirms a special tenderness “towards already existing value” over other potentially valuable things. It seeks to conserve what has value for us now rather than maximising value by sacrificing existing particular valuable things for things of greater net value. Like Oakeshott, Cohen does not specify what is valuable in this sense, since he associates conservatism with a general disposition to preserve rather than a commitment to a fixed set of goods. Particular valuable things will vary between individuals and societies but the impulse to preserve them is fundamentally conservative. Cohen defends this impulse with the proviso that such valued goods must be consistent with universal principles of justice, so that if they ever clash the latter ought to prevail. He does not explore how the two are related, although it is very unlikely that the latter, as he understands it, would leave much room for the former. But this is still more than Marx was willing to tolerate with his general hostility to all tradition, which “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” and must be exorcised.

Another Canadian, George Grant (1918- 1988), a conservative sympathetic to socialism, describes conservatism as a political theory of limits — unlike liberalism, whose defining value is freedom, something that conservatives have traditionally been willing to subordinate to the common good. Grant’s strong antipathy to liberalism is based on its emphasis on freedom as the paramount human value, something that he thinks has made Western modernity pathological. As a Christian, he believes that the highest Good is universal (God), but he optimistically thinks that we can come to know and to love the Good through love of particular goods to which we have personal attachments, such as family, friends, traditions, and nation.

Where Grant and Cohen agree is that the freedom to own and dispose of private property has not historically been a conservative value, as it has become for many who call themselves “conservative” today, and neither sees anything at all conservative about market competition. That is why they regard conservatism and socialism as sharing a belief in “the use of public control in the political and economic spheres … to protect the public good against private freedom,” in Grant’s words, which distinguishes them from liberals, at least in their classical and neoliberal forms.

This value-preserving and limit-respecting disposition is the historically original and conceptually soundest understanding of conservatism, at least outside the United States.


The Conservative Party of Canada — pro-market, pro-American — has become, strictly speaking, an anti-conservative party 


Conservatism emerged, like all modern political ideologies, in the early 19th century, in the wake of the French Revolution as industrial capitalism was becoming the dominant form of economic organisation in the West. In 19th century Britain, where capitalism was most advanced, conservatism began by favouring a strong state and opposing free trade and laissez-faire capitalism. Marx’s depiction of early capitalism as revolutionary and highly destructive of the settled forms of life that conservatives originally valued echoes their views. In one of their most famous passages in The Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx and Engels write:


The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part. The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors” and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.” It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation… All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.


Marx welcomed the tremendous revolutionary power of capitalism as a necessary step on the road to communism. He was greatly impressed by its ruthless destruction of feudalism and its unique capacity to unleash human productive power, although he equally looked forward to its inevitable demise. Marx dismissed “feudal socialists” like Disraeli as reactionaries clinging to a historically obsolete mode of life and he praised free trade as a destructive power that “breaks up old nationalities.” Contemporary conservatives were horrified by the capitalist revolution as a terrible, destructive force that should be contained and blunted as much as possible before society is “pitilessly torn asunder,” which is precisely what the revolutionary Marx admired about it.

But many conservatives at the time shared Marx’s revulsion at capitalism’s inhumanity towards the poor. In 19th century Britain many conservatives worried about the “Condition of England Question” raised by early industrial capitalism. First posed by Carlyle in his essay Chartism (1839), this referred to the concerns shared by many writers, politicians, public moralists and social critics on both left and right at the time about the dehumanizing effects of industrialization and the new factory system, particularly among the urban poor. Carlyle warned that it was turning people into soulless machines and reduced the lives of millions to drudgery, poverty, and ugliness. He also feared that Britain was dividing into what Disraeli called


two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets… The RICH and the POOR.


Carlyle’s criticisms of these developments influenced a generation of Victorians such as Disraeli, the “Good Tory” in the words of Labour luminary Michael Foot; and also Ruskin, William Morris, Elizabeth Gaskell, Dickens, and Charles Kingsley. Not all, or even most, of those calling themselves “conservative” shared this humanitarian concern, but the most thoughtful writers did. Nor were their humanitarian concerns the sole property of conservatives. Conservatives and socialists often found themselves allied against liberals on these questions raised by early capitalism, if not on others.

It was not for another century that conservatism took over from liberalism a preference for a small and limited state, market deregulation and individual freedom, which it combined with support for traditional conservative institutions such as the family, religion, and the nation. The fear of communism in the post-war West fundamentally changed the way that conservatives thought and spoke about capitalism. The earlier form of conservatism was almost wholly eclipsed by concern about communism after 1950. A new language became dominant, emphasizing individual freedom and encouraging the belief that capitalism is not only compatible with traditional institutions and practices but supportive of them. This Cold War fusion of classical liberalism and social conservatism has been called “neoconservatism” (in the U.S.) and the “New Right” (in Britain) and politically associated with Reagan and Thatcher. It is still the dominant form of conservative ideology in the West. In Canada it took a typically muted form in Mulroney, who was more of an opportunist than his more intellectually-rooted counterparts. The older form of conservatism lives only on the margins. It has gone by various names, including “red toryism” and “one nation conservatism,” although both of these are misleading and inadequate terms that we would be much better off without.

This fusion has worked very well as a political strategy, at least until recently, but is conceptually and practically self-contradictory. As Marx depicted it, capitalism is an economic system driven by the single-minded pursuit of profit. He saw it as a bulldozer, crushing all before it with brutal, unflinching indifference to local traditions, customs and communities. It is inherently dynamic, thriving on constant “creative destruction” and heedless of restraints and boundaries that conservatives have traditionally respected. That is why capitalism is so prone to insecurity and risk, things that conservatives have usually aimed to minimize. It requires high levels of production and consumption which means constant changes in tastes and lifestyles. Appetites must be actively stimulated and inflamed to promote new sources of consumption and customary limits are sacrificed to fuel growth. Market competition occurs through product differentiation rather than price differences, and this is achieved by advertising that penetrates every facet of our lives today, magnified immeasurably by advances in modern technology.


The Cold War fusion of classical liberalism and social conservatism has worked very well as a political strategy, at least until recently, but is conceptually and practically self-contradictory. 


Conservatism is the opposite of this. It sets limits on individual appetites and behaviour in order to preserve other goods conservatives typically value, like custom, tradition, public decency, settled patterns of life and the common good. Until the middle of the 20th century, these conservative tendencies deliberately inhibited the full development of capitalism. In his book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), Daniel Bell describes how this tension between capitalism and social conservatism finally came to a head in the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Then, social libertarianism triumphed over the traditional values that had long constrained capitalism’s fundamentally hedonistic impulse. Out of the counterculture of that age a new, uninhibited form of capitalism emerged to replace the more restrained Puritan capitalism that had stressed thriftiness, temperance, self-discipline and delayed gratification. “What became distinctive about capitalism — its very dynamic,” Bell writes, echoing Marx and Engels, “was its boundlessness. Propelled by the dynamo of technology, there were to be no asymptotes to its exponential growth. No limits. Nothing was sacred. Change became the norm.” Today, we call this new form of capitalism “neoliberal.” Whereas neoconservatives have tried to uphold both economic liberalism and social and cultural conservatism, neoliberals face no such impossible task, since it is consistently liberal through and through. Neoliberalism is the resolution of Bell’s cultural contradiction of capitalism.

But Bell perceived a new, practical contradiction at the heart of decadent capitalism, between its boundless, individualistic, anti-conservative, libertarian culture and the structural needs of a large, sophisticated economy, which depend on self-discipline, planning, and hard work, values normally associated with the Protestant work ethic that had lost its grip by the 1960s. Bell worried that the permissive new counterculture would erode the foundations of capitalism itself, just as capitalism had earlier undermined traditional social and cultural values. It is now apparent that Bell’s concerns were misplaced. Like Marx, he seriously underestimated capitalism’s resilience and chameleon-like capacity to adapt. Any potentially damaging loss in work ethic and efficiency has been offset by massively increased productivity resulting from technological innovation and the opening up of new markets around the world. Add to this a pervasive and enveloping commercial culture, and socially liberal capitalism has only extended its range and power since 1968. Liberalism won the culture war that broke out in that era, although some conservatives fight on quixotically. The neoliberal society and capitalist system that today dominate are the consequence of that victory. The problems with this neoliberal world (which Bell feared would rot from within) lie elsewhere than he imagined, in the social pathologies and excesses that it generates and the vast damage it does to traditionally valued goods.

It was at this point, just as neo-conservatives were beginning their love affair with libertarian capitalism, that Gad Horowitz wrote his essay “Conservatism, Liberalism and Socialism in Canada: An Interpretation” (1966) to account for the traditionally prostate character of Canadian conservatism compared to its American counterpart. In it, he coined the term “red tory” to describe this Canadian blend of socialism (“red”) and conservatism (“tory”) that was critical of unbridled capitalism and supported a strong and active state to regulate and correct the market in order to preserve tradition, community and virtue. Horowitz insightfully applied the “fragment thesis” of American historian Louis Hartz to the case of English-speaking Canada, whose political culture was said to contain important residual traces of pre-individualistic feudal values originally imported from Europe and by the Loyalists, of which Canada was a “fragment.” Although still essentially liberal, it was distinct from the pure liberalism of its American cousin, which had purged all such tory remnants in their revolution. Today, it is recognized that the American founding ideology included important non-liberal elements such as classical republicanism that Hartz ignored. Horowitz traced the subsequent emergence of collectivist socialist values in Canada to this original tory element imported with the Loyalists, since both had communitarian tendencies absent from classical liberalism. As George Grant put it, “Because of the British tradition, socialist movements have been stronger in Canada than in the United States.”

Grant is Horowitz’s exemplar of the “red tory” and his best-selling Lament for a Nation, published the year before Horowitz’s essay, is its manifesto. Grant argues that conservatism in Canada had always promoted the use of government “to restrain greed in the name of social good,” which is also his definition of socialism. “In actual practice,” he writes, “socialism has always had to advocate inhibition in this respect. In doing so, was it not appealing to the conservative idea of social order against the liberal idea of freedom?” As a definition of socialism, however, it leaves a great deal out.

For Grant conservatism in its Canadian context necessarily implies nationalism as well as socialism, since he associates liberalism with American capitalism, which “has destroyed indigenous cultures in every corner of the globe.” In Canada, this conservative nationalism expressed itself, like socialism, in “the use of public control in the political and economic spheres.” Grant gives Macdonald’s National Policy, Bennett’s social legislation of the 1930s, the creation of Ontario Hydro, the Canadian National Railway, and the CBC as examples of positive state action by Conservative governments to control and shape economic life to protect and promote the public good against capitalist individualism and to reinforce Canadian independence, mainly from American power. In Lament, he refers to this as a form of “Gaullism,” which he admires as a means to assert economic and political control by governments to preserve national independence and promote public goods. Unfortunately, Canada’s elites were so thoroughly saturated by liberal, internationalist beliefs by the mid-1960s that any politician trying to adopt an independent “Gaullist” approach would have been thwarted by what we today call “the Deep State” of bureaucrats (in Ottawa and Washington), as happened to Diefenbaker, the quixotic protagonist of Grant’s book. What had once been possible for Macdonald was now impossible, spelling the inevitable demise of Canada as a distinctive, independent state, or so Grant argued.

Although something very similar existed in the United States in the New Deal, on which R.B. Bennett modelled his own policies, it was the creation of a Democratic president and was initially resisted by American conservatives of the “Old Right.” A notable exception was the poet and historian Peter Viereck, who offered a conservative defence of the New Deal in the 1940s and '50s on the grounds that it tamed and humanised market capitalism and preserved communities. He also praised trade unions for being the only “true society” that industrialism had fostered, providing workers a sense of belonging. But Viereck was a lone voice in the U.S. where the right became increasingly hostile to the state in the context of the Democrats' social policies and the Cold War. Although conservatism in Canada would eventually follow the same path, it took much longer and the pro-state form of Canadian conservatism defended by Grant retained a strong appeal, although increasingly more on the left than on the right, which is why Grant’s argument was so well received by socialists like Horowitz and James Laxer. Viereck’s conservative defence of the New Deal may have been idiosyncratic in an American context, but it made perfect sense in Canada, at least until the 1960s.

Grant’s book is little read now and those who now call themselves “conservatives” would likely find some of it objectionable. A liberal, too, like Grant’s nephew Michael Ignatieff, wrote a repudiation of its central argument, which he said is “wrong, wrong, wrong.” Conservatives in Canada now see “an American sun in their sky, pouring down blessings on the people north of the border,” wrote Laxer (whose 1977 book The Liberal Idea of Canada has a foreword by Grant). And while the term “red tory” lives on, it no longer refers to Grant, which may explain his aversion to the label.

In mainstream Canadian political discourse “red tory” is still regularly used by journalists and politicians as a lazy shorthand for those on the liberal wing of the Progressive Conservative Party, such as Dalton Camp, Hugh Segal, Joe Clark, Robert Stanfield, David Crombie, and Flora MacDonald. But this is not what Horowitz had in mind by “red tories.” He was referring to thinkers like Grant who believe that socialism and conservatism have more in common than liberalism and conservatism do. The red in “red tory” was originally meant to refer to socialism, not liberalism.

Before they unsuccessfully resisted the neoconservative take-over of the Progressive Conservative Party in the 1980s, those whom middlebrow journalists call “red tories” had also attacked the older conservatism of Diefenbaker, the doomed protagonist of Grant’s Lament. They saw the Chief as an embarrassing anachronism and publicly deposed him in 1967. It is hardly surprising that Grant felt no more sympathy for these liberal conservatives (who are much more liberal than conservative) than he did for the neoconservatives who would later usurp them. He dismissed Stanfield as a “rather ungenerous Whig of extremely limited horizon,” just as he would later dismiss Mulroney for carrying on “the state capitalist machine in the way one would expect.” Horowitz’s “red tories” were socialist conservatives and nationalists, not internationalist liberal conservatives like Clark and Flora MacDonald, a president of the World Federalist Movement in Canada.

Surprisingly, the term “red tory” has not only survived in Canada, albeit in a debased shorthand, but has recently been taken up in Britain, where it was adopted during the premiership of David Cameron, who took his “Big Society” idea from the writer (and Cameron’s purported “guru”) Philip Blond, author of Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It (2010). Blond never mentions Grant in his book, let alone Horowitz, and with good reason, since his version of conservatism is strongly critical of the state, unlike Grant’s. He attacks both the modern welfare state for fostering authoritarian gigantism and the free market for promoting selfish individualism. Blond blames both pathologies, as he sees them, on “unlimited” liberalism. When liberalism develops unchecked, it eventually produces perverse effects that are illiberal, in the form of big states and big markets. Blond’s antidote to this illiberal liberalism, or hyper-liberalism, is the “Big Society,” a realm between state and market, rich with freely associating groups such as churches, charities, schools, pubs, clubs, and small local businesses that support and strengthen social bonds without encouraging the growth of giant market monopolies and a leviathan welfare state.

Blond situates his “Big Society” idea in “the tradition of communitarian conservatism — or red Toryism,” drawing inspiration from the radical and “progressive Toryism” of 19th century conservative reformers like Cobbett, Ruskin and Carlyle, as well as the Catholic distributism of Chesterton and Belloc. The latter advocated widespread ownership of private property rather than the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of either big business or a big state. Distributism is also “communitarian” in its social philosophy and ethical in its economic outlook. But the 19th century thinker whom Blond seems to have the most in common with is a liberal, Tocqueville. The French aristocrat believed that civic health depends on the strength of civil society which alone can nurture the virtues and habits that modern democratic polities desperately need. Blond shares Tocqueville’s emphasis on localism and civic groups, where he hopes individuals in strong communities can flourish in the space between a modest, restrained state and a market consisting mainly of small businesses, farms and cottage industries. It is not surprising that Blond writes that “I take myself to be a true liberal,” not something Grant ever said and a strange self-description for someone who calls himself a “tory.” The two leading early proponents of Distributism in England, Belloc and Chesterton, were both supporters of the Liberal Party.

Blond’s “red tory” conservatism differs sharply from Grant’s in its attitude to the state. Grant sees the state as an indispensable means for protecting society from overbearing market forces and for promoting national independence, both of which are essential for a country existing next to the United States. In Lament, he makes no mention at all of civil society. It is the state that is the guarantor of the public good for Grant, which is why he writes positively about socialism, since it shares this view of the state with conservatism, as he sees it. For him, liberalism is the political ideology of capitalism, which speaks with an American accent. That is why Grant has nothing good to say about liberalism, unlike Blond. The “red” in Grant’s toryism refers to socialism; in Blond, it refers to liberalism, as it does for what are now usually called “red tories” in Canada.

Grant is a defender of a strong state. He envisioned an active Canadian state that would intervene directly in the economy and society in order to counter the power of American capital and culture. This would involve regulation and public ownership, following past Conservative governments. And he often spoke well of de Gaulle as a dirigiste leader he admired. But Grant’s thoughts on this subject are sketchy and incomplete. His response to a question posed by Horowitz about how Canada is better than the United States is typical of his vagueness: “A much greater use of the public good against private enterprise … in other words, you have to move towards something like a socialist society in which the public good takes precedence over the individual right to use the resources they want to build the society they want.” It is not crystal clear from this whether Grant supported full state ownership of the means of production, which seems unlikely. And a strong state does not necessarily imply a big state. Hobbes was a proponent of a very strong state but he did not advocate a large welfare state or any significant state involvement in the economy. A Hobbesian state could be both small and strong. Indeed, a big state can be a weak state by over-extending itself and dissipating its power.


Conservatism sets limits on individual appetites in order to preserve other goods like custom, tradition, public decency, settled patterns of life, and the common good.


It is difficult to see Blond’s faith in the “little platoons” of civil society organized according to distributist principles as anything but naive and anachronistic. It was perhaps plausible in the small towns and rural communities of early 19th century New England as Tocqueville perceived them, but not in the age of huge multinational corporations like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Exxon. It is a fantasy to believe that there is, or could ever realistically be, a “Big Society” that acts as an effective check on the vast power and reach of the market now. Civil society has been too thoroughly penetrated and colonised by market forces to offer any kind of counter to them. The moral resources and traditions of civil associations cannot contain and humanize capitalist markets, now overbearingly powerful. The age of laissez-faire capitalism has been succeeded by oligopolistic capitalism, dominated by huge multinational corporations that act like private governments.

Grant understood this in 1965, which is why he wrote about the “impossibility” of local cultures like Canada, and it is even truer now than it was then. Only the state now has the power and potential to protect and promote public goods and the general welfare from unelected, non-state entities that pursue their own private agendas, unanswerable to the majority and increasingly free from external control. We cannot reasonably expect the profit-seeking market to act in the public interest or to engage in the kind of collective action necessary to solve the most urgent problems we face, let alone to protect and preserve the traditional customs and practices that conservatives have long cherished. The state is our only realistic hope now of countering the rising power of rival entities, such as multinational corporations, international organisations, drug cartels, terrorist networks, sub-national governments, organised crime, and technology-driven social media, that put their own selfish interests ahead of the common good. Far from the sinister “Deep State” image, the state is the best way, perhaps the only way, of promoting the public good in our time. That was the view of the state that conservatives from Macdonald to Grant consistently upheld.

The state as an institution is now being challenged and transformed in an unprecedented way that subverts its capacity to protect citizens and act for the public good. In our neoliberal world it is being steadily eroded, rolled back and displaced by the rise of new powers. The possibility now exists that the state may be gradually whittled away to such an extent that the lives and well-being of most of us will be at the mercy of unaccountable new powers concerned exclusively with their own interests. The prospect lies before us of a bleak future that looks more like the distant past than anything recognizable in the present, a past with a minimal state when the lives of most people were governed by capricious local oligarchs and access to vital goods and resources was directly dependent on personal status, wealth and power.

It is strange and even perverse to hear people calling themselves “conservative” today supporting this trend, except in the U.S., which has never had a tradition apart from liberalism to conserve. Both historically and conceptually this form of “conservatism” is an aberration, particularly in Canada, and is actually anti-conservative in both its assumptions and its consequences.

The state is a means, not an end. It does not necessarily promote the common good or protect society from the damaging effects of capitalism. In the wrong hands it can be highly destructive of the goods that conservatives have traditionally cherished. It can harm societies and communities when controlled by zealots of left and right who care more about ideological purity than preserving what is most valuable. And it is true that the state has often (always, according to Marx) allied itself with the interests of big business against the common interest. So the conservative case for the state depends on who controls it and what the alternatives are. Under some circumstances, conservatives will want to restrain and limit the state, whereas in others they will favour a strong and active state. In Canada, the latter has been the norm for most of its history, and the case for it remains powerful and is now strengthening in a world increasingly domi- Conservatism & the State nated by gigantic multinational corporations, very few of which are Canadian.

In the eyes of its defenders, the state provides a whole range of public goods beyond just physical security, such as health, education, welfare, and culture. And it can and often does act to support and protect communities from the vicissitudes of the market by subsidizing businesses, nationalizing industries and utilities, and providing communication and transportation links that may not be commercially viable but sustain a sense of national community. In the case of Canada, the state supports public broadcasting and culture in a sphere that is almost hegemonically American.

Canadians are generally comfortable with this role for the state, which is historically well-established. A great deal of what is distinctive about Canada would be weakened or disappear entirely without state support. That was self-evident to Sir John A. Macdonald and the men who supported his conception of a Canadian federation in 1867, though the state was tiny then compared to what it has become. Since the 1960s, two forms of capitalist ideology have dominated Canadian public life, neoconservatism and neoliberalism, carried principally by the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party. Both have a generally benign view of capitalism and of the United States. Neoconservatives remain blind to the fundamental inconsistency between capitalism and traditionalism that lies at its heart. They do not perceive, as Marx did, how the former necessarily subverts the latter, which is testament to the power of ideology to distort perceptions of reality (not that Marx himself was entirely free of ideological distortion). Neoliberals, while free of this internal inconsistency, are blind to the value of the historical continuities, traditions and communities that conservatives have long cherished as essential human goods. Here the force of ideology to warp perceptions is just as powerful.

The conception of conservatism that was dominant in Canada for the century after Confederation had its own blind spots, as all ideologies do, but these are not among them. It has.  a coherence, realism and connection with Canadian political culture in a neoliberal age of oligarchic capitalism that deserves a place at the heart of public life again. To make this practicable would be to show that conservatism is not an “impossibility” today.

Graeme Garrard is Professor of Politics at Cardiff University. Educated at Trinity College, Toronto, and Balliol College, Oxford, he served five years in the Royal Canadian Navy (Reserve) as a member of the University Naval Training Division and HMCS York. He is the author of four books, most recently The Return of the State: And Why it is Essential for our Health, Wealth and Happiness (Yale University Press, 2022). He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. This article first appeared in print in THE DORCHESTER REVIEW Vol. 10, No. 2, Autumn-Winter 2020, pp. 58-67.

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  • Dorchester Reader on

    Very interesting piece

    I would like to see the esteemed Prof Garrard’s take on Bishop John Strachan’s role in entrenching the view of the state described here into Canadian political culture. I feel there’s some interesting work to be done in this regard.

  • ERW on

    Excellent piece! Cery happy to see some thorough engagent with George Grant.

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