Hoity Tories

By John Pepall


Review of Canadian Conservative Political Thought. Lee Trepanier and Richard Avramenko, eds. Routledge, 2023.


THERE HAS BEEN great political tumult in many democracies in recent years. It has been attributed to populism, woke identity politics, economic stress, Covid, and social media.

Populism is inherently unreflective. Politicians attempt to interpret it and find ways to get the people’s votes, but there is no populist thought. The left dismiss populists as deplorables, to be reeducated.

The left thinks it knows what’s right, and has settled theories.

On the right, amongst conservatives, the political tumult has given rise to vigorous debate pitting new schools of conservative thought against each other and holdovers from the heyday of conservatism in the late 20th century.

In the United States a fanciful Catholic integralism has vocal supporters. A vaguer common good conservatism attempts a non-sectarian response to the tumult. National conservatives attempt to sanitize nationalism, which had come to be seen as simply a bad thing. The fusionism of the 1950s, which brought together traditional conservatives and free market liberals united by anti-communism and a general antipathy to big government and the old progressivism, is dismissed.

The various strains of conservative thought in the United States at the turn of the millennium, neo-conservatism, social conservatism, neoliberalism, support for free markets, and free trade, are challenged within the right.

The plethora of well-endowed think tanks, journals, and independent universities in the States assure there a rich, if often confused, treatment of these ideas. In Canada, whether because of our reputed politeness, or timidity, or lack of money, their treatment has been weak. Though they have been addressed in these pages.

At this juncture there arrives from the venerable academic imprint Routledge Canadian Conservative Political Thought, a collection of essays reaching back over two hundred years in an attempt to trace conservative political thought in Canada. It is something of a jumble with articles on people running from John Strachan and Thomas Darcy McGee to Eugene Forsey and Marshal McLuhan. There is an article on the little platoon of Schitt’s Creek.

In the first article Brian T. Thorn makes a strained attempt to enlist Edmund Burke in support of contemporary indigenous anti-colonialism. He cites Burke’s support of the American colonists in their conflict with Britain, his impeachment of Warren Hastings for his conduct as Governor of Bengal, and a few remarks he made about the indigenous in America, both their “‘savage’ and un-Christian customs,” and that “they were ‘hardy’ and always embraced liberty and freedom.”

Any attempt to argue that Burke provides support to 21st century indigenous ideology first runs up against his staunch support of the "settler" colonies in America, who shortly before their War of Independence had been fighting the indigenous in what Americans call the French and Indian War. And Burke did not advocate American independence. He protested Britain’s attempt to tax and interfere in the autonomy of the colonies after that war and regretfully accepted that independence was the consequence.

It is forgotten, or unknown, that Burke, rightly seen as a principal founder of conservatism, was a Whig. His defence of tradition did not mean that he thought societies should be static, never changing. He did not regret that the people of Britain were not living as they did in the time of Stonehenge. He was a reformer in many matters of government. He wanted decent, indeed Christian, treatment of the indigenous, but he did not think that they owned America in fee simple, and were sovereign nations. He wanted them to leave their “‘savage’ and un-Christian customs.”

As Thorn writes, he did not want India to be independent, something scarcely conceived at the time. He wanted British rule to be just.

Thorn writes that “Further research will be necessary to provide more details on the linkages between thinkers like Burke and Indigenous thought.” He has already wasted enough ink on the notion. Indigenous ideology is an artifact of post-colonial and other 20th century theory. The attempt to refashion Burke as a champion of 21st century identity politics does no service to conservative understanding or the indigenous.

This in an article that casually and ineptly claims indigenous Burkeanism is especially important “in light of the discovery of mass graves of residential school survivors.”

Richard Avramenko and Noah Stengl reflect on Toqueville’s brief but happy visit to Quebec. He found “The French nation of Louis XIV’s day survives there unspoiled in its mores and language.” He identified a happy Congregational Life centred on the local priest. Noting its extinction in the Quiet Revolution, the authors write that it “has been devastating for the present state and possible future of Québécois identity. Today, one might wonder whether there is anything to Québécois identity besides the French language and threatening to leave Canada.”

Jeremy Seth Geddert offers a capsule biography of John Strachan with reference to his writings, arguing that he aimed at a Toquevillean “Aristocratic mores without Aristocrats.” Despite Strachan’s failure to maintain an Anglican establishment to that end, Geddert credits him with some influence in assuring that “Canada remains a land of custom, courtesy, competence, and common good.” Whether it does, or will, remain so is questionable, but, from the arrival of the Loyalists, for two centuries Canada built up a moral capital that ensured remarkable peace, order and good government, and despite the caricature and opprobrium from which his reputation has suffered, if he is remembered at all, Strachan contributed to that and a deeper study of him might allow us to recover some of it.

David Livingstone recounts some of the thinking of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, perhaps the most thoughtful politician we have ever had. McGee hoped for “an aristocracy of talent open to the people,” which Livingstone calls a meritocracy. It is surprising how many people extol meritocracy, forgetting that “meritocracy” was coined by Michael Young in his dystopian 1958 novel The Rise of the Meritocracy. McGee condemned “pure democracy,” but his quest for a balancing aristocracy, when there was no nobility, and none was wanted, remains unfulfilled. We scarcely know what it might be. It cannot be “elites.”

Livingstone writes of McGee’s support of the North in the American Civil War and condemnation of slavery. But when still in the States, as late as 1849, McGee was, in common with his Young Ireland contemporaries, pro-slavery. The transformation in his thinking between then and his arrival in Canada in 1857 was extraordinary. It is some evidence of the depth, and breadth, of his thinking, but unsettling.

McGee advocated an “amalgamation” of different religious and ethnic strains in Canada. “By amalgamation, we do not understand swallowing up; we mean the union of relative natures, fit and proper to be united, in the fruits of which each constituent is represented by the good qualities he contributes to the common stock.” He would have been no fan of multiculturalism. He hoped for “A Canadian nationality, not French-Canadian, nor British-Canadian, nor Irish-Canadian — patriotism rejects the prefix — is, in my opinion, what we should look forward to, — that is what we ought to labour for, that is what we ought to be prepared to defend to the death.” He saw Canada “as an incipient new nation.” The idea of a post-national state would have seemed absurd to him.

Livingstone brings in Charles Taylor, Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty, and others in exploring the challenges to McGee’s ambition. We should do better to concentrate on McGee’s own writing.

Ben Woodfinden and Sean Speer discuss what they call Sir John A. Macdonald’s Hamiltonian  “state-capacity conservatism” in building the railway and the National Policy. This lies at the origin of the Red Tory theory advanced by the socialist Gad Horowitz in 1966. On this theory conservatives in Canada were never wedded to free markets and limited government as they supposedly were elsewhere. The theory relies on a caricatural Friedmanite straw man as the alternative Tories in Canada happily avoided. It invites conservatives to become socialists. In an updating of Disraeli’s description of Conservative government as “Tory men and Whig measures,” Red Tory government would be Conservative men and Socialist measures.

Adam Smith allowed that strategic considerations could outweigh the benefits of free markets. So, building the railway was necessary to the strategic goal of binding Canada together. What exactly the National Policy was and what it contributed to the development of Canada’s economy, and infant industries, Woodfinden and Speer do not discuss.

This fits in with a wider reaction amongst conservatives against free trade, and free markets generally. Against the policies of Reagan and Thatcher, carried on by Clinton’s New Democrats in the States and Blair’s New Labour in Britain, what was called, with more or less approval, neoliberalism. It tends to assume that there is a necessary conflict between the pursuit of profit in markets and the common good. It is partly fuelled by the old snobbery about “trade.”

Markets are not the invention of Adam Smith, or Friedrich Hayek. They arose and developed naturally. Conservatives should embrace them as part of human tradition.

Woodfinden and Speer write “Modern approaches to conservatism that emphasize political and policy ideas like small government, deregulation, or tax cuts as foundational to conservatism often fall into rationalistic tendencies about how the world and individuals work.” Do they favour irrational big government, regulation, and high taxes?

In reading books such as this I find myself often asking “So what would you do about corporate taxes?” Dare I suggest that they should be cut? But the small business rate eliminated? Such questions can only be answered by an economics that seeks to understand markets. Generally, it looks to increase wealth. But if your philosophy doesn’t care for that and has some other common good as its goal, what exactly is it, and how much wealth, and whose, are you prepared to give up, to get it?

There are some who say that the pursuit of economic growth is bad, either because it is bad for the environment, or for the soul. They may even want economic shrinking. This is definitely not a populist policy. It is distinctly elitist.

Woodfinden and Speer also write that “the prospect of a state-capacity conservatism that is willing to strategically orient the state toward targeted economic ends that serve the national interest has renewed relevance.” They give no specifics. Is it conservative to have such confidence in the capacity of the state to do good, and to license it to the indefinite pursuit of good? There are things we need the state for: to keep the peace and enforce the laws, to provide social insurance, and education. What more does a conservative want? There is more, but conservatives must see some limit.

In “The High Tory Conservatism of Eugene Forsey and John Farthing” Tyler Chamberlain identifies Red and High Tory. He accepts Gad Horowitz’s theory without question. He outlines Forsey’s thoroughgoing 1930s socialism, social ownership of the means of production, down with capitalism, the whole hog. He claims to find a continuity between that Forsey and the Forsey of the 1970s who sat as a Liberal senator. It is true that Forsey always wanted a strong Dominion government, and saw a place for disallowance of provincial legislation, but his support for wage and price controls, which were adopted by governments of all stripes in the 1970s, and failed, is no evidence that he remained a socialist.

Forsey is principally remembered for his strong support for and understanding of the Crown and the role of the Governor General. His friend John Farthing is remembered for his 1957 Freedom Wears a Crown. Their support for the Crown was not some technical political science theory, though Forsey mastered the details of how it should work. It was part of their attachment to The British Tradition in Canada, the title of a book they had planned to write together. It is in their attachment to tradition in institutions and culture and respect for the historic reality of Canada that they were conservative.

Farthing distinguished between “the age old western tradition of freedom” and the States’ “eighteenth century scientific idea of liberty.” Can they be so far apart when the colonists claimed to stand on their rights as free born Englishman against a tyrannical king? Chamberlain seeks to clarify the distinction between freedom and liberty, but the overlap is so great that there is a risk of throwing the baby of freedom out with the bathwater of liberty if we press it too far.

Farthing rejected the social contract theory of government stemming from Locke and Rousseau, two very different philosophers, seeing social life preceding the state. But it would be too much to see him as a socialist, as Forsey once was. Farthing was sceptical even of Keynes, who seemed to him to offer a questionable science to assure the survival of a small pace for a free economy, a phrase he used with respect.

In a strangely involved critique of Janet Ajzenstat titled “Globalist Nihilism, Liberal Relativism, and Tutorialist Statecraft” Colin D. Pearce pits Egerton Ryerson’s “absolutist pedagogical liberalism” against Ajzenstat’s “‘classical’ or ‘Lockean’ liberalism.” While very critical of Ajzenstat, Pierce doesn’t seem to have much sympathy for Ryerson whose efforts at “elevation” he compares to the project of “proponents of the Globalist Principle.” He recounts the recent cancellation of Ryerson with some distaste, but does not mount a defence of him.

In Pearce’s reading, what Ajzenstat praises as a “neutral constitution” established at Confederation amounts to Justin Trudeau’s “post-national state.” While Ryerson sought the hegemony of the educated “superior mind.” Whatever Ajzenstat’s personal political leanings may be, there is no reason to think that her account of the constitutional settlement of 1867 excludes the possibility of superior minds assuring Tory government in Canada. Ryerson was himself a supporter of that settlement. A settlement that left the forms of government largely unchanged and was mainly concerned with federalism, a subject largely untouched in this book.

Ajzenstat invokes John Locke. Pearce writes “… in our time to invoke the name of Locke has been taken as a sign of some variant of ‘conservatism’ when for the longest time Locke was taken to be the very embodiment and emblem of essential liberalism.” in a section entitled “The Protean Meaning of Conservatism.” The meaning of “liberalism” is equally protean, with Locke featuring as a bête noire for many conservatives. It might be remembered that Sir John A.’s party in 1867 was the Liberal Conservative Party. Many conservatives decry liberalism, and not just because in the States liberal and conservative are taken as directly opposed positions, with liberals seen as leftists and progressives. Other conservatives share the widespread dismay at the rise of illiberalism, most explicit in Hungary. Catholic integralists are opposed to liberalism in any sense, with more or less discretion.


CONSERVATISM NEED not, must not, be turned against the liberalism of free speech, rule of law, toleration, and individual freedom generally. Even emollient common good conservatism contains a totalitarian threat of subjection to the notions of common good of superior minds.

In an article more respectful of Ajzenstat, Travis D. Smith explains that she was concerned “to overturn the notion of a ‘Tory touch’ in Canada’s origins … a tendency toward collectivism from the outset,” fondly held by the left in Canada and those on the right seduced by Red Toryism. What she found was even “John Beverley Robinson articulating ‘the tories’ defence of individual opportunities and rights for all citizens regardless of rank,’1 showing how even Canadian conservatism leading up to Confederation spoke liberal language.” Showing happily that conservatives need not be illiberal.

Ajzenstat’s mistake was to try to find a founding for Canada like that of the United States. Rightly celebrated as it still, sometimes, is Confederation was not the equivalent of 1776 or 1789. Canada was not founded. It grew up.

Articles on the failure of Charles Taylor’s prescription of interculturalism to address multicultural stress in Quebec, Marshall McLuhan, and McLuhan and Kojève, and Brock Chisholm’s global government ambitions take us far from conservatism, despite McLuhan’s Catholicism.

Colin Cordner’s abstruse article on George Grant points to the conclusion that we should do better to read what Grant read rather than what he wrote. Except for Lament for a Nation, Grant’s most concretely political book, despite its invocation of Marcuse and others. Cordner avoids referring to Lament.

Grant is the last conservative noticed in this book. The “common sense” conservatism associated with Mike Harris is evidently beneath notice.

Richard Avramenko presents a strained analysis of Western Canadian Political Identity in terms of Homesteaders and Orangemen. He presents Loyalists as Puritans scarcely evolved from the Mayflower Pilgrims, and Upper Canada as a Province of the Orange Order. Anglican, Presbyterian, and Methodist elements are overlooked, as well as official hostility to the Orange Order.

This, together with the sentimental Riel cult, and the large-scale immigration of Eastern Europeans to the West is set up to counter the Laurentian hegemony decried in Western Canada.

Avramenko quotes Barry Cooper:


the political unit of Canada has no identity. It has several identities expressed in several regional and literary mythologies. What is particularly significant, at least for a Westerner, is that the parochial myth of southern Ontario that gives genuine expression to a regional identity is expressed in the misleading language of a pan-Canadian identity ...


concluding that “Just as Alberta is Suddenly There, the empiricist discovers that the myth of Laurentian Canada is Suddenly Not There.” Is Canada still there? Can there be such a thing as Canadian Conservative Political Thought?

The old Province of Canada, though it held the name, was only part of Canada’s history. British Columbia had its own history, as did the Maritime provinces, and what became Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. But they were all British North America, with a common political, legal, and historic basis. Western ressentiment, though popular with many conservatives in Western Canada, is not conservative.

It would perhaps be too much to expect this book to address corporate taxes, but the absence of social conservative issues, except for passing references to abortion, or identity politics, except insofar as multiculturalism may be a form of that, or medical assistance in dying, transmania, and wokeness generally is striking. A repeated stress on the importance of religion, even specifically Christianity, suggests that the contributors may be sympathetic to social conservatism, but it is a mistake to see these as religious issues, as the left does in condemning social conservatives as wanting to enforce their religion on all. The deepest thinking about how we should live has historically been religious, but the decline of faith does not entail that we must reject that thinking and sink into relativism or nihilism.

These issues raise most poignantly the issues of the individual and the common good, and how best we can live together. To evade them, as the contributors do, is to avoid addressing many aspects of what it is to be human and to lead a good life.

It will be said that most of the subjects of this book had no occasion to address our present discontents, but they are invoked to guide us to an understanding of what conservatism is, and what it can offer us today. In his introduction, Lee Trepanier invites the Conservative Party “to reflect upon the country’s conservative past to learn enduring lessons for the future.”

Going on about the common good, the importance of religion, the family, the nation, little platoons, and tradition, anything but getting and spending, so vaguely and abstractly that no specific measures are indicated, and almost anything can be offered as Red/High Tory policy offers us no lessons for the future. The concrete meaning of conservative thought can only be tested when we can see what measures it supports.

Evading the issues of today and settling for the invocation of figures from the past and the edifying talk of superior minds we are left only with what I have dubbed the Hoity Tories.

Published in Autumn-Winter 2023 edition, Vol. XIII No. 2, of The Dorchester Review, pp. 72-75.

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  • ERW on

    There are a few concrete complaints in this review, but mostly the author mostly seems annoyed that not all conservatives in Canada’s history shared his particular bent.

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