On principle, if this is Friday, it must be Belgium

You know, I have nothing against Belgium. And not much for it. I read once that it has only one forest left, which depressed me. Still, I'd be willing to check the place out if given good reason. But I'm not holding my breath. Any more than I am for an articulate, coherent and salable platform from the Conservative party. Stephen Harper's Belgian proposal might have some merit. It certainly won't do to complain that politics is banal and predictable, then flying body-slam anyone who says anything unexpected. My complaint is that there is no more evidence of political philosophy behind it than behind the Reform party's kaleidoscopic series of positions on important issues, generally untainted by any reference to established conservative thinkers, principles or tradition.

But listen for a moment to Abraham Lincoln (courtesy of Ted Morton in Daniel Cere's and Douglas Farrow's new book Divorcing Marriage) on the worst decision in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court, 1857's pro-slavery Dred Scott clunker: "I do not forget the position assumed by some, that constitutional questions are to be decided by the Supreme Court; nor do I deny that such decisions must be binding in any case, upon the parties to a suit, as to the object of that suit ... At the same time the candid citizen must confess that if the policy of the government, upon vital questions, affecting the whole people, is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made, in ordinary litigation between parties, in personal actions, the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent, practically resigned their government into the hands of that eminent tribunal."

Has anyone in the Conservative party said anything as coherent or principled about judicial activism today? Or as persuasive?

It seems that the Conservatives, like to some extent the NDP, have become unhealthily fixated on the Liberals' ruthless pragmatism about winning and persuaded themselves that they, too, must tear loose from the restraint of principles. I think it's an error even when it comes to the Grits, whose firm-but-flexible philosophy has at its core the principles of as much social spending as the economy can sustain and as much independence from the United States as our national security can sustain (whether they have made the latter calculation properly of late is another matter).

In any event, the Liberals occupy a particular niche in our political system, and seeking to cram one's own party into it as well offers neither benefit nor honour. The Tories, like the NDP, are meant to be a party of coherent principles, and if it is difficult to win on that basis, well, no one said the job would be easy and besides, it is impossible to win otherwise so they might as well give it a try. For them, to paraphrase Socrates, "The unexamined philosophy is not worth articulating."

Take the Federalist Papers. Yes, I know. It's hard to toss all 85 of them across the aisle during question period. But to persuade their countrymen to ratify the U.S. Constitution, the three authors who wrote as "Publius" offered no shallow expedience. Instead they presented a comprehensive discussion of political economy not only successful in its immediate purpose but useful to this day. Likewise, Washington's Farewell Address contains a celebrated and still compelling warning against permanent alliances like, say, the United Nations, as well as a less-celebrated and to me less-convincing but still thought-provoking warning against partisanship. Whereas in place of an articulate discourse on the political philosophy of language, with Belgium as an illustration, Mr. Harper gave us Mulroney warmed over.

We were deprived even of an explicit statement along the lines that: "When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one party to hoover up votes in Quebec by any means possible without regard for the antiquated emotion known as 'shame,' a decent respect to the public opinion polls of mankind requires avoiding any discussion of the principles that might or might not underlie positions whose potential adoption hinges on future considerations of unmitigated expediency." Instead, the bus full of tired, bewildered constitutional tourists roared off to Spain, leaving the voters behind.

If basing policy clearly and explicitly on principle interests the Tories, I could offer them a useful list of books, including Dicey on our own constitutional order. It would, however, get very long indeed before it reached Belgium. I have nothing against the place. It's just that there are far more interesting things to see and ponder.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson