Tories lack policies, principles -- and hope of winning

The Tories’ latest brainwave, the Citizen reported Wednesday, is “they’ll only topple the government with the NDP’s help.” You’re trying to drive us mad, aren’t you? The background: NDP MP Bev Desjarlais just quit her caucus after being denied renomination because she deviated from the party line on gay marriage. (NDP tolerance doesn’t extend to dissent.) So now the Tories plus the Bloc outnumber the Liberals plus the NDP, and could bring down the government if they get the support of two of the four independents. How might the Conservatives appeal to these independents? If they even wanted to, I mean.

They could offer them machine tools. No, it’s not the joke about surrealists changing a lightbulb. The Tories have a policy of giving tradespersons a $500 tax credit for tools, and a $1,000 grant for new apprentices to buy tools and stuff. And tax breaks for transit passes, fishing gear, and maybe tampons as well. Tory finance critic Monte Solberg says, “It’s true, we are shameless supporters of middle-income Canadians.” And shameless big spenders. He assures us these loophole proposals “are, on one hand, very important tax breaks for certain groups of people. But, because they are for a specific group of people, they’re not that expensive overall and they are really designed to help the economy where the economy needs help.” Or possibly the Tory party. Say, in “vote-rich Ontario.’’

Regrettably, a new poll shows them trailing the Liberals by a growing margin nationally and especially in “seat-rich Ontario.” Apparently pandering like Liberals is not an effective strategy in cliche-rich Ontario.

Maybe the problem is that “Conservatism assumes in theory that everything established should be maintained, but adopts in practice that everything that is established is indefensible. To reconcile this theory and this practice, they produce what they call ‘the best bargain,’ some arrangement which has no principle and no purpose except to obtain a temporary lull of agitation ... Conservatism discards prescription, shrinks from principle, disavows progress; having rejected all respect for antiquity, it offers no redress for the present, and makes no preparation for the future.” Harsh words. From Benjamin Disraeli’s 1844 novel Coningsby. Which frankly is a bit dull. But he later became prime minister of Great Britain, twice.

So listen up as title character Harry Coningsby castigates the Tories of his day as “The first public association of men who have worked for an avowed end without enunciating a single principle.” They weren’t the last. And as the modern Tadpoles and Tapers ponder poll results in dismay and wonder who else they can try to buy with a tax break, let their statespersons, if any, ponder Disraeli’s: “What sympathy could there exist between Coningsby and the ‘great Conservative party’ that for ten years in an age of revolution had never promulgated a principle...?”

I know, books are boring and principles are awkward. But back when he was a libertarian, Stephen Harper presumably read Friedrich Hayek. I wonder what he now thinks of Hayek’s famous essay “Why I am not a conservative”? I don’t accept all his arguments but it is important to confront them. I don’t primarily mean Hayek’s declaration that “the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it -- or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism.” For instance that your pandering isn’t working.

I mean Hayek’s “decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed ... in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance.” Hayek even says as a true lover of freedom he “differs much more from the collectivist radical of today than does the conservative.” And now the Tories won’t bring down the Liberals unless the NDP says it’s OK. Brrrrrrrr.

Hayek concluded: “I doubt whether there can be such a thing as a conservative political philosophy. Conservatism may often be a useful practical maxim, but it does not give us any guiding principles which can influence long-range developments.” Coningsby disagreed, saying his party should seek not personal advancement “but to establish great principles which may maintain the realm and secure the happiness of the people. Let me see authority once more honoured; a solemn reverence again the habit of our lives; let me see property acknowledging, as in the old days of faith, that labour is his twin brother, and that the essence of all tenure is the performance of duty...” Can you imagine a modern Conservative even reading that passage, let alone endorsing it?

Our Tories seem to have no theory of how government works, no coherent conception of the national interest, no attachment to traditional wisdom. And no hope of winning the next election. As things stand you’d have to be mad to vote for them.

Which might explain their strategy.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson