Canada as Cradle of Conservatism?
Today the term “High Tory” is more likely to appear in a dusty, forgotten history of aristocratic estates enshrouded in mist than in the noisy rallies and rude tweeting which count as politics in our troubled age. Yet Ron Dart, a Canadian political science professor, is not interested in writing a mere history of an obsolete political philosophy. This is a man with a mission. In this eclectic set of essays, Dart is determined to interrogate and ultimately repudiate the liberal hegemony from the perspective of an authentic conservatism. “Liberalism has a way of being imperialistic and colonizing other worldviews while trotting out the slogans of diversity, pluralism, and tolerance. It is not very liberal of a liberal not to critique liberalism but many liberals (enfolded within their ideological perspective) do not do so. Why is this so? This book will attempt to answer such a question.”
High Toryism, as Dart defines it, is the answer to this question but it is not an answer which will appeal to every conservative. Despite the misleading title of the book, which suggests that all of North America has a High Tory tradition, the author makes clear that only America’s northern neighbor can lay claim to being the cradle of true conservatism. Dart contends that the founding of the American Republic was a decisive and conscious rejection of Toryism, whose Loyalist defenders fled to Canada during the Revolutionary Era. Canada, in turn, “was founded on a resistance to the American way of life.” This tradition may even be the last, best hope which Canada has in resisting the corrosive effects of American empire. “If we [Canadians] forget our epic tale and drama, we will just be absorbed into the melting pot of the south.” Although Dart celebrates the Tory Canadian political philosopher George Grant’s Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965) as the greatest work of its time, he does not share Grant’s pessimistic view that both Canada and Toryism have become obsolete in the age of American modernity.
What, then, constitutes the philosophy of High Toryism? Drawing heavily upon the ideas of Hooker, Swift, Johnson, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and especially George Grant, Dart outlines ten principles which form this tradition:
- Tories are concerned about the wisdom of tradition
- Tories have a passion for both the commonweal and the commons
- Tories oppose any separation of ethics from economics
- Tories respect the environment, over and above the imperatives of profit
- Tories insist that the state and society work together, rather than opposing each other (as in the liberal tradition)
- Tories support a state which above all protects the common good rather than the individual right to private property
- The Tory notion of education stresses studying and respecting the “classics and epics” which constitute the great works of the tradition
- Tories understand human nature as imperfect, finite, and fallible, resistant to fundamental transformation through reform or revolution
- A Tory state is based on high ethical principle and religion (especially Anglican Christianity)
- Tories believe that there is a higher, nobler good to which politics should aspire, in contrast to endless debates over rights and liberties which play to the “lowest common denominator.”
At this point, American readers who have faithfully read the works of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk may justifiably wonder why their nation’s conservatism does not conform substantively to any of these principles. (Grant, who once described Loyalism as “straight Locke with a dash of Anglicanism,” may well have offered a qualification or two here.) Following the famous thesis of the political scientist Gad Horowitz, Dart contends that America’s radical break away from England doomed the cause of conservatism in the republic. Because Canada stayed within the British Empire for most of its history, it had a “Tory touch” which enabled it to build on English ideals of order, the common good, and the organic nature of society. All of these ideas sharply conflict with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Dart faults Burke and Kirk for inaccurately conflating American revolutionary ideals with English tradition.) At best, American conservatism is just Lockean liberalism, the old enemy of High Toryism. (There are exceptions. At one point, the author admits that the paleo-conservatives are the closest thing to an American version of Toryism.) This right-wing version of liberalism, which is dedicated to laissez-faire capitalism and small government, is even more incompatible with High Toryism than the “second-generation” welfarist liberalism of the twentieth century, which at least shares with the Tories a belief in an interventionist state dedicated to relief of the poor. If Dart is right, High Toryism eventually morphed into “Red Toryism” (a term coined by Horowitz), which implies that true socialists and true conservatives fundamentally agree about the destructive effects of unregulated capitalism and individualism. Canada’s Red Tories in the twentieth century even referred to themselves as “progressive conservatives,” who embraced traditional Christian morality as well as a state which served the interests of all classes.
Dart rightly stresses throughout his work that a true conservative should study and respect history. His work has done a great service to conservatives today who are looking for an alternative to the Scylla of Trumpian populism and the Charybdis of corporate oligarchy (not that these are absolutely incompatible with each other). His essay on the influence of C. S. Lewis on Grant is masterful. Dart is also on solid ground when he contends that Canada’s Tories have never been as averse as their Lockean cousins to the positive use of the state as a nation-building institution.
It is legitimate to ask, however, just how true to history Dart’s portrait of High Toryism happens to be. The author’s sometimes confusing oscillations between “High Toryism” and “Red Toryism” tend to blur important and well-known differences between the two camps. Although he recognizes that High Toryism rested on a landed aristocracy whose members enjoyed inherited privilege, rank, and title, this fact does not deter him from drawing substantive parallels between these Tories and their Red counterparts in the twentieth century. If Dart is to be believed, both of these Tories share a love of the “common good” unsullied by filthy lucre: “within such a radical reading of Toryism the role of leadership is not based on wealth, land, entrepreneurial abilities, possessions, or property; it is rooted in those fitted by nature or God to bring about the just kingdom.”
This pleasing parallel ignores the fact that the High Tories whom Dart celebrates often embraced attitudes that do not square with the leftist or egalitarian features of Red Toryism. As Carl Berger documents in his excellent study The Sense of Power: Studies in the Ideas of Canadian Imperialism 1867-1914 (1970), the nineteenth-century descendants of the Loyalists who fled to Ontario (Upper Canada) in the previous century were mighty proud of their Anglo-Saxon (not necessarily Anglican) heritage. The animus which these Canadian Tories manifested towards America had a great deal to do with the threat of immigration from “backward” populations gazing northward. Sir George Parkin, the maternal grandfather of George Grant, praised the cold Canadian climate for keeping out the “tramps and lower races” which might be tempted to emigrate from America. Parkin, who went on to become the headmaster of tony Upper Canada College in Toronto (where his grandson George studied alongside the children of Canada’s elite), thought his nation was blessed by the fact that there was no “Negro problem” in the peaceable kingdom. Nor was there any danger that the “sturdy races” of northern Europe would be swept aside by the “vagrant population” of southern Europe as long as the snow kept falling. George Monro Grant, who was George Grant’s paternal grandfather, was convinced, like most of his contemporaries, that the “white race is the only one which had proved its governing capacity,” although, in fairness, neither Parkin nor Grant thought that racial attributes were eternally fixed. Well into the twentieth century, Stephen Leacock, a popular High Tory satirist whom Dart admires, scorned the “Galicians,” the pejorative term for east-central Europeans in the early twentieth century, as intellectually incapable of successful fusion with old stock Canadians. Even if High Tories and Red Tories agree on the duty to provide welfare for the poor, the Tories of the nineteenth century supported this measure with the proviso that the franchise be restricted to the respectable property-owning classes.
My point here is not to reduce these gentlemen to their prejudices, which were widely held by liberals in this period as well. As a reader who is sympathetic with some features of Toryism (both High and Red), I am instead calling for the need to avoid an ahistorical romanticism towards the “good old days,” a temptation which is all too evident within conservatism today. In this vein, Dart’s vaguely expressed misgivings towards the fragmenting effects of the Canadian policy of multiculturalism, which are never fully developed, would have benefited from a discussion which recognizes the traditional Tory preoccupation with a stable or homogeneous identity.
Dart also takes some rather extreme positions on the traditional enemies of High Toryism. Drawing from Swift’s “Battle of the Books,” Dart portrays the moderns as “spiders” who spin webs out of their own wombs, while the ancients are “bees” who create honey out of what is given by nature. Both the Reformation and the Enlightenment draw heavy fire for unleashing the spider-like vices of liberalism and commerce. Gone was the “pre-Reformation world” with its attendant notions of “the good, true, and beautiful,” although Dart assures us that the Anglo-Catholic tradition retains a semblance of this lost world. One does not have to be a diehard Marxist to smell the romanticism in this portrait of history. Even George Grant, who was severely critical of the anti-intellectual Protestantism of the late modern age, at times exuded a kinder tone. In his essay “In Defence of North America” (1968), Grant praised the Calvinists who “forced commodities from the land” for building “public and private institutions of freedom and flexibility and endurance.” Grant added that Marxist critics of the capitalist conquest of North America ignore the fact that this process was “an incarnation of hope and equality which the settlers had not found in Europe.” In short, the pre-Reformation world wasn’t missed by poor immigrants who, mercifully, escaped it.
It is also legitimate to ask whether Toryism (High or Red) has any chance of a resurgence in our troubled times, even in Canada. Can Toryism address the tensions of our age in the wake of liberalism’s failures? Although conservative Anglican Christians (who are sometimes called “Tories at prayer”) may welcome the return of Toryism, it is far from obvious that the rest of Canadians would share the same enthusiasm. For those who are not Anglican, Christian, or English in ancestry, what exactly does High Toryism offer today? Atheists, both left and right, are unlikely to embrace the rule of those who are “fitted by nature or God to bring about the just kingdom.” George Grant’s political philosophy, admirable as it is, is probably too confusing for most citizens today, since Grant embraced “right-wing” views on gay rights and abortion as well as “left-wing” positions on corporate capitalism and the military-industrial complex.
In fairness, Dart is only too aware that he has his work cut out for him. The Anglican Church of Canada is split between liberal and conservative factions over same-sex marriage. The last true High Tory prime minister, John Diefenbaker, was defeated in the 1963 federal election after members of his own Conservative party aligned with Dief’s numerous enemies in the liberal establishment who were furious with his opposition to President Kennedy’s insistence that nuclear missiles be placed on Canadian soil. Since that time, all three of Canada’s major political parties have behaved like “compradors,” in Dart’s view, for driving out their nationalistic compadres who desired more control over economic and foreign policy than the empire to the south generally allows. The effects of colonization run deep. As Grant observed in Lament, since the 1930s the Canadian establishment has been quite comfortable with the American imperium which replaced the British Empire. Canadians who are critical of an expansionist American foreign policy are more likely to read Noam Chomsky than study the anti-imperial writings of their countrymen. As for the United States, the current fusion of populism, oligarchy, and the prosperity gospel in the Trumpian Republican Party would probably strike both Grant and Dart as the harbinger of a new “Constantinian” age which celebrates raw power over high principle.
Still, not all may be lost. Many Canadians, like their American cousins, are increasingly dubious about the alleged benefits of economic globalization and the survival of their nation-state. (As I write this, there is widespread criticism of current prime minister Justin Trudeau’s attempts to forge closer economic ties between Canada and the oligarchic rulers of China.) Happily, a renewed defense of Canadian sovereignty would not require a restoration of High Church Anglicanism. Canadians and Americans simply need to care about the survival of their respective nations by studying and preserving the political institutions and traditions which may still protect them from the most deleterious effects of liberalism and corporatism. Ron Dart’s work illuminates the pathways of that recovery project with insights which can inspire thoughtful citizens from all sides of the political spectrum.
Grant Havers is Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Trinity Western University (Canada) He is the author of Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique (Northern Illinois University Press, 2013)
Posted: February 12, 2017
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