[A paper written by Robert Stanfield when he was head of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. You can judge how different the Harper Conservatives are from the Progressive Conservatives]
Some Comments on Conservative Principles and Philosophy
We must start with some fundamentals. This may seem rather remote from present day politics and it may very well involve us in more than one such session of discussion, but this kind of beginning is essential if we are to consider principles as opposed to political tactics for the short term. I have put down a few points for your consideration. Please excuse the
We are not now discussing the platform of the party. This program should be consistent with our principles, but it is a set of proposals designed to deal with the problems and issues of the moment, rather than a statement of principles. And of course, it is also intended to gain support in a given situation.
I must emphasize, too, that we are not now discussing the extent to which we in our party should be positive with regard to issues and problems of the day, as opposed to being
critical of government policies on these issues and problems. This question is an important question but it is a matter of tactics, rather than a matter of party principles.
We are therefore discussing principles: what we do or should stand for through the years.
First I would like to make a few comments on the role of political parties such as ours in Canada. Not only is it unnecessary for political parties to disagree about everything
but some acceptance of common ground among the major parties is essential to an effective and stable democracy. For example, it is important to stability. that all major parties
agree on such matters as parliamentary responsible government and major aspects of our constitution.
I would like to emphasize too, that in the British tradition, political parties are not doctrinaire. Walter Bagehot, who wrote a famous book on the British Constitution in the 19th Century, set out to explain in an essay why France had unstable government and Britain has stable government. He joked about this, suggesting that it was simply a matter of French being more intelligent. Every self-respecting Frenchman, Bagehot said, developed his own personal philosophy, and if he found three or four others who agreed
with him he formed a political party; whereas in Britain a Conservative was quite content to support his party as long as the Earl of Derby (who was then the leader of the party)
attended the annual picnic, and a liberal was quite content as long as Mr. Gladstone attended the annual picnic.
Bagehot made the point that because French political parties were based upon doctrine they tended to divide the country and found it very difficult to work together. Consequently, government in France was likely to be unstable. in Britain, on the other hand, doctrine was relatively unimportant to political parties, and because of the tradition of consensus and compromise in Britain, stable government was the rule.
It seems to me that Bagehot, while exaggerating to make his point, had an important point to make. In our parliamentary tradition, which is substantially the British tradition,
parties have a unifying roles to play. For example, the British Conservative Party has always tried to appeal to Britons in all walks of life because it felt that It represented Britons in all walks of life. There are, of course, time when stands must be taken which will seriously divide the country. However, a truly national political party has a continuing role to try to pull things together: achieve a consensus, resolve conflicts, strengthen the fabric of society and work towards a feeling of harmony in the country. Success in this role is, I suggest, essential if a party is to maintain a strong position in this country. This role of a
national political party, and success in this role, are particularly important in countries as vast and diverse as Canada and the United States.
It is partly because of this that I do not favour the Manning thesis which urges polarization of political view points in this country. In Canada a party such as ours has a harmonizing role to play, both horizontally in terms of resolving conflicts between regions, and vertically in terms of resolving conflicts between Canadians in different walks of life. It is not a matter of a national party being all things to all people — this would never work. But a national party should appeal to all parts of the country and to Canadians in all walks of life, if it is to serve this essential role, and if it is to remain strong.
Turning now to the consideration of the Conservative Party as such, I would not wish to exaggerate the concern of British Conservatives through the years with principles or theory. After all, they were practising politicians for the most part, pragmatists dealing with problems, and of course, politicians seeking success. There are, however, some threads we can follow through the years. I am, of course, not suggesting that we in Canada should follow British principles or practices slavishly. Nor would I argue that our party in Canada has followed a consistent pattern. I believe it has frequently wandered far from the conservative tradition that I believe to be valuable, and conservative principles I accept.
British Conservative thinkers traditionally stressed the importance of order, not merely “law and order”, but social order. Thin does not mean that they were opposed to freedom
for the individual; far from it. They believe that a decent civilized life requires a framework of order.
Conservatives did not take that kind of order for granted. It seemed to them quite rare in the world and therefore quite precious. This is still the case. Conservatives attached
importance to the economy and to enterprise and to property, but private enterprise was not the central principle of traditional British conservatism. Indeed the supreme
importance of private enterprise and the undesirability of government initiative and interference was Liberal 19th Century doctrine. It was inherited from Adam Smith and was given its boldest political statement by such Liberals as Cobden and Bright. It was they who preached the doctrine of the unseen hand with practically no reservation.
The conservative concept of order encouraged conservative governments to impose restrictions on private enterprise where this was considered desirable. We all studied William Wilberforce and his factory legislation when we were in school. These were logical measures for Conservatives to adopt; to protect the weak against the excesses of private
enterprise and greed. That is good traditional conservatism, fully consistent with traditional conservative principles. It is also good Conservatism not to push regulation too far to undermine self-reliance.
Because of the central importance Conservatives attached to the concept of order they naturally favoured strong and effective government, but on the other had they saw a limited or restricted role for government for several reasons: because a highly centralized government is quite susceptible to arbitrary exercise of power and also to attack and
revolution. Conservatives instinctively favoured a decentralization of power. National government had to be able to act in the national interest, but there had to be countervailing centres of power and influence. in the past, these might consist of church or the A landed gentry or some other institution. Today in Canada, the provinces, trade
unions, farm organizations, trade associations and the press would serve as examples.
In the middle of the last century a very able Frenchman named de Toqueville explained why France had had a succession of revolutions following 1789, whereas the United States had had stable government and had been free of revolutions for many years. De Toqueville’s explanation was the decentralization of government in the United States as compared to the highly centralized government of France. All one had to do to gain
complete power in France was to capture the central government at Versailles, whereas in the United States the power of Washington was limited by the decentralization of power and authority. Consequently, there was no easy target for revolution in the United States.
Another reason why Conservatives traditionally saw a limited role for government was because Conservatives were far from being Utopians. They adopted basically a Judeo-Christian view of the world. It might be an exaggeration to say that they saw the world as a vale of tears. They certainly saw the world as a very imperfect place, capable of only limited improvement; and man as an imperfect being. They saw evil as an on-going force that would always be present in changing form. It would therefore not have surprised Edmund Burke that economic growth, and government policies associated with
it, have created problems almost as severe as those that economic growth and government policies were supposed to overcome.
A third reason for Conservatives taking a limited view of the role of government was that men such as Edmund Burke regarded man’s intelligence as quite limited. Burke was very much impressed by how little man understood what was going on around him. He pushed this thought very far — surely much too far — in his famous protest against the French
revolution, when he argued against any fundamental constitutional change on the grounds that constitutions such as the British and French constitutions had been developed
through the ages, incorporating the wisdom and the experience of the race. Burke questioned whether any one generation really had the intelligence to understand fully the reasons for existing institutions or to pass judgment on those institutions which were the product of the ages. Burke pushed this idea much too far, but Conservatives have traditionally recognized how limited human intelligence really is, and consequently have recognized that success in planning the lives of other people or the life of the nation is likely to be limited. Neither government nor its bureaucracy are as wise as they are apt to believe. Humility is a valuable strain in Conservatism, provided it does not become an excuse for resisting change, accepting injustice or supporting vested interests.
I have emphasized the stress British Conservatism placed through the years on the importance of order and stability, and some of the implications of this: active and effective
government, but government with a limited role; and a significant decentralization of power in the country. Another aspect of traditional Conservatism that I have mentioned is
the inherent belief that while effective government is vitally important, and government initiative and regulation necessary, politicians should recognize their limitations.
There is another important strain to traditional Conservatism. Conservatism is national in scope and purpose. This implies a strong feeling for the country, its institutions and its symbols; but also a feeling for all the country and for all the people in the country. The
Conservative Party serves the whole country and all the people, not simply part of the country and certain categories of people.
In past days when there was a rigid class structure this might well have involved each, one keeping his place in society, but nevertheless government was for all the people according to the lights of the time.
Social conditions have changed, but the national scope of Conservatism (both vertical and horizontal) is still an essential aspect of Conservative philosophy. Economic policy was and is subservient to national objectives in this full sense of the word national. Liberalism traditionally emphasized the individual and opposed the subservience of the economy to national political objectives and purposes.
I suggest that it is in the Conservative tradition to expand the concept of order and give it a fully contemporary meaning. The concept of order always included some concept of security for the unfortunate, although the actual program may have been quite inadequate by our present day standards.
The concept of order certainly includes the preservation of our environment. And the concept of order, linked to Conservative concern for the country as a whole, certainly
includes concern about poverty.
For a Conservative in the Conservative tradition which I have described, there is much mote to national life than simply increasing the size of the Gross National Product. A
Conservative naturally regards a healthy economy as of great importance, but increasing the size of the Gross National Product is not in itself a sufficient goal for a civilized nation, according to a Conservative. A health economy is obviously important, but a Conservative will be concerned about the effects of economic growth — what this does to our environment; what kind of living conditions it creates; what is its effect on the countryside, what is its effect on our cities; whether all parts of the nation benefit or only some parts of the nation, and whether a greater feeling of justice and fairness and self-fulfillment results from this thereby strengthening the social order and improving the quality of national life.
I am not trying in this paper to gather together all the strands of Conservative thought or to fill in details but rather to mention some aspects of Conservative thinking which I believe are frequently overlooked or misunderstood in the day-to-day activities of our party. While I, as leader of the party, have stressed economic problems and economic issues, there is clearly a great deal more to Conservatism than particular economic policies.
We would all do Well to read deeply of the life of Sir John A. Macdonald. There we will see exemplified the principles that I have been discussing. There, incidentally, we will see these principles applied with great political success.
This paper may not help you to state ten or twelve points on which Conservatives differ from Liberals. I have emphasized that a party such as ours, if it is to do its job fully, must
attract Canadians of different walks of life. Its principles must be spacious enough to permit these Canadians of different backgrounds, interests and therefore points of view, to live together within the party, reasonably comfortably, arguing out their differences and achieving a consensus on which the party can act. Any particular economic dogma is not a
principle of our party, fond as most Conservatives may be of that particular dogma at any particular time.
At any given time our party is likely to contain those whose natural bent is reform and those whose natural bent is to stand pat or even to try to turn the clock back a bit. I think
it is fair to say that Conservative statesmen we respect most were innovators. They did not change Conservative principles, but within those principles they faced and met the challenges of their time.
Traditional Liberalism started with the individual, emphasizing liberty of the Individual and calling for a minimum of government interference with the individual. Conservatives. on the other hand, emphasized the nation, society, stability and order.
In this century, Liberals have resorted to the use of government more and more. Today big government and liberalism are synonymous in Canada. A Liberal in Canada now much more nearly than formerly approximates what is called a liberal in the United States — a “progressive,, who believes strongly in government activity to enlarge the “protection,’ and the “freedom” of the ordinary citizen.
Some Conservatives, on the other hand, want to move to the old individualistic position of 19th Century liberalism enshrining private enterprise as the most fundamental principle of our party, and condemning all government interference. The Conservative tradition has been to interfere only ..where necessary, but to interfere only where necessary to achieve social and national objectives. Conservatives favour incentives, where appropriate, rather than the big stick.
Of course, it has always been and remains important to Conservatives to encourage individual self-reliance; and certainly red tape ‘and regulation have today gone too far,
especially in the case of small business. Self-reliance and enterprise should be. encouraged, but Conservatism does not place private enterprise in a central position around which
everything else revolves.
Conservatism recognized the responsibility of government to restrain or influence individual action where this was in the interests of society. Whether a government should or should not intervene was always a question of judgment, of course, but the Conservative tradition recognized the role of government as the regulator of individual conduct in the
interests of society.
I would not assert that Conservatives always saw society as a whole and never sought to preserve a particular form of society vested interests, if you like. I do not wish to make any exaggerated claims about the virtue of Conservatives; I am speaking rather about Conservative principles in the Conservative tradition.
Nor would I suggest that Conservatives have tried or would try to build a radically different society from that which they have known. But to reform and adapt existing institutions to meet changing conditions, and to work towards a more just and therefore a truly more stable society — this I suggest is in the best Conservative tradition. Resistance to changes and the support of privilege has been a part of the behavior of Conservatives from time to time, but neither is nor ought to be Conservative principle.
The emphasis an the nation as a whole, on order, in the Conservative tradition that I have described, was surely seldom more relevant than it is today, with inflation raging and life becoming more and more a matter of every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. We see increasing stresses and strains in our society, wildcat strikes, increasing distrust and mounting tension and violence.
This is a period when true Conservative principles of order and stability should be most appealing. Principles of conservation and preservation are also high in the minds of many Canadians today, and a Conservative can very legitimately and on sound historical ground –.aosociate. with these. Again I emphasize that these kind of bedrock principles are national in scope and reflect an over an overriding riding concern for society at large.
Enterprise and initiative are obviously important; but will emphasis upon individual rights solve the great problems of the day; I mean the maintenance of acceptable employment, and an acceptable distribution of income. Would we achieve these goals today by a simple reliance on the free market, if we could achieve a free market?
It would certainly be appropriate for a Conservative to suggest that we must achieve some kind of order if we are to avoid chaos; an. order which is stable, but not static; an order therefore which is reasonably acceptable and which among other things provides a framework in which enterprise can flourish. That would be in the Conservative tradition. The methods and the specific programs appropriate to achieve these goals of course lie outside the scope of this paper.