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Connor MacDonald: Conservatives can end post-war failures by emulating Tony Blair

Commentary

Sean Speer rightly pointed out at The Hub that progressive ideas have triumphed in the most recent federal budget.

From long-term structural deficits, to institutionalized childcare to a $15 minimum wage, this is a budget full of the “new, confident progressivism.” The headline gets it right: the progressives are winning the battle of ideas.

In the obvious sense, this sea-change poses a real intellectual challenge to conservatives, both here in Canada and in other countries facing similar shifting battle lines. But I think there is a more interesting question that needs to be dealt with first: how is it that the Conservative Party — or any of our predecessor parties — finds itself yet again on the outside looking in as a generational ideological change occurs?

Think of it this way: the party that introduced the largest scale privatization in this country, that delivered the largest income and corporate tax cuts, and reduced program spending by percentage points of GDP at the height of the ‘neo-liberal’ tide was the Liberal Party. Now, around 25 years later, it is that same political party ushering the old policy playbook out the door.

You could put this down to luck, but to do so would indulge in wishful thinking. It is one thing, perhaps, to be lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time in one big ideological shift, but to do so consistently since WWII (at least) must be something more than divine providence, although I’m sure not a few Liberals think their party is touched by grace.

How could they not? In electoral terms, this must surely be uncontroversial: they have been the largest party after 10 of the last 16 elections going back to 1968. That record stretches to 15 out of 24 since 1945. And as for their opponents, only four out of those 24 elections resulted in a conservative majority.

It extends beyond electoral politics. The Liberals are the party of many of the federal institutions and policies Canadians take for granted: Medicare, the charter and repatriation, official bilingualism, peacekeeping, the CPP, multiculturalism, the flag — all have an important place in the Canadian psyche, and all can be claimed foremost by the Liberal Party. The only two major Canadian policy initiatives that can truly be laid claim to by Conservatives are free trade and the CBC. Liberals have basically co-opted the former policy by now, and Conservative activists intensely dislike the latter. Not much to hang the patriotic hat on.

Conservatives should be under no illusions that it’s possible to win on their own terms right now.

When you add to the equation the very strong third-party left-wing vote in Canada, the landscape looks even bleaker. While Andrew Scheer made much of the fact he received the largest share of the vote in 2019, it is cold comfort when the two major parties to your left received more than 10 percentage points more combined.

Put bluntly: since at least the Second World War, it is the Liberal Party, not whatever party held the conservative banner that made the political weather in Canada. It is the Liberal Party that is dominant, and it is the Liberal Party that permeates Canada’s political institutions.

Pointing out that Liberals abjectly dominate our politics might sound defeatist, and it’s meant to be, though not in a straightforwardly electoral sense. Conservatives could very well win the next election. But they should however be under no illusions that it would be possible to win on their own terms.

In the last few cycles, who has had to prove that they are “normal” more often? Conservatives. Whether through our own making or not, Conservative leaders have had to defend their positions (among others) on abortion, guns, climate change, immigration and “austerity,” as if these positions weren’t quite Canadian. This is partly because the media in Canada is generally to the left (just compare the CBC to the BBC: the relative bias in the former is palpable), but it’s also because the Liberal dominates the possibilities of politics.

And in countries where Conservative parties are dominant, like the U.K., it’s the right that sets the limits of the possible, and the left that has to answer the hard questions. It’s U.K. Labour that is constantly asked about whether its defence plans leave the country undefended, whether its spending plans are affordable, and whether its social liberalism is out of step with Middle England. In Australia, it’s Labor that has to convince middle Australia that it shares Australian values, and which gets constantly questioned as to whether its economic policies will indeed bankrupt the county.

Now given the strength of the non-Liberal left in Canada, it’s reasonable to surmise that Canada is a bit more left-wing, and so some of the questions the left faces abroad might not arise in Canada, particularly on questions of culture and society. In that very basic sense, conservatives have a harder road to travel. Even more acutely, they also have to contend with a media environment in which more often than not it’s a centre-left, statist, socially liberal party that governs the country most of the time.

Unlike our closest cousins, the media receives government news from a bureaucracy run most of the time by left(ish) politicians. That lends a certain left(ish) political lens instant credibility because it is backgrounded by the legitimacy of the state. To use an au fait example, it’s easier to argue against border controls which you ideologically oppose when the public servants can help you sound bureaucratic and non-political when saying it.

No other comparable right-wing party faces a challenge like this. In every other G7 country, save the United States’ rigid two-party structure and the Liberal Party’s dominance in Canada, it is the right that has dominated post-war politics. The German CDU has been in power 45 out of the last 70 years in Germany; France has had only two left-wing presidents since the war. Meanwhile, conservatives have managed to be in power only 25 years in that same period. A dismal record by any stretch.

A conservative politics in Canada needs to reckon with, and not run away from, the fact that they are a de facto minority position, and that the road to power is a road through, and not around, the Liberal Party. A long period of conservative dominance will only be manifested by stealing a significant chunk of Liberal voters away for a long period of time, so it is not enough to hope the party implodes, or hope enough voters switch to the NDP some of the time. If we truly want to gain power on our own terms, we will first have to accept that this involves winning power off the backs of Liberal swing voters, and gradually turn them into voters who, more often than not, vote Conservative rather than Liberal.

Blair used the auspices of the state to make Labour’s plan look like the sensible, depoliticized agenda for the age.

Tony Blair did this marvelously in the U.K. He managed to make a vast swathe of (Tory) Middle England default Labour voters for a record three back-to-back majority Governments. While entering office he promised to adhere to four years of eye-wateringly austere conservative spending plans to appear fiscally credible, he ended office 10 years later by leaving the Conservatives trying to be greener, more socially liberal, committed to higher levels of state health care spending and generally fuzzier than the incumbent Labour Party.

As Peter Mair notes in his essay on Blair’s Labour, Partyless Democracy, Blair fully used the auspices of the state to make Labour politics look like the sensible, depoliticized agenda for the age, much in the same way Liberal ideology in Canada often gets dressed up as the obvious, technical answer to hard policy questions. It’s why the Canadian Liberals can say they’re the party of “evidence-based policy” and conservatives can’t.

In Britain, this skillful use of the state instantly put the Conservatives on the back foot, and made traditional Conservative politics, once the obvious policy playbook, look gnarlish, small and petty: the party of “foxhunting, Pinochet and hereditary peers.” For the first time, British Conservatives were trying to win elections on Labour’s terms, and not the other way around.

And that’s what it will take in Canada. Conservatives will not be able to repudiate Liberal Canada on the first victory, nor likely even the second. But if Conservatives stay in power long enough, it will make their solutions closer to the default, and the centre of Canada more like a Conservative voter than a Liberal one.

The ideal is to lose an election where a party to our left does not win by repudiating Conservative Canada (as it did in 2015), but by trying to be better, more “conservative” version of the Conservative Party. That has not happened before in post-war Canadian history and given how Canada’s conservative brethren manage in other countries, it’s about time in did.

Matas and Teich: Trivializing apartheid to attack Israel

Commentary

Holocaust distortion and trivialization are common phenomena. People get carried away, they lose perspective, they do not know that much about the Holocaust and the immediate matters more to them than historical truth and memory.

We are now seeing a similar phenomenon with apartheid. Apartheid is being distorted and trivialized in attempt to score cheap points in political debates. And the explanation is the same: animus over accuracy.

Human Rights Watch has a long history of exaggerated, distorted, decontextualized criticisms of Israel. It was perhaps only a matter of time before they wallowed in the apartheid comparison. The time has finally arrived with a report released April 27th which accuses Israel of the crimes of apartheid, fuelling the hatred which led, a few weeks after its release, to the recent and ongoing Hamas rocket attacks on Israel and the heaviest fighting since the Hamas aggression which sparked the 2014 Gaza War.

The situation in Israel bears no comparison to apartheid. Yet, unfortunately, as both the Holocaust and apartheid recede in history, we forget what they really were.

Apartheid in South Africa was a legal structure. The South African Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 banned interracial marriages. The Immorality Amendment Act of 1950 prohibited unmarried sexual intercourse between Europeans and non-Europeans. The Group Areas Act of 1950, the Bantu Self-Government Act of 1950 and the Bantu Authorities Act of 1951 denationalized all blacks, disenfranchised them, and allocated them to one of ten designated black bantus or homelands, requiring blacks to have passports to enter South Africa. The Pass Laws Act of 1952 required blacks to have pass books with permission to be in the specific part of South Africa they happened to be if they were outside their bantu.

The word ‘apartheid’ is used without any reference to what it really was.

Israel does not prohibit interracial marriages. Israel does not prohibit unmarried interracial sexual intercourse. Israel has not stripped the nationality of anyone, disenfranchised anyone and required that they live in designated areas because of their race or ethnicity. Israel does not require Palestinians to carry pass books.

Human Rights Watch considers any distinction between Israelis and Palestinians to be discrimination and recommends that Israel “should end discriminatory policies and practices with regards to citizenship”. Yet citizenship is an essential component of statehood. By calling for an end to distinctions between citizens and non-citizens, Human Rights Watch is calling for an end to the state of Israel.

Human Rights Watch itself is not prepared to defend the comparison between Israel and apartheid, even though they assert it. The report states that it “does not set out to compare Israel with South Africa under apartheid or to determine whether Israel is an apartheid state.” The whole report is, then, a scam and a sham. The word “apartheid” is used without any reference to what it really was.

The very existence of Israel has been challenged since its inception by pan-Arabists and is challenged today by those who reject the presence of a Jewish state in the Middle East. Israel is constantly referred to as Arab land while Jewish indigeneity is dismissed. The Palestinian Liberation Organization was originally part of the pan-Arab forces attempting through invasion to destroy Israel. The invasions having failed, the anti-Israel forces have turned to terrorism, demonization, and delegitimization.

When the Israeli military left Gaza in 2005, they had to evacuate all Jews for their own safety. In the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian schools propagandize their children against the existence of Israel, inciting hatred, war and terrorism. Palestinians have victimized their children both as suicide bombers and human shields. The Palestinian Authority glorifies terrorism, referring to suicide bombers as martyrs, and giving out payments to families of terrorists arrested and detained for their terrorism.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an organization bringing together experts and governnments on Holocaust education, remembrance and research, has adopted a working definition of antisemitism which includes as an example “claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor.” This Human Rights Watch report, with its charge of apartheid without regard to the reality of apartheid, its rejection for Israel alone of distinctions based on citizenship, its failure to acknowledge the racism which drives the animus against Israel, its refusal to confront the incitement to terrorism and its almost daily occurrence against Israel and the need for Israel to combat it, fits within this example.

By presenting Israel as an apartheid state, Human Rights Watch victimizes the true victims of apartheid a second time, through distorting the memory of apartheid. Canada was a leader in the struggle against apartheid, imposing sanctions against South Africa as early as 1977. Canada needs to honour that struggle by reminding those who trivialize apartheid in a racist attempt to delegitimize the existence of the Jewish state what apartheid really was.