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Conservative Divisions are Here to Stay


Centre-right coalitions of voters in Canada and other parts of the Western world are coming apart as ideological schisms deepen within them. It will not be possible to re-assemble them in the near future.

Previously published in the National Post.


Stephen Harper

 Author Notes

President of the National Citizens' Coalition (1997 - ). Harper was a Member of Canada's Parliament (Reform, Calgary West) from 1993-1997, and before that was on the staff of the Reform Party.

 Essay - 10/21/1999

It is time to stop trying to make the United Alternative work. It is time to start trying to understand why it failed.

The United Alternative is over. Yes, Joe Clark's leftish positioning of the federal PCs ensures the Reform UA will be a credible "alternative", but it also confirms that the opposition will not be "united."

And the decision of the Tories to spurn Reform is not the postponement of an inevitable remarriage. The opportunity is lost. Having decided not to come together, these families will instead grow apart.

"Unite the right" advocates are swimming against big currents, not the little splashes of a Joe Clark or a Preston Manning. After all, the experience of Canadian conservatives is not unique. For the past decade the traditional parties of the centre-right have been in trouble across the western world. Defeats in national elections have become increasingly commonplace.

To many of us, these electoral reverses have been perplexing. Conservatives had just won the Cold War and, along with it, the ideological battle between market economics and central planning.

In retrospect, it was precisely those victories that created the problem.

Political coalitions - I speak here of large groups of voters, not cadres of political professionals - are not held together by notions widely shared, but by two very different forces. One is commitment to radical ideals of significant appeal; the other, resistance to a common enemy. Broad consensus is as irrelevant to lasting political coalitions as are the causes of the fringe.

In this century, the rise of radical socialism - both nationally, in domestic political opponents and internationally, in the form of communism - gave us the coalitions of the centre-right.

Socialists and communists fought for income redistribution and government ownership of the means of production; therefore, we "conservatives" provided a fortress for all who believed in private property and free enterprise. They assaulted our established religious faiths; therefore, we maintained a sanctuary for all who believed in traditional values and morality. They dreamed of a vast, monolithic, world government; therefore, we furnished a home for all who valued the culture and institutions of the nation-state.

With the collapse of ideological socialism, these various groups of "conservatives" have lost the common enemy. They have instead began looking at each another and asking "What are you doing in our party?"

From within the electoral coalitions of the old centre-right, new parties have emerged to appeal to its different elements. In the future, we are going to see two types of "conservative" party, similar to the alignment that existed before the rise of ideological socialism.

One type of conservative party, mirroring the "classical liberal" parties of the nineteenth century, will champion the freedom of the individual, laissez-faire and secular values, and globalism. The other type will resemble the old "classical conservative" parties, championing the integrity of the community, traditional and religious values, and nationalism.

In fact, these rival "conservative" parties will look at each other and they will often say, "We have more in common with our enemy than we do with you" - in much the way that many PCs and Reformers see the Liberals, not each other, as their second choice.

This is because rivals of the old centre-left have changed their fundamental fiscal and economic policies to attract some traditionally conservative voters. People like Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Paul Martin have adapted their parties to the new consensus in order to ensure their political survival and success. With centre-left parties sharing such policies, they no longer constitute a sufficient basis to reunite conservative factions, as the UA is discovering.

With conservatives split and their voters newly enticed by the Liberals, Canada's old PC coalition has been shredded. In France, the centre-right alliance of the fifth republic, the RPR-UDF, is also in tatters. And the British Conservative and American Republican parties are under the same stresses, which will inevitably split them and transform them along post-Cold War lines.

The political realignment going throughout the democratic world means that there can be no simple "reunite the right" strategy - and there will be no return to a two-party system in Canada.

But the same realignment will make it difficult for any party to sustain a national majority coalition. The defining issues of the future - questions of social, cultural, moral and regional values - create political fault lines not easily straddled by any party. Regionalism alone in Canada has already reduced the federal Liberal party mainly to the area between Westmount and Winnipeg.

Within the next decade we will have a situation where no one party can credibly hope to form a national majority government. And it is this, not the United Alternative, which will make things really interesting.

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