Rediscovering The Right Agenda
By Stephen Harper – Report Magazine
The Canadian Alliance leader outlines how social and economic conservatism must unite
After years of strategic drift, Harper positions the Alliance as an equal
partnership of social and economic conservatism. This article is based on
his remarks at the Civitas meeting in Toronto on April 25, 2003
The Canadian Alliance wrapped up its leadership race a little over one year
ago. At the time, the chattering classes told us the race was about the
so-called “unity” issue – the question of whether we should have one
“conservative” party or two. But I asked the 100,000-plus members of our
party a different question: do we actually stand for something, or don’t we?
I posed this question because what Alliance members feared most was seeing
our agenda slipping away. Simply put, our members worried less about having
two so-called “conservative parties” than about having no conservative party
I believe the majority of members supported my leadership bid for
approaching the debate in these terms. My mandate as leader is therefore to
ensure that the Alliance remains a strong and principled voice for
conservatism in national politics.
OUR HISTORY AND THE OPTIONS TODAY
There are two ways conservatives can respond to the challenges faced at the
national level. Our party has explored both over the years, in two important
phases. These two phases were not “Reform” and “Alliance”: they were not
about name or organizational changes.
Rather, our party underwent one period in which it was policy-driven, and
another period in which it was process-driven. In the policy-driven phase,
the party emphasized what it stood for. It took stands on a litany of
issues, from its fight against he Meech Lake/Charlottetown constitutional
agenda, to the battle for deficit reduction, lower taxes and fiscal
responsibility. This was the period in which the party grew from nothing to
become an important electoral and parliamentary force.
However, for the past half-decade or so, the party moved into a phase in
which it emphasized process. Specifically, the party focused its energies on
a process by which it could garner greater electoral success. This was
called “coalition building.” In practice, it involved disassembling the
party’s institutional structures in order to bring in new supporters from
other entities. In terms of policy, conferences were held to create and sell
a new “vision.” In practice, this amounted largely to making existing policy
stands vague or simply invisible. Whatever the electoral potential of this
approach promised by the polls, the results were clearly going in the
Those two options still confront us today. One option is to work within an
existing political party to create a conservative “coalition.” In my
judgement this option is the way to go, and the best vehicle to do it is the
I also believe that a combination of existing political parties, such as the
Alliance and the PCs, could potentially be an ever better vehicle. But that
is not Joe Clark’s opinion. It appears not to be Peter MacKay’s. In fact,
there is no guarantee or likelihood it will ever be the opinion of a federal
PC leader. They seem to prefer to use the PC Party to build their own
While I may disagree with the Tories choice, it certainly makes more sense
than the other option – to work outside both entities and, in the name of
“uniting the right,” to promote their mutual failure. To use George W.
Bush’s phrase, whatever your political objective or party, electoral success
requires a “coalition of the willing” and nothing less.
THE CONSERVATIVE COALITION
Whatever attraction a coalition of parties may have, we need to concentrate
on what is actually doable. That is, we need to form a coalition of voters
and, to attract them, a coalition of ideas.
What is the “conservative coalition” of ideas? Actually, conservatism and
conservative parties, as we’ve known them over the decades, have always been
coalitions. Though these coalitions are complex and continually shifting,
two distinctive elements have long been identifiable.
Ted Byfield labelled these factions “neo-con” and “theo-con.” More commonly,
they are known simply as economic conservatives and social conservatives.
Properly speaking, they are called classical or enlightenment liberalism and
classical or Burkean conservatism.
The one called “economic conservatism” does indeed come from classical
liberalism. Its primary value is individual freedom, and to that end it
stresses private enterprise, free trade, religious toleration, limited
government and the rule of law.
The other philosophy is Burkean conservatism. Its primary value is social
order. It stresses respect for customs and traditions (religious traditions
above all), voluntary association, and personal self-restraint reinforced by
moral and legal sanctions on behaviour.
The essence of this conservatism is, according to Russell Kirk, “the
preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity. Conservatives
respect the wisdom of their ancestors: they are dubious of wholesale
alteration. They think society is a spiritual reality, possessing an eternal
life but a delicate constitution: it cannot be scrapped and recast as if it
were a machine.”
In the 19th century, these two political philosophies, classical liberalism
and Burkean conservatism, formed the basis for distinct political parties
that opposed one another. On the one side was a liberal party in the
classical sense – rationalist, anticlerical but not anti-religious,
free-trading, often republican and usually internationalist. On the other
side was an older conservative party – traditionalist, explicitly or
implicitly denominational, economically protectionist, usually monarchist,
In the 20th century, these opposing forces came together as a result of two
different forces: resistance to a common enemy, and commitment to ideas
The common enemy was the rise of radical socialism in its various forms. In
this context, Burkean conservatives and classical liberals discovered a
commitment to a core of common ideas. Both groups favoured private property,
small government and reliance on civil society rather than the state to
resolve social dilemmas and to create social process. Domestically, both
groups resisted those who stood for public ownership, government
interventionism, egalitarian redistribution and state sponsorship of secular
humanist values. Internationally, they stood unequivocally against external
enemies – fascism, communism and socialist totalitarianism in all its forms.
THE VICTORY AND DECLINE OF CONSERVATISM
For decades, conservative parties were successful, often dominant,
coalitions in western democracies. But conservatism has been in trouble in
recent years. Partisan success has been much less common. In some countries,
the traditional conservative coalition even appears to have broken down.
The irony is that these hard times have fallen on the heels of perhaps the
most successful period in democratic conservatism’s history – the Reagan and
Thatcher revolutions. I believe that it is this very success that is at the
heart of the current difficulties.
The Reagan-Thatcher revolution was so successful that it permanently
undermined the traditional social-democratic/left-liberal consensus in a
number of democratic countries. It worked domestically to undermine the
left-liberal or social-democratic consensus, causing those parties to simply
stop fighting and adopt much of the winning conservative agenda. Socialists
and liberals began to stand for balanced budgeting, the superiority of
markets, welfare reversal, free trade and some privatization. At the same
time, the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled the collapse of Soviet Communism
as a driving world force, depriving conservatives of all shares of a common
It is critical we realize that this breakdown is not a fundamental
incompatibility between “neo-cons” and “theo-cons,” between economic and
social conservatism. Even in the worst-case example, Canada’s Mulroney
coalition did not break up because of divisions between these groups.
Rather, it broke up over regional and constitutional questions, and the
abandonment of both forms of conservatism. In fact, the strongest economic
and social conservatives both found homes within the Reform and Canadian
The truth is that strong economic and social conservatives are more often
than not the same people, and not without reason. Except at the extremes of
libertarianism and theocracy, the philosophical fusion has become deep and
wide-spread. Social conservatives more often than not demand the government
stop intervening in individual decisions, just as classical liberals often
point to the religious roots of their focus on the individual. As the
American humourist P.J. O’Rourke observed, “the great religions teach
salvation as an individual matter. There are no group discounts in the ten
commandments, Christ was not a committee, and Allah does not welcome
believers into paradise saying, ‘you weren’t much good yourself, but you
were standing near some good people.'”
O’Rourke also summarized the moral and civilizing importance of markets by
reminding us that “the rise of private enterprise and trade provided a means
of achieving wealth and autonomy other than by killing people with
broadswords.” Private enterprise and trade, as Adam Smith pointed out, can
turn individual selfishness into useful social outcomes. In fact, the
founder of classical liberal economics came to his theories as much by his
study of moral philosophy as anything else.
A NEW CHALLENGE AND A NEW RESPONSE
What this means for conservatives today is that we must rediscover the
common cause and orient our coalition to the nature of the post-Cold-War
The real enemy is no longer socialism. Socialism as a true economic program
and motivating faith is dead. Yes, there are still lots of statist economic
policies and people dependent on big government. But the modern left-liberal
economic philosophy has become corporatism. Corporatism is the use of
private ownership and markets for state-directed objectives. Its tools are
subsidization, public/private partnerships and state investment funds. It is
often bad policy, but it is less clearly different from conventional
conservative economics than any genuine socialism.
The real challenge is therefore not economic, but the social agenda of the
modern Left. Its system of moral relativism, moral neutrality and moral
equivalency is beginning to dominate its intellectual debate and
The clearest recent evidence of this phenomenon is seen in international
affairs in the emerging post-Cold-War world – most obviously in the response
of modern liberals to the war on terrorism. There is no doubt about the
technical capacity of our society to fight this war. What is evident is the
lack of desire of the modern liberals to fight, and even more, the striking
hope on the Left that we actually lose.
You can see this if you pay close attention to the response to the war in
Iraq from our own federal Liberals and their cheerleaders in the media and
the universities. They argue one day that there are no weapons of mass
destruction, yet warn that such weapons might be used. They tell us the war
was immoral, then moral but impractical, then practical but unjustified.
They argue simultaneously that the war can’t be won, that it is too easy for
the coalition to win and that victory cannot be sustained anyway. Most
striking was their obvious glumness at the fall of Baghdad. But even
previous to that were the dark suggestions on the anniversary of September
11 (hinted at even by our own prime minister) that “we deserved it.”
This is particularly striking given the nature of the enemy here, the bin
Ladens and the Husseins, individuals who embody in the extreme everything
the Left purports to oppose – fundamentalism, fascistic nationalism,
Conservatives need to reassess our understanding of the modern Left. It has
moved beyond old socialistic morality or even moral relativism to something
much darker. It has become a moral nihilism – the rejection of any tradition
or convention of morality, a post-Marxism with deep resentments, even
hatreds of the norms of free and democratic western civilization.
This descent into nihilism should not be surprising because moral relativism
simply cannot be sustained as a guiding philosophy. It leads to silliness
such as moral neutrality on the use of marijuana or harder drugs mixed with
its random moral crusades on tobacco. It explains the lack of moral censure
on personal foibles of all kinds, extenuating even criminal behaviour with
moral outrage at bourgeois society, which is then tangentially blamed for
deviant behaviour. On the moral standing of the person, it leads to views
ranging from radical responsibility-free individualism, to tribalism in the
form of group rights.
Conservatives have focused on the inconsistency in all of this. Yet it is
actually disturbingly consistent. It is a rebellion against all forms of
social norm and moral tradition in every aspect of life. The logical end of
this thinking is the actual banning of conservative views, which some
legislators and “rights” commissions openly contemplate.
In this environment, serious conservative parties simply cannot shy away
from values questions. On a wide range of public-policy questions, including
foreign affairs and defence, criminal justice and corrections, family and
child care, and healthcare and social services, social values are
increasingly the really big issues.
Take taxation, for example. There are real limits to tax-cutting if
conservatives cannot dispute anything about how or why a government actually
does what it does. If conservatives accept all legislated social liberalism
with balanced budgets and corporate grants – as do some in the business
community – then there really are no differences between a conservative and
a Paul Martin.
There is, of course, much more to be done in economic policy. We do need
deeper and broader tax cuts, further reductions in debt, further
deregulation and privatization, and especially the elimination of corporate
subsidies and industrial-development schemes. In large measure, however, the
public arguments for doing so have already been won. Conservatives have to
more than modern liberals in a hurry.
The truth of the matter is that the real agenda and the defining issues have
shifted from economic issues to social values, so conservatives must do the
REVISING THE AGENDA
This is not as difficult as it sounds. It does not require a radical
redefinition of conservatism, but rather a shifting of the balance between
the economic and social conservative sides that have always been there.
In particular, Canadian conservatives need to rediscover the virtues of
Burkean conservatism as a key component of that balance. Rediscovering this
agenda, to paraphrase Ted Byfield, means not just worrying about what the
state costs, but also worrying about what the state values.
For example, we need to rediscover Burkean or social conservatism because a
growing body of evidence points to the damage the welfare state is having on
our most important institutions, particularly the family. Conservatives have
to give much higher place to confronting threats posed by modern liberals to
this building block of our society.
Take, for example, the debate over the rights of parents to discipline their
children – the so-called spanking debate. Of course, there are legitimate
limits to the use of force by parents – limits outlined in the Criminal
Code. Yet the most recent Liberal Throne Speech, as part of its “children’s
agenda,” hinted at more government interference in the family. We saw the
capacity for this abuse of power in the events that took place in Aylmer,
Ont. Children there were seized for no reason other than the state disagreed
with the religious views of their parents. No conservative can support this
kind of intrusion, and conservatives have an obligation to speak forcefully
against such acts.
This same argument applies equally to a range of issues involving the family
(all omitted from the Throne Speech), such as banning child pornography,
raising the age of sexual consent, providing choice in education and
strengthening the institution of marriage. All of these items are key to a
We also need to rediscover Burkean conservatism because the emerging debates
on foreign affairs should be fought on moral grounds. Current challenges in
dealing with terrorism and its sponsors, as well as the emerging debate on
the goals of the U.S. as the sole superpower, will be well served by
conservative insights on preserving historic values and moral insights on
right and wrong. As we have seen in recent months, these are debates where
modern liberals (with the exception of Tony Blair) have no answers: they are
trapped in their framework of moral neutrality, moral relativism and moral
But conservatives should have answers. We understand, however imperfectly,
the concept of morality, the notion that moral rules form a chain of right
and duty, and that politics is a moral affair. We understand that the great
geopolitical battles against modern tyrants and threats are battles over
values. We can disagree vehemently with the values of our civilization’s
opponents, but that does not deny the validity of the cause in their eyes.
Without clear values ourselves, our side has no purpose, no meaning, no
chance of success.
Conservatives must take the moral stand, with our allies, in favour of the
fundamental values of our society, including democracy, free enterprise and
individual freedom. This moral stand should not just give us the right to
stand with our allies, but the duty to do so and the responsibility to put
“hard power” behind our international commitments.
SOME CAUTIONS FOR POLITICAL SUCCESS
Rebalancing the conservative agenda will require careful political judgment.
First, the issues must be chosen carefully. For example, the social
conservative issues we choose should not be denominational, but should unite
social conservatives of different denominations and even different faiths.
It also helps when social conservative concerns overlap those of people with
a more libertarian orientation.
Second, we must realize that real gains are inevitably incremental. This, in
my experience, is harder for social conservatives than for economic
conservatives. The explicitly moral orientation of social conservatives
makes it difficult for many to accept the incremental approach. Yet, in
democratic politics, any other approach will certainly fail. We should never
accept the standard of just being “better than the Liberals” – people who
advocate that standard seldom achieve it – but conservatives should be
satisfied if the agenda is moving in the right direction, even if slowly.
Third, rebalancing means there will be changes to the composition of the
conservative coalition. We may not have all the same people we have had in
the past. The new liberal corporatist agenda will appeal to some in the
business community. We may lose some old “conservatives,” Red Tories like
the David Orchards or the Joe Clarks.
This is not all bad. A more coherent coalition can take strong positions it
wouldn’t otherwise be able to take – as the Alliance alone was able to do
during the Iraq war. More importantly, a new approach can draw in new
people. Many traditional Liberal voters, especially those from key ethnic
and immigrant communities, will be attracted to a party with strong
traditional views of values and family. This is similar to the phenomenon of
the “Reagan Democrats” in the United States, who were so important in the
development of that conservative coalition.
To be successful as a conservative party – indeed, to have any success at
all – the Canadian Alliance must be driven primarily by policy, not by
process. I have written many times that the Reform Party and Canadian
Alliance made gains in the past by taking principled conservative stands on
the issues of the day. I believe our party has been doing that under my
leadership on a range of issues – from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to
defence and foreign policy, taxes and spending, childcare and criminal
justice, healthcare reform, and even on environmental matters like the Kyoto
The rediscovery of the conservative agenda requires us to maintain the
coalition of ideas that is the heritage of enlightenment liberalism and
Burkean conservatism. Yet contemporary reality requires us to re-emphasize
the Burkean tradition as a key part of our conservative agenda. In other
words, while retaining a focus on economic issues, we must give greater
place to social values and social conservatism, broadly defined and properly
Eight years ago, I wrote that the Reform Party had to become the principal
force in the democratic Right in Canadian politics by adapting contemporary
issues to a new conservatism. This remains the essential task of the
Canadian Alliance – to unify conservatives in a broad coalition of
Editorial Note: Due to the Non-Partisan our nature of CCIC Inc. publication of the above Statement made by Canadian Alliance Leader Stephen Harper shall not constitute an endorsement of his position on any issues.
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