The Canadian High Tory Political Vision

Ron Dart. University of the Fraser Valley. 2018

What are the principles and content of historic Anglo-Canadian High Toryism and how can such a vision take us beyond the malaise of modernity? The philosophical and political roots of historic Toryism go deep and thick into the well watered soil of western culture, and space prevents a thorough discussion of these principles, but, in brief, let me mention eleven points.

First, Tories are concerned about the time tried wisdom of Tradition (not to be confused with traditions or traditionalism), the insights of the past and the truths learned about the human condition by those who have gone before us. Bernard of Chartres summed up this Tory way of seeing quite nicely when he said: ‘If we see further than those who have gone before us, it is because we are children on the shoulders of giants’. The eagerness of Tories, indeed generous openness of Tories, to hear and heed the past stands in startling contrast to so many in the modern world who have clear cut the past and lack any sense of direction in the present and for the future. Tories do not, though, merely see the past through glazed and romanticized eyes. History offers the alert and attentive a historic conversation and dialogue in which the wisest minds ponder the imponderables of the human journey and suggest ways the ship of the soul and state can properly sail across the water of time.

Second, Tories have a passion for both the commonweal and the commons. The good of the people, of the nation, of each and all is the foundation of Tory thought. The individual, community and nations find their place within the whole. This commitment to the organic nature of state and society that works together for the common good is basic to Tory thought and politics. Tories often compare the state to a body, and it is as each and all (gifts and nature discovered and lived forth) find their place within the organic life of the whole that much fruit is borne in the polis. John Donne, in Meditation 17, summed the integrative and holistic vision that Tories are committed to: No man is an island, entire of itself: every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind’. The Tory notion, therefore, of women, men and children (animals and earth) being connected with one another comes as a challenge to the atomistic notion of much of modern and postmodern liberalism in which the individuals should be free to make and shape their future as they see fit. The concern for the commonwealth is why Tories within Canada have created a strong Federal government—it is the essential role of the state to think about and protect the health and well being of Canadians from coast to coast (and, I might add, our global village).

Third, Tories do not separate ethics from economics. When the ledger of profit and loss becomes the dominant criteria we use for evaluating the wealth, health, prosperity and development of a people, we become moral cripples. The tendency to divorce ethics and economics runs contrary to the best of historic Toryism that grounds political life in the classical virtues of courage, wisdom, justice and moderation. The cleavage between the rich and poor is a natural product of elevating trade and commerce and ignoring or subordinating an ethical plumb line by which wealth is earned and distributed. Dante, for example, placed the greedy and idle rich in the lowest level of hell. We need not read too far in Leacock’s Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich or Prime Minister William Bennett’s The Premier Speaks to the People to get a solid fix and feel for how the best of Canadian Tories have viewed the clash between ethics and economics.

Fourth, The English High Romantics (Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey) were deeply conservative, and their Red Tory conservatism led them to oppose the way the captains of industry were destroying the environment for a crude and short sighted notion of profit. In short, much of the Tory tradition has a deep and abiding respect for the land and recognizes, only too keenly, that the environment is the branch we sit on—if we cut the branch off, we will fall and experience great hurt and harm. There can be no doubt that the Green Party in Canada (and elsewhere) are deeply conservative. Those who marginalize ecologically minded groups embody a certain fusing of will-reason to dominate the earth rather than to live cooperatively with her. We should, in many ways, see Elizabeth May of the Green Party as a Canadian prophetess of sorts.

Fifth, Tories do not separate and artificially oppose state and society. The state has a vital and vibrant role to play in creating the common good as does society—the task is to define what is needful and necessary for one and all, hence the role of the state. Society has a secondary role to play in ensuring grass roots issues that are best dealt with by the family and local politics. The importance of mediating structures, sphere sovereignty, voluntary organizations and subsidiarity highlight the role of society, but it is the role of the state to ensure that many of the basics goods are guaranteed at the social, economic, environmental and cultural levels. The excessive badmouthing of the state by the political right and anarchist left tends to legitimate a lighter state and panders to a market economy and the corporate agenda and ideology–it is only a strong state that can oppose and stare down the dominance of multinational and transnational corporations.

Sixth, since Tories are concerned with the commonweal– such a concern means a commitment to the commons. There is, obviously, a limited place for private property and possessions, but there must also be a generous amount of public space and place that we share in common. The publication of C.B. MacPherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism is a must read keeper for Canadians. There is a worrisome tendency within the liberal ideological tribe to priorize the rights and freedoms of the individual to possess self, property and possessions, often and insensitively, to the exclusion of others in need. It is this possessive individualism that Tories find problematic and that places them, at times, on the political left, hence Red Tory. The building of ever greater private barns and dwellings has done much to erode and undermine the commons, the public virtues—such is the liberal inheritance. It is the role of the state to ensure and protect the commons for the good of the people, those living and those yet to live. The modern liberal addiction to possessions/property and protection of such secondary goods does much to fragment and isolate people from one another into affluent and indulgent bourgeois ghettoes. 

Seventh, education is about being grounded in the best that has been thought, said and done in the past. The classics and epics are read and inwardly digested as a means of alerting and attuning students to that which is worth living for and that which is to be avoided. Education is not, in its deepest and most significant sense, about teaching some skill or techne, about amassing more facts and information so that we can understand and dominate our world and environment. The task of education is to awaken the conscience to the important things, to stir the will into action and to point to the wisdom that calls forth to be heard. Just as ethics should guide and be the north star for economics, wisdom and insight should be the mentors and teachers to those excessively attached to facts, statistics and information—such is the way a Tory priorizes the approach to education.

Eighth, according to the Tory view of human nature, we are imperfect, finite and fallible beings, prone to the best, worst and mediocre. This means, then, we must hear from those who see things differently. A brittle ideological approach of left, right or sensible centre in the culture wars panders to a form of tribalism that is hardly worthy of a thoughtful person. There is always the danger, in life as in politics, of ideology rather than dialogue dominating the day. Tories recognize that human nature can go bad, we live east of Eden and even the best of intentions can be fraught with complex motives and riddled with the quest for inordinate power. This is why Tories are suspicious of too much power being placed in any person, place or institution.

Ninth, Tories are convinced, in opposition to various forms of crude or subtle forms of secularism, that there is a longing in the human heart, soul, mind and imagination for more than the finite, penultimate and antepenultimate world can offer. This hunger for the Ultimate will not disappear or dissipate as some secularists once thought. The publication of Peter Emberley’s Divine Hunger: Canadians on Spiritual Walkabout made this plain and obvious. The religious institutions that bear and carry the ancient myths, memories and symbols of transformation past and present are imperfect, but to negate, ignore or destroy such institutions is to cut the present and future off from the deeper wisdom of the past. Anglicans have been called Tories at prayer, and there is still much to probe in such an alluring statement–just as the spirit of historic religion needs the ship of the institution to carry it through time, so the Tory vision of politics needs the ship of political parties to bring the political vision into being. In short, the position of cynicism and apathy that dominates so much culture today in the areas of religion and politics, from the perspective of a Tory, is short sighted and indulgent. Those who claim to be interested in spirituality but not religion (as do many today) fail to understand that institutional religion can provide goods that the decoy duck of spirituality is incapable of providing. When spirituality is idealized and religion demonized, another form of ideology dominates the day (and charismatic leaders and institutions are created to support such a dualism). It is much wiser to probe the depths of historic religion than reacting to it. If our journey is truly a communal one, we are as responsible for ourselves as for the greater good, and such a vision is passed on from generation to generation through communities and the institutional structures that support such communities. Sadly so, most in our age and ethos only think of their private journey (or their journey with a few others) rather than a larger and more historic and communal journey—such is the shrinkage and thinning of both politics and the religious quest of our time.    

Tenth, Tories are committed to the idea that there are levels of reality such as good, better, best and the perfect. There are also lower levels of reality such as bad, worse, worst and sheer evil. There are ideals worth being open and receptive to and there are inner compulsions and addictive tendencies that will betray and create much hurt and harm. It is in the journey of awakening to such higher goods and attuning heart, mind and will to such greater goods that true freedom will be known and lived forth. This means, therefore, that the ongoing liberal debate about liberty, equality, individuality, choice, communitarianism and other liberal dogmas and creeds at the level of principle can often become a diversion and distraction. If there is no higher good or reality beyond such principles that shape and guide such principles, liberals become enclosed in their own cage with no way out.  Tories have a much more open view of life and the way such greater realities can give wings to the human soul.

Eleven, It would, obviously, be remiss of me, when gathering together the insights of the best of the Red/High Tory Tradition, to ignore the way the English, French and 1st Nations have contributed to both the founding and ongoing growth and development of Canada. Those who take the time to attentively immerse themselves in the insights and writings of Henri Bourassa and Lionel Groulx will be walked into the core and centre of the French nationalist-federalist debate just as an astute reading of Stephen Leacock and George Grant will reveal a deeper conservatism at the heart of Canadian political thought. The publication of Tony Hall’s two volumes, The American Empire and the Fourth World: The Bowl with One Spoon and Earth into Property: Colonization, Decolonization and Capitalism are must read keepers on how 1st Nations peoples have been oppressed by a callous capitalism.

Hall’s earlier article (written with Splitting the Sky), ‘Red Tories, Red Power: The Protection of Indian Rights and the Security of the Canadas’ speaks volumes about the alliance between Red Tories and Red Power. The current boutique multiculturalism (that is so laden with many liberal clichés) lacks the depth that must be faced to truly engage and understand an earlier form of French, English and 1st Nations Red and, dare I say, Green Toryism.    

There is a blinkered ideological tendency within liberalism that prevents many liberals from seeing their blind spots. This was most clearly embodied in The Development of Political Thought in Canada: An Anthology (2005, 2011). Most of the book is a rather balanced read of the Canadian political journey, but when Katherine Fierlbeck (editor of the book) turns to what she calls ‘The Third Wave (1980s to the present) of Canadian political thought, the only authors listed are those who embody the standard and rather establishment modern liberal agenda: Charles Taylor, James Tully, Will Kymlicka and Michael Ignatieff—surely there is greater diversity in serious Canadian political philosophy than apologists for the liberal agenda. But, such are the dilemmas of those who lack the ability to seriously interrogate and deconstruct the modern liberal project. Grant made it abundantly clear that we, in North America, are enfolded within the matrix of liberalism, and such an enfolding constricts our ability to think outside such prejudices. Why are such icons of Canadian liberalism held so high and genuflected before? When the jargon and clichés of multiculturalism, diversity, pluralism and tolerance come to dominant the day, discourse from other perspectives is muted and marginalized. Grant saw this so clearly when he suggested that ‘the rhetoric of pluralism legitimates the monistic fact’.   

In sum, Red Tories of Canada need to unite. They need to shake off the comfortable golden handcuffs of liberalism that so binds and holds most in an invisible prison and cage. It is only as such chains are shaken off that the cost and meaning of freedom will be realized in the deepest and most demanding sense.  The Athens of the North awaits such a turn.   

Fiat Lux

Ron Dart      

Ron Dart. University of the Fraser Valley. 2018 What are the principles and content of historic Anglo-Canadian High Toryism and how can such a vision take us beyond the malaise of modernity? The philosophical and political roots of historic Toryism go deep and thick into the well watered soil of western culture, and space prevents…

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