Bob Rae — last Upper Canada gentleman in Ottawa .. last left-wing red tory?

Jun 14th, 2012 | By | Category: In Brief

In the strange spring of 2012 there is more and more evidence that the old Canadian confederation of 1867 is entering some kind of do-or-die moment in what many still see as its improbable history. My own sense is that this moment will last for quite a while (years, certainly, even a decade or more?). But it has at least begun.

Spending much of the last month with decent Canadians who actually seem to like Stephen Harper has almost half-convinced me that, when it is all over, he will be assigned a more positive assessment than most people I know (including myself) are inclined to allow him right now.

Yet to me it remains a hopeful sign that what finally does happen to Canada in its extended do-or-die moment, in both official languages and from coast to coast to coast, will not be decided by any one individual or political party or level of government, etc, etc. It will be the result of many different decisions by many different Canadians, in many different circumstances.

In this setting yesterday’s news that “Bob Rae says he won’t run for Liberal leadership” and “Bob Rae will not seek permanent Liberal leadership” strikes me as another hopeful sign. Mr. Rae has said that his decision is a political rather than a personal one. He has done what he believes is best for his party. As a sign that our Canadian democracy still has some teeth, I think Mr. Rae’s decision can also be judged best for the future of his country.

My own admiration for Bob Rae’s long Canadian political career has strict limits on several fronts. In fact it was his college roommate Michael Ignatieff who actually attended the old “Compact Tory” breeding ground at Upper Canada College (which has also educated such other local heroes as Conrad Black, and cp24 TV’s resident former Ontario Provincial Police officer, Cam Woolley). Thanks to his father’s peripatetic Canadian diplomatic career, Bob Rae’s own high school years were taken up at “Gordon Junior High School in Washington, DC, and the International School of Geneva, Switzerland.”

But Mr. Rae did room with an Upper Canada College graduate when he attended University College at the University of Toronto — more or less at the same time I did, in fact. My memories of his vaguely aristocratic political career start back then. (“In 1968-69, Rae was a member of the student council led by Steven Langdon who, like Rae, would later serve as a New Democrat MP … Rae also helped put together large conferences, known as teach-ins …” ; and “During his final year as an undergraduate, Rae was a student representative on the Bissell Commission on University Government.” )

* * * *

It has been part of Bob Rae’s political success, I think, that even back then, in the late 1960s, he combined a gentle left-wing tilt with the traditional born-to-rule veneer of the old anglophone political elite in Central Canada. He began his partisan career as a Liberal in the late 1960s, turned to the New Democratic Party in the mid 1970s, and then turned back to the Liberals in the first decade of the 21st century. But his essential political philosophical cast of mind, it seems to me, has always been that of a traditional Ontario “red tory.” (With somewhat stronger left sympathies than those who have actually belonged to some kind of Conservative political party — a “Liberal/NDP red tory” on the Gad Horowitz-Eugene Forsey model?)

It has also been part of Bob Rae’s political success that he has to no small extent epitomized what is (or was) best about the regional tradition he personifies. He has looked good as interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada in the more recent past, because he has brought the British North American good manners as well as the steely political horse sense of the obsolete Upper Canada gentleman to the more sordid mean streets of early 21st century Ottawa.  (And so Rosemary Barton at the CBC tweeted yesterday: “ Rae: quotes Shakespeare. And leaves. So … That was Shakespeare’s sonnet 25. For those who like to know such things.”)

At the same time, Mr. Rae has proved smart enough to finally see with more clarity than many  of his Ottawa political and media colleagues that, whatever else, there is just no room for an old-fashioned Ontario red tory prime minister in today’s Canadian future. Alison Redford and others may or may not be working at some new Western Canadian variation on the theme. But that has nothing to do with Bob Rae.

Mr. Rae has made clear that foregoing the Liberal leadership race does not in any way mean he is retiring from Canadian politics. And who knows just what he may accomplish over the next few years? His greatest gift to the Canadian people may finally prove to be the Liberal-NDP Accord he helped negotiate in Ontario provincial politics back in 1985. And this may still signal something about the best and most creative work that lies before him now.

Meanwhile, he has surprised a lot of smart people with his decision about the “permanent” leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada. That in itself lends some distinction — even a touch of class — on the banks of the Rideau River in 2012.  And as Chantal Hébert instantly opined in yesterday’s Toronto Star: “Bob Rae’s decision not to run changes everything … the worst case scenario from the Conservative perspective is also a very long shot. It involves the remote possibility that the prospect of a wide open field could draw a star candidate such as former deputy prime minister John Manley or Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney — who both have the kind of credentials that would put fear in Conservative hearts — to the leadership trenches.”

My own twisted opinion here is that Manley would be no big deal, even though I have always liked his Canadian republican instincts. Mark Carney, on the other hand, could conceivably transform both the federal Liberal party and Canadian federal politics. Yet, as Ms. Hébert implies, what makes anyone imagine that Mr. Carney might actually be interested? Still, and whatever else again, Bob Rae’s decision to stay out of the Liberal leadership race currently gathering some form of head of steam does make the race itself suddenly seem more interesting. And that is something both his party and his country (almost desperately?) need right now.

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  1. Citizen X writes that “there is just no room for an old-fashioned Ontario red tory prime minister in today’s Canadian future.”

    That’s too bad, particularly when you consider how Canadian conservatism has continued to diverge from its American counterpart in a variety of ways:

    -The Harper government’s refusal to revisit the abortion issue, and its efforts to update federal gay marriage laws;

    -The support of Preston Manning, one of the elder statesmen of Alberta conservatism, for putting a price on carbon;

    -The support for the federal handgun registry, even among haters of its long-gun counterpart;

    -The expression in the federal Conservative Party’s founding principles about its support for those who need “assistance and compassion”;

    -Manning’s discussion in his 1990 book “The New Canada” about how going too far to the right is just as bad as going too far to the left, and his specifically quoting that true Christianity distinguishes itself from spurious Christianity in that the former does not seek to forcibly impose its solutions on people that do not want it;

    There are other examples, of course, but they all tie back into the fact that Canadian conservatism often hews back to the political centre in practice, much more so than its American counterpart, even if some of its advocates would prefer going further to the right. Indeed, Richard Clippingdale, in his excellent book “Robert Stanfield’s Canada”, discusses not only the things that would have concerned Stanfield about the current Conservative government but also the things he would probably have approved of.

    What all this has to do with Bob Rae is the fact that it’s probably more his background than his ideology that leads to the situation Citizen X describes. Out here in Alberta, the notion of the aristocratic Central Canadian remains seared into our memories, as does the more general feeling of having our interests ignored by past governments dominated by Ontario and Quebec’s interests. The frustration we felt because of that was what led Manning and company to create the Reform Party. As the political and economic weight has shifted west, the same Albertans and other Western Canadians who felt that frustration supported the modern Conservative Party that suceeded Reform.

    The actions Stephen Harper has taken that break with what you’d normally expect from modern conservatism haven’t hurt him politically, certainly not out here in Alberta. Nor did most Albertans vote Liberal during the Jean Chretien era, when Chretien and Paul Martin took up the deficit-slaying cause that Preston Manning and the Reform party had done so much to make a public issue.

    Different parts of the country have much more common ground than they realize on a lot of issues, but perception is everything in politics. Hence the issues Citizen X describes.

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