IN THE YEARS since the departure of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, the Liberal Party of Canada has been trapped in a political Groundhog Day. Three times across a decade, the party has risen at what it expected to be the dawn of its charismatic leader. During the fall of 2003, for example, the word coronation was applied more thickly than the autumn leaves, the media consensus being that Paul Martin was beyond challenge. One after another, up came the saviours — and with equal and opposite force, down they went.
In his essay “Notes on Nationalism,” George Orwell observed that “if one harbours anywhere in one’s mind a nationalistic loyalty or hatred, certain facts, although in a sense known to be true, are inadmissible.” By his reckoning, nationalism is a matter of sentiment mixed with a desire for power and prestige; “swayed by partisan feelings … there is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed.”
There are several passages that Barbara Kay may have had in mind when she concluded, in her essay “Michael Ignatieff hands Quebec separatists an unexpected gift,” that “Professor Ignatieff has just cheerfully thrown us all under a bus for the pleasure of adding colour to an international interview. Orwell was right about intellectuals.” One concerns war propaganda that he noticed being spread about by academics. Observing the credulity of certain intellectuals, the author of Animal Farm and 1984 dryly observed that (I am citing this from memory) some notions are so absurd that only an educated person could believe them. There is also a passage, again from “Notes on Nationalism,” which comes to mind: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe [these follies]: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”
It’s dangerous for any writer to quote Orwell, more dangerous to cite Notes on Nationalism, and most dangerous to cite Notes on Nationalism in an article about nationalism. I know what I’m talking about: I lived nearly a decade in Quebec, and in that time I absorbed the lesson that a rational, dispassionate discussion of separatism in Canada is a rarity. Orwell’s essay is saturated with the cautionary observation that in such matters “no unbiased outlook is possible” and that the best one can hope for is an “essentially moral effort” to struggle against our own loves and hatreds.
I labour this point because, having listened to the Ignatieff interview , I was surprised at how measured it was, when juxtaposed with the partisan reactions. It is objectively true that Canada, since 1980, has undergone political decentralization. It is furthermore objectively true that fiscal and monetary policies uniquely bind Quebec to the federation. Less certain are Ignatieff’s claims that the two solitudes have nothing to say to one another, and that Canada is on a path logically tending to separation, but what affront is there in considering these possibilities as possibilities?
Only the affront to sentiment, and the power-and-prestige contests with which readers of Orwell are well familiar, stand in the way. Accordingly, Heritage Minister James Moore attacked Ignatieff’s statements as “arrogant, irresponsible and narcissistic,” while NDP leader Thomas Mulcair noted his own opportunity to pander, accusing the Liberals of obstructing his party’s past efforts “to give real meaning” to the recognition of Quebec nationhood. (More note should have been taken of this loaded declaration.) The Quebec premier, stumbling in the polls, reassured federalists while invoking the destructive intentions of the PQ leader, Pauline Marois. Soon everyone had their partisan speaking points on the podium, each declaiming over the others. Could it really be that there are only two solitudes in this country?
Kay’s central assertion that the former Liberal leader had “just handed [the] separatists a metaphorical bunker buster,” may have fallen short of the truth. By the time the sunlight had arrived to Canada’s shore, everyone was armed. The fury however overlooked the inadmissable fact that no one much cares what Mr. Ignatieff thinks and says. During the last federal campaign I had argued that this was a shame, and that the Liberal leader was himself largely responsible for it. Despite having thought a good deal about topics like war, foreign policy, nationalism, and terrorism — and despite having written numerous books on these and other topics — Michael Ignatieff dishonestly campaigned as if he were the down-home, plaid-and-ballcap type he most clearly is not. As a result, he bored everyone even more than he might have had he actually talked ideas. But for the purposes of nationalism, his not-so-outrageous speculations had to be dangerous and potent. The man who proved himself capable of sinking a political party had to be seen as capable of sinking a country also. This is a case of folly, the swallowing of which I don’t recommend. If Mr. Ignatieff possessed the power to direct the fate of a nation, he would not now be back at his other day job, leaving behind the also-rans of the Liberal Party of Canada.
There is a famous anecdote concerning two nineteenth-century British Prime Ministers and bitter rivals, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone. The former may be credited with first articulating “Progressive Conservatism” — by way of his 1844 novel Coningsby, or The New Generation — and the latter with both establishing and dominating the British Liberal Party, having ended his affiliation to the High Tories. According to the standard account, Gladstone asserted (doubtless with approval) “I predict, Sir, that you will die either by hanging or of some vile disease.” Disraeli’s response was characteristically immediate, biting, and witty: “That all depends, sir, upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”
In an astute article of today’s (April 23) National Post, “Liberal remedy to Layton is to look in the mirror,” Kelly McParland writes,
In 21 elections between 1921 and 1993, when the Liberals won it was because of Quebec. They took the overwhelming majority of Quebec seats in every winning campaign, and only once were they popular enough in the rest of the country to have won without Quebec (and even then, in 1935, it would have been iffy). The Liberal party was about keeping Quebec happy; that’s where power lay. It all changed when the Bloc Quebecois came along and stole their meal ticket. Since 1993, when the Liberals win it’s because of Ontario, yet the party has never put the effort into pleasing Ontario that it did into Quebec.
Some hours ago, votes were cast upon Liberal Member of Parliament John McKay’s Bill C-300, “An Act respecting Corporate Accountability for the Activities of Mining, Oil or Gas in Developing Countries.” First introduced to the House of Commons on February 9, 2010, during the 2nd session of the 40th Parliament, and re-introduced on March 3, 2010, the bill was designed to hold Canada-based mining companies subsidized by Government accountable for human rights abuses committed abroad. The bill was defeated 140 to 134.
In September, former Liberal MP John Manley published a rebuttal of C-300, arguing that “the bill could result in […] companies losing business to corporations based elsewhere that do not have the same regard for environmental, safety and human rights standards” and “that it would encourage mining companies to locate in jurisdictions with less regulation and no commitment to corporate social responsibility.” Manley is today President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, a group which promotes the views and interests of (among others) Canada’s mining companies. Continue reading Michael Ignatieff: You Can’t Have It Both Ways