Author in embryo

By Benjamin Massey · June 29th, 2016 · No comments

You don’t often open a book to an introduction like this:

A book such as Captain in Calico would probably be even less likely to find a publisher today than sixty years ago – not because it isn’t excellently written, but because ripping yarns are hardly fashionable now – and we do not want readers to be deceived into thinking it is vintage George MacDonald Fraser, and of the standard of the Flashman novels or the McAuslan short stories. Indeed, we thought long and hard before allowing it to be published, and are only doing so because we believe that, as an early work, Captain in Calico is a delightful curiosity, one which we hope will provide fans of GMF with a fascinating insight into the inspirations and creative impulses that turned him into such a fine novelist.

No danger of that being quoted in the promotional material. Still less because that tantalizing leader was written by George MacDonald Fraser’s own children, filial piety overcome by the demands of honesty and taste1. Just to rub salt into the wound, Caro Fraser concludes the book by reproducing two letters from a literary agent who rejected the novel at the time, with unstinting criticism of why the thing was frankly unpublishable.

Maybe the Fraser clan can afford to be forthright. As that paragraph should have told you, Captain in Calico was the first (or at least the first surviving) attempt by ex-soldier, ex-door-to-door-encyclopedia-salesman, and then-journalist George MacDonald Fraser to write and publish a historical novel. Written, rejected, heavily revised, and rejected again, the manuscript was sealed up in a safe until his children, cataloging his library for a sale in 2014, came across both work and letters. The reason the novel can be published today is that, between those rejections and his death in 2008, Fraser wrote the twelve-volume Flashman series and established himself forever as one of the twentieth century’s cultural gems, even before you count his screenplays, his other novels, his two volumes of autobiography, the rollicking McAuslan short stories based on his life in the post-war British Army, or God so much else2.

It was all built atop bedrock of solid research from a breadth of sources no professional scholar could sneer at, and one of the chief joys of the Flashman Papers is the sheaf of footnotes providing a cornucopia of historical context, clarification, and even “corrections” to the “errors” of the fictional chronicler. Fraser was a journalist but he did his research all the same. Captain in Calico doesn’t show the same knack for bringing the distant past to life as his later work. The setting is the Caribbean in generic ol’ 17-some-odd, and despite era-appropriate set pieces there is little in the atmosphere to convince us this is really another time and another place.

Captain in Calico is also not funny. We get a couple good jokes but as the plot thickens the tone darkens. The titular Jack Rackham, a famous pirate of the 18th century known as “Calico Jack” for his flamboyant dress, starts out well enough but gets himself deep into the soup with, and thanks to, the ravishing and dangerous but inconstant Anne Bonney. To anybody who knows the story of Rackham and Bonney their fall is preordained, and there’s no swashbuckling fun about it. The denouement tries to reverse things but it is explained to the reader like a child, lest it look like too much. Much of the plot is maritime, inevitably for a pirate thriller, and Fraser was never, ever, a Patrick O’Brian in his ability to turn shipboard routine into something both engrossing and enthralling.

So what we have here is a historically uninteresting, serious novel by a man who came to fame for his hilarious, and historically brilliant, work. It is also, as the 50-year-old editor’s notes at the end agree, overwritten for what plot it tries to carry. There are two major episodes of betrayal, one telegraphed a hundred miles off and the other disposable. Unusually for a “ripping yarn” there is far more darkness than light; Flashman would always have that moment where he would stand at the top of a bluff watching the remains of the British army get pounded into pulp, and the horror of it would be brought to bear on the reader, but his is ultimately a happy existence—for Flashy, anyway. Neither Calico Jack Rackham, nor any of his friends, get that much.

So the surprise is that it’s still so likable. It turns out the one constant of George MacDonald Fraser is that he can write. Rackham is a classic anti-hero, bad but not wicked, rash but not stupid, vengeful but not malicious, and well worth following. Bonney could have been drawn more sharply but in her we get an early glimpse of Fraser’s power to create compelling women. Most of the secondary characters were bought off the rack which, in context, is no problem. The plot may not be classic stuff but, with Fraser’s nascent but charismatic prose, it works.

It’s more fun than another “serious” Fraser novel, The Candlemass Road, written in 1993. Like Captain in Calico, The Candlemass Road drew upon a setting that consistently fascinated Fraser: the Scottish Borders in the Elizabethan age, when tribes of English and Scottish reivers ceaselessly pillaged across (and along) the frontier despite the gallant efforts of a few lawful men, and with the active connivance of many who should have been lawful. It was an age of peace indistinguishable at times from war, when even the good guys were villains yet savagery was inhibited by unwritten rules and a perverse code of honour. The Candlemass Road can be a drag, written with an awkward combination of modern grammar in an Elizabethan mode, its main character too-obviously there to record what other, more interesting people are doing. The characters win their battles and it hardly matters an inch. Calico‘s Rackham has an unexpected chance to preserve his life, if not his fortune; Candlemass‘s Waitabout Noble gets a break, rejects it, and may live to regret it. It was that sort of place. Those borderlands were too big for one novel to change, and Fraser was too scrupulous to deny it. The Candlemass Road sags under the weight of authenticity. Fraser’s straight history of the border reivers, The Steel Bonnets, twenty-two years earlier, turned out to be a much better read.

He made up for that gloom in the end, though. Fraser’s last publication was The Reavers, essentially an adaptation of The Candlemass Road with the fun dial cranked up to eleven. Some characters appear nearly unchanged, others are given a quick makeover. The plot echoes The Candlemass Road for the first act then lurches off into wizards, warlocks, Spanish schemes, and ravishing bombshells taunting each other about their wardrobes. The Reavers knows exactly what sort of novel it is and includes stage directions, music cues, and enough deliberate anachronism to fill St Mary’s Loch. You could never make it into a movie, because no movie would be sufficiently movie-like. It’s an uninhibited entertainment and it succeeds because Fraser was such a good entertainer.

Though we couldn’t have known at the time, it wasn’t his first such adaptation. 1983’s The Pyrates has less in common plotwise with Captain in Calico than The Reavers with The Candlemass Road, but the two piratical books share a zest for swashbuckling that veered towards pathos in Calico and towards farce in Pyrates. Calico Jack Rackham is not a primary character in The Pyrates, but the good captain appears as the astute, brave, undisputed leader of the novel’s preposterous pirate gang, a sober gallant that seems to have come out of a completely different story. Well, now we know why. Anne Bonney is also there, with the sex drive of a small city, and late in the story the two share a quietly poignant parting that doesn’t really belong between two such secondary characters in such a goofy story. After reading Captain in Calico that, too, makes a lot of sense. Trust George MacDonald Fraser to get sentimental in a satire, particularly sentiment for something that, until now, no more than a dozen people had ever read.

Lament for four nations

By Benjamin Massey · June 19th, 2016 · 2 comments

In 1965’s Lament for a Nation, Canadian philosopher George Grant asserted that Canada had functionally lost its independence. Though politically sovereign, it had been swallowed as a “branch-plant economy” of the United States. It was capable of dissent, like any other state of the union, but its domestic identity had been sunk not by malice or treason, but the small-l liberalism of Canada’s elite capitalist and intellectual classes focused on economic growth and individualism. Canada, perhaps unavoidably, became a dependency of its larger, dominant neighbour.

He explicitly did not judge anyone’s intentions. The point was not that William Lyon Mackenzie King or Lester Pearson were anti-Canadian or unnecessarily pro-American. He did not say the Americans were wicked, wasn’t sure the process could be stopped, didn’t even know if it was actually bad. He was sufficiently extreme in asserting that it had, already, happened. The government of John Diefenbaker had represented English Canada’s last chance to save itself, but it had been destroyed by the Conservatives’ own mistakes and the national Establishment in coalition, whose gains would be limited by the sort of old-time conservative nationalism that would have made independence possible1.

Grant wrote in anger, and the past fifty years have not proven him entirely right. Anti-Americanism remains Canada’s national vice, among Liberals as much as anybody. However, that anti-Americanism is often tinted in partisan colours; the NDP making “American-style” a slur while the Republicans are in office then campaigning for Bernie Sanders, that sort of thing. Being anti-American when the Americans don’t vote their way gives them something in common with a lot of American Republicans and Democrats. We stayed out of Iraq, American military adventure though it was, but under both Chrétien and Harper were at pains to “make up for it” in Afghanistan. In short, Grant’s thesis held up for the big stuff2.

Everybody shares the faith in technological (perhaps technocratic) progress which Grant considers automatically homogenizing. The pro-business consensus of the Conservatives and most Liberals has been good for our economy but makes us more culturally and economically dependent on the United States every day. Internationalism, the obsession with so-called progress, and the “emancipation of passions” remain guiding lights of left Liberals and New Democrats, opposing globalized business not with Canadian business but with pious proclamations from no fixed address. The no-hoper hardcore socialists of the Leap Manifesto aren’t the strict cultural and economic Castroist comptroller Grant suggests might have defended the nation, but a fully globalist philosophy exemplifying what Grant called “a doctrine [. . .] too flaccid to provide any basis for independence.”

Under the Grant thesis, Canada’s book has closed, and nothing in half a century has re-opened it. There is not much hope for us, but there may be some for the United Kingdom.

Next week the British vote on whether to remain in the European Union. Very nearly the full Establishment backs the EU. This includes the Prime Minister, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the leader of the third party in the House of Commons, the leader of the joint fourth party in the House of Commons, the vast majority of the Cabinet, the vast majority of the House, the President of the United States (ah!), the President of China (ah again!), every newspaper representing the British “smart set,” and a list of businesses and international organizations long enough to wrap around the German border. In favour of leaving is bloke Nigel Farage, coked Boris Johnson, joke Michael Gove, some tabloids, and, incidentally, approximately half the British public. There was less unanimity from the Establishment to fight Hitler and if “Leave” somehow wins it will be the upset of the century3.

The essential argument of the Leave movement should sound familiar to readers of Grant: that, having joined Europe for economic reasons, the United Kingdom has forfeited much of its sovereignty. The immediate consequences of this loss differ between 1960s Canada and 2010s Britain, but the principle is identical and the only surprise is that, despite the collapse of British conservative nationalism since the First World War, there is still enough fight left in the Union Jack for this to happen.

In the Grant tradition, the great homogenizers of Remain produce propaganda proving that the British economy would be hurt by leaving the European Union. Investors have grown more nervous with every pro-Leave polling twitch. Barack Obama threatened that the United States would not automatically be interested in free trade with an independent United Kingdom. These arguments aren’t without force, for the original reason for joining the European Common Market (as it was once called) was economic. For the most part, pro-Leave commentators have tried to dispute that conclusion but there aren’t many grounds to do so.

For if Grant was right then it is that economic interdependence which ultimately forfeited Britain’s nationhood. Surely you cannot call the City of London, among the world’s financial centres, part of a “branch-plant economy” like Canada. However, though the buildings may be in Britain, the world of international commerce amounts to foreign billionaires funding foreign projects, bringing Beemers to British accountants and lawyers but actually making as much in the country as any ’50s branch plant while tying the country’s elite all the more closely to the internationalist mega-economy. Of the Sunday Times Rich List’s top 20, thirteen are non-British4 and, as Grant said in the case of Quebec, English blood is irrelevant if it’s in their interest to obviate Englishness. Britain boasts a far richer culture in 2016 than Canada on its best day but it mirrors conditions more than it drives them. The BBC moved from a voice of authority to a bastion of knee-jerk internationalism and liberalism just as the rest of society’s elites did. Indeed, for Canada Grant’s book hardly treated such concerns in more than passing.

The alternatives Grant recognized were not beds of roses. He listed only two: a program of Castroist socialism, impossible in Canada and intolerable anywhere, and Charles de Gaulle’s “third way,” “to harness the nationalist spirit to technological planning and insist internationally that there are limits to the western ‘alliance.'” As Grant predicted, the Gaullist approach is passé even in France, now facing the same threat to its nationality as Britain. The French economy and quality of life fell behind its immense potential as de Gaulle and his heirs expended effort and treasure to preserve the nation as a real thing, while more straightforwardly global-capitalist regimes enjoyed relative prosperity. It was a trade-off for France, and they paid for it, and in the long run it may not have worked. But it was an attempt to preserve the country, and French national spirit remains a weakened but living force.

The United Kingdom Conservative Party is forever the party of the City and a sort of laissez-faire, not that this translates into any degree of financial responsibility, any independent policy beyond reflexive and meaningless brushbacks against Washington and Brussels, any sort of useful national defense, any moral principles at all, any meaning to the formerly prominent word “Unionist,” or basically anything that the word “conservative” once meant. New Labour was the same, more so in some categories and less so in others, and fond though I am of a party campaigning on what it wants to do Corbynite Labour is the NDP in one of its dilettantist phases.

The Grant equation fits the United Kingdom, right down to Remain forces insisting that the British have not lost their nation at all. Complaints about Europe are universal but actual opposition is portrayed as parochial at best and the work of evil old doctrine at worst. The Scottish independence movement bears a close relation to that of Quebec in the decades after Grant’s tract, and neither Diefenbaker’s Tories nor Farage’s UKIP could work productively with their nation-within-a-nation despite very similar homogenizing pressure.

The final question Grant asked of 1965 Canada was: is this good? The British economy remains competitive. The root cause of the immigration crisis that exercises many Brits is that the United Kingdom is a desirable place to live. And maybe any form of nationalism is, in the twenty-first century, obsolete when it did such great harm to Europe in the twentieth. Grant couldn’t answer the question, but he began the last paragraph of Lament for a Nation thus:

My lament is not based on philosophy but on tradition. If one cannot be sure about the answer to the most important questions, then tradition is the best basis for the practical life. Those who loved the older traditions of Canada may be allowed to lament what has been lost, even though they do not know whether or not that loss will lead to some greater political good. But lamentation falls easily into the vice of self-pity. To live with courage is a virtue, whatever one may think of the dominant assumptions of one’s age. Multitudes of human beings through the course of history have had to live when their only political allegiance was irretrievably lost.

That seems apt for Britain as well.

Providing the necessities of justice

By Benjamin Massey · April 26th, 2016 · 2 comments

In one sense, punishing David and Collet Stephan would be justice. Their 19-month-old son is dead because of them. He is dead because his parents were stupid, and believed that his serious illness, easily treatable by conventional means, would be better battled by maple syrup, echinacea, and nonsense. In another era we would have spent a Sunday morning looking forward to the judgement of their creator with grim satisfaction, trusting it would be fair but firm.

In another sense, their being found guilty of failing to provide the necessities of life to young Ezekiel is… troubling? Questionable? For they did wrong, no doubt about that, and yet the criminal justice system can never be as omniscient as a god.

There is neglect. The willful or even accidental ignorance of your child, ushering him towards tragedy out of sheer uninterest. There is cruelty, the beatings and the malice, some of the worst offenses humanity can devise. Society will argue forever over what constitutes “abuse,” but whatever these offenses are, parents guilty of them have forfeited the right to raise their own children. At their worst, they have even forfeited the right to walk among a civilized people. The well-being of the young is quite properly prioritized: tearing a child from his household is horrible, but if leaving him in such a home would be worse there is only one rational option. If a child abuser never takes another free breath, and the truly neglectful parent spends the rest of his reproductive life under the social worker’s eagle eye, I won’t shed a tear.

But the Stephans were neither. By all accounts they cared about young Ezekiel, as well as their other three children, as much as any parents could. When it was clear he was sick, they sought medical advice. They attempted treatment, based off the information they’d found and what they’d been taught. David Stephan was raised by a convinced naturopath, one who has made dark comments about pro-vaccination conspiracies, and he did not escape his upbringing any more than the rest of us do. In the end, at the final extremity and too late to do any good, they abandoned their superstition, called 9-1-1, and their son went to the hospital. This was a far cry from leaving young Ezekiel in his misery, waiting until it went away. Certainly not a hint of malicious abuse was ever brought to light. The reason Ezekiel is not entering kindergarten this fall is that the judgement of the family had been corrupted by the idiocy of the anti-medical lobby in which it was reared. They were filled with daytime-TV wellness-guide nonsense about “boosting his immune system” and “natural remedies,” and their son was the victim.

One thing that is not in dispute is that the Stephans did their best. Their best was, literally, a disaster, but their distrust of “Western medicine” was sincere. This was not a simple case of neglect. Tarring them as “child-killers” is literally accurate, but as an epithet it lumps them into a despicable class to which they do not belong.

In a natural zeal to see such people brought to book it’s tempting to say that the Stephans, by ignoring the enlightenment of science, were indeed neglectful. Science, however, is not a humanist Bible full of truth. It is a method, a process, one of dispassionate experiment. There is never a conclusion in the scientific method, merely the best hypothesis supported by the evidence. It is certainly not a democracy in which a consensus is proof of accuracy. Of course the Stephans’ treating meningitis with sugar was not “scientific,” but neither are we when we bring our sick child to the hospital because we know we’re supposed to. We haven’t done the work and crunched the numbers and let’s be honest, unless we’re in the medical field we probably haven’t read the studies of those who have. The Stephans took the naturopaths’ word for it, we take that of the mainstream medical community, and piously invoking “evidence” we’ve never seen changes nothing. Neither approach is any more scientific than the other, and claiming otherwise is abuse of the greatest single idea in the history of mankind. We’re right, but we got there through trust in the scientific work of other people. Those of us in that position have no right to sneer too hard; how many of our own deeply-held opinions would show a superstitious element if we could pick them apart? Parents are not accredited professionals, thoroughly trained, sworn to practice responsibly, and punishable for malpractice. They are you and me.

The Stephans did not abuse their son. They did not neglect him. There is no suggestion that they have mistreated their three surviving children, who now face the possibility of childhood without their parents. They sought pseudo-medical treatment, proven useless in the event. They did their best and failed in the most horrible way. To what extent to we wish to prosecute well-meaning parents for being wrong? “When being wrong leads to the death or permanent incapacity of a child,” well, that sounds reasonable enough. Oppose the consensus all you want, but when the crisis comes you better know what you’re doing.

Such lines have a tendency to blur, and tough cases make bad law. It’s happening now. Other cases of failing to provide adequate medical attention have been thrown out or involved traditional beatings and starvation. Perhaps this is the best answer, for after all lives are at stake. Yet this remains the prosecution of parents for being kindhearted but tragically wrong, while we hope that none of our own not-entirely-rational beliefs are ever put to that test.

Mulled whine

By Benjamin Massey · April 13th, 2016 · No comments

When I am inevitably fired someday, I only hope to reap the pity and the prizes poor Thomas Mulcair is enjoying.

Ifyou clicked on this post because you thought it was about some Edmonton Brickman from the ’80s: this past weekend saw the NDP hold its annual policy convention in Edmonton. Amid the usual socialist infighting Mulcair faced a vote on whether the party should hold a leadership race, in practice a vote of confidence on his leadership, and lost 48% to 52%. A 60-40 victory would have been thought untenably weak; this was almost a historically-harsh rejection, and if there’s been a parallel in Canadian history no intern has found it yet.

So Mulcair got hammered, like Patrick Brazeau moving up a weight class. Sucks for him. Yet from the indignant (not even piteous or angry) reaction, you’d almost think nobody had ever been fired before.

The National Post‘s Michael Den Tandt wrote that an “inept, curt and callous” stab in the back had left Mulcair “without a shred of dignity.” In the Montreal Gazette, James Mennie compared Mulcair to Admiral John Byng and Louis XVI, judicially murdered, and an editorial in the same paper lamented his “humiliation” as a “harsh fate.” CBC’s “The Insiders” panel debated whether Mulcair’s fall “set a new bar” for inhumanity, Peter Mansbridge comparing it to “a public hanging.” These are not NDP insiders to whom Mulcair’s ouster was callous or kind based on partisan considerations, but professionals.

But Mulcair was blindsided! He couldn’t have seen it coming! Well, apart from months of public soul-searching over the NDP’s catastrophic election, for which Mulcair took personal responsibility. His enemies were in the open, knives out. The press speculated that Mulcair might lose the leadership before the convention. Maclean’s writers John Geddes and Jason Markusoff, admittedly speaking in hindsight, rustled up eleven signs from the convention that Mulcair was doomed. He was forewarned, or had no excuse not to be; only a belief that our self-appointed ruling class is as clever as they claim could make us think otherwise. Mulcair would not be the first employee to, despite repeated cautions, march blithely through the circling vultures thinking himself safe.

Yes, the magnitude of Mulcair’s mangling was a surprise even to those who voted against him, but that’s a matter of degree irrelevant to charges of “cruelty.” The secret ballot has no emotion. Was it cruel for the Canadian public to put bullets between Social Credit’s eyes? Should the NDP have conspired so only one out of every three delegates voted for change and spared Tom’s feelings? If Mulcair is personally broken by losing a vote then what in God’s name is he doing in a democratic political party?

And his fate is too terrible to be imagined! After months of being publicly called unfit for office by pundits, he was publicly called unfit for office by a percentage. Cast out like Trotsky, Mulcair has been left with only his money, much of his power, and the laurels for “class” in defeat that come to every politician other than Jacques Parizeau. Now is forced to subsist on the honour of being interim leader for as long as two years, as well as the considerable salary and perks of a Member of Parliament. If other failed NDP leaders are any indication Mulcair must gird himself for a difficult retirement as a much-deferred-to elder statesman burdened by university presidencies, honourary doctorates, and escalating rank in the Order of Canada. Worst of all he must give up, probably permanently, his humble ambition to rule over the lives of 36 million people.

When a corporate executive is fired that generously he is usually excoriated for greed, not pitied. Somehow I doubt Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis would give jobless oil workers so golden a handshake.

Cranky blogger tradition dictates that the author now rail against out-of-touch Media Party elites. In fact, your average Canadian columnist knows more about the realities of getting fired than just about anybody. Maybe not for incompetence—think of your favourite cockroach here—but months of dread culminating in a horrible meeting and your belongings in a box will be familiar to anyone on a Canadian newspaper. Forget two years “interim” and another job to tide you over, some are lucky to get legally-mandated severance. They are cut down in public, too, with every job loss creating a Twitter avalanche and bemoaned in whichever papers haven’t laid off anyone for the past month. There are good, talented men and women in this country who could teach university courses on how to get the sack. Some of them would have killed, maybe literally, to go on the same terms as Thomas Mulcair.

But in politics we are used to applying standards that would be mad anywhere else. Sociopathic levels of secrecy and control are only evil when they help the Wrong Team gain or keep the country. A little light kleptomania is perfectly ordinary. When power and principle conflict, power wins. Honesty, of course, is hardly to be dreamed of; ditto loyalty, except to your particular gang, in whose name no defense is too great. And if you started firing politicians for being amoral incompetents who would be left to run the show?

Nobody holds all these opinions, but enough people hold enough of them that the expectations for a politician are far out of step with those for a mere human. They mesh with a piece of received wisdom different in nature but not at all contradictory: that politics is dirty business, a House of Cards-esque melodrama where betrayal is endemic and it’s all about the short term. In such a Zeitgeist martyrs are easily imagined, particularly in a case like Mulcair’s when he was condemned partially for his beliefs (specifically the suspicion that he didn’t have any beliefs). His career was snuffed not in a backroom coup but before the informed eyes and angry voices of his party’s core, at the command of the majority, having been given several months since the election to retrieve his position, and now given several months to show himself out.

This so-called backstabbing robbed Mulcair of… what, exactly? A softer landing, a chance to carry on as the leader nobody wanted, the dignity of losing by a smaller margin? May we all have his brand of bad luck.

How to make Canada great again

By Benjamin Massey · March 1st, 2016 · 1 comment

From afar these are sunny days for an American liberal. Decades spent portraying opposition to immigration or multi-culturalism as unthinkably awful have been successful. The reduction of even illegal immigration has become an intermittent and hugely controversial, a relative trickle of deportations ebbing while intake is limited only by the economy. This is besides the hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants per year, also arriving more quickly and politically unimpeachable. The quite enormous controversy in the United States over these people’s living arrangements is seldom seriously taken up by the highest political echelons where useful opposition could make a difference. Whether you vote Republican or Democrat, you will get somebody who implements the proper liberal opinions on immigration. Nativism is totally excluded from polite society.

So objecting voters must look to impolite society. Thus the rise of Donald Trump, who is loud, brash, unpleasant, boorish, not particularly conservative, and first won prominence by saying Mexico should buy the United States a wall. His aggression and cruelty became marketing materials against safe-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness opponents and their painfully politically correct culture. Trump’s success reflects that of American liberalism, proof that they have so strongly defined the political debate that it takes an outsider’s outsider to oppose their consensus. There isn’t even much downside, since between the huge number of Americans who would never vote for Trump’s trademark policies and politically-sympathetic voters who could never stomach Trump as a person, how could the White House ever need a Secretary of Comb-overs? For Trump to become president his opponents would have to do something really stupid, like run a Clinton or one of Lenin’s original useful idiots.

Oddly, in light of this Kursk-esque triumph, the victors seem unhappy. Of course Trump has conservative opposition, personal haters and tribal Republicans who want everyone to imitate Ronald Reagan based off an executive summary of the first paragraph of his Wikipedia entry1, but that’s different. That’s good old-fashioned intranecine blood-letting. No, what’s really interesting is reliable fonts of liberal opinion who are so horrified by the Donald Trump experience you’d think they weren’t the ones who created him.

The New York Times won’t pass up any chance to take a shot at Trump. John Oliver recently made a pious anti-Trump monologue to an audience that couldn’t include five Trump supporters. A popular gossip blog got Trump to retweet an uncited, out-of-context Mussolini quote, and opponents have enthusiastically pretended that matters. Nate Silver has been banging on against Trump for months yet says other people talk about Trump too much. No quote is too out-of-context for a derisive retweet, no ancient interview too minor for a jab, no association insufficient for guilt. The words “fascist” and “racist” are thrown around like confetti by the usual suspects, though some would call pizza fascist for burning the roof of their mouths.

It’s hard to understand. Issues of immigration and PC have been entombed so deep for the political class that it takes a reality TV star with multiple bankruptcies to advance them. Mission accomplished! So what’s the problem? I guess it’s that there’s still a big minority of the American electorate which, in spite of all of the exhortation of their betters, still has the nerve to hold opinions that should be inexpressible. That big minority has not submitted to seemingly-overwhelming rhetorical forces, and is so desperate after decades of electoral impotence that they’re even willing to line up behind a certified grade-A asshole for lack of any alternative.

Can this experience be replicated elsewhere? In Canada Kevin O’Leary is on the road trying to become some Canadian Trump. Nobody seems interested, except mockingly. O’Leary shares “brash capitalist” pedigree with Trump but nothing else; he’s more like an uglier, ruder Belinda Stronach. But O’Leary not being the man doesn’t mean the man cannot exist, for many of the same cultural artifacts that gave rise to American Trumpism are at work here.

Our Liberal government is enthusiastic about refugees and immigration. The recently-defeated Stephen Harper government was, in absolute terms, also enthusiastic but less so. Many Harper initiatives were targeted at specific immigrant groups. The attempt to ban people from wearing a face veil while taking the citizenship oath. The “barbaric cultural practices” hotline. Taking in fewer Syrian refugees than the Liberals or the NDP. Our national elites unified in opposition, calling these policies “dog-whistle politics”2 just this side of the concentration camps. Today the Conservatives are electoral roadkill. Job done.

Yet polling consistently shows these ideas had support. The niqab ban, struck down by the courts on entirely procedural grounds, has been consistently popular. Despite heart-rending photos and an undisputed humanitarian crisis, bringing in more Syrian refugees has been sharply divisive and the Liberals were eventually obliged to scale down their own plans. The barbaric practices hotline was well-liked, particularly in Quebec, and a post-election poll quoted by reliably-anti-Tory iPolitics gave the dead policy 58% approval. On balance, Canadians supported Harper’s opinions on immigration, that just didn’t overcome the myriad other reasons to ditch the Conservative candidate.

The immigration question in Canada is nothing like what it’s become in the United States. Most people didn’t get worked up and of course these issues aren’t untouchable here. Stephen Harper just touched them. It may not always be that way, though: even these modest moves provoked a media backlash. Michael den Tandt of the National Post referred to those popular initiatives as “an unmitigated disaster,” Andrew Coyne was full of implications, and Lord Black gave Harper a finger-wagging. These are no representatives of the “loony left;” that wing was far nastier, while Harper’s few allies came from choir-preachers Sun Media or The Rebel and possessed little influence beyond their actual circulation.

It’s not enough to disagree with these ideas, establish that they’re wrong, fire them full of holes until they sink without trace. There must be at least an implication that anyone suggesting them is a bad person. Intelligent arguments are made in favour of (for example) increased immigration, but when a party pushes an opposing policy intelligence takes a back seat to insinuation, accusations of ugliness and grumpiness at best and racism at worst. It’s a great position if you want to establish superior moral bona fides, and anybody who opens Twitter can see where the wind is blowing. Not one of the Conservative Party’s blue-chippers at the Manning Conference are picking up this torch, despite the polls.

We already have our own, made-in-Canada political taboos. Introducing an abortion law and re-instating the death penalty, which no candidate for Cabinet will ever look at sideways, retain multi-decade levels of public support dwarfing arguments over what sort of assisted suicide we’ll allow. Serious attention to these has been limited to the Christian Heritage Party and, very occasionally, a couple Conservative backbenchers permitted to run off-reservation secure in the knowledge that they can’t possibly make a difference. Conditions are ripening for an ignored voter base to launch a reaction that’s proportionately quite as powerful as Donald Trump’s.

Nor is our parliamentary system absolute protection. David Orchard, an anti-free trade Liberal, came close to the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservatives thanks to one goofy issue and a certain personal following. Provincially, Alison Redford took control of the Alberta PCs despite the opposition of more-or-less the entire caucus. Redford is now in disgrace, of course, but she was Premier, and had oil prices stayed high and sky palaces hidden perhaps still would be. And then there’s John Diefenbaker, Prime Minister for six years, maybe the last true conservative in the office, and a Western farm lawyer who was never, ever accepted as party leader by the Toronto-centric brass.

If the right sort of firebrand came along—and no, Kevin O’Leary ain’t him—could our assorted Ottawa milquetoasts fall to an angry man with invincible self-regard, the willingness to shout the practically forbidden, and 20,000 new members in his van? Not today, maybe not tomorrow, but in a few years’ time? Americans aren’t uniquely stupid, and when ignored Canadians aren’t uniquely immune to frustration. Much stranger things have happened than “Ezra 2020,” and it serves everyone’s interest for important, neglected issues to be taken up by politicians who are, by the low standards of their breed, reasonably straight-shooting and civilized.

Or just treat ideas you don’t like as political toxic waste, a personal shame to anyone who dares espouse them. That’ll probably be fine.

Ensigns in red always die first

By Benjamin Massey · February 15th, 2016 · 1 comment

Today marks the fifty-first anniversary of the current Canadian flag. For almost a century after Confederation Canada’s flag existed in a nebulous æther, defined by tradition and politics rather than statute. Depending on who you asked, and when you asked them, and how you were using it, the flag might be either the British Union Flag or the Canadian Red Ensign. Even the phrase “Canadian Red Ensign,” today unambiguously associated with the image at the top of this page, could mean any of several designs. A Canadian born at Confederation could live to see a half-dozen Red Ensigns flying from official or semi-official flagstaffs in his lifetime, plus the Union Flag, each more-or-less as valid as the other. This was, let’s be candid, insane.

Many Canadian prime ministers wanted to sort this out, notably William Lyon Mackenzie King, but like good Canadians they saw that, however mad the status quo was, change meant actual decision. So they kicked the can, and in 1963 it fell at the feet of Liberal Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson.

This was all very well. The Fathers should have thought this through at Charlottetown but better late than never. Alas Pearson, who won his spurs playing middle-man for Eisenhower against Britain, France, and Israel in the Suez, was the first but by no means the last Liberal PM who used public policy to overwrite Canadian heritage. From the beginning, Pearson made it clear he planned not to iron out ambiguity, but to give the country a completely new symbol devoid of the British influence that had created the country and still mattered to many millions of Canadians. Despite a to-the-knife battle from John Diefenbaker, the last conservative Prime Minister, in favour of the Red Ensign, Pearson and the Liberals prevailed, as they have on every such occasion since.

For die-hard traditionalists the flag affair will always be bitter, but “bitter” does not mean “illegitimate.” Pearson ran an election and formed a government on a platform that included new, distinct Canadian flag as a major plank. There was no referendum, but as we’ve discussed Canada is a Westminster democracy so there shouldn’t have been. While his rhetoric had a bit of “because it’s 1963” about it he sought out hostile audiences, looked them in the eye, and made his case. The final decision on the design came from a genuine all-party parliamentary committee with real power and influence from the opposition. There was the inevitable swarm of mediocre (or worse) choices but in the end the MPs made what was, if change was a necessity, the best possible choice1. Today’s Maple Leaf was picked almost accidentally by a botched Conservative political manœuvre, but there’s nothing un-Canadian about that. Any subsequent Conservative majority could have made the Red Ensign official if they wanted to expend the political capital Pearson did, and none had the conviction.

The flag itself? Once you know how many points the maple leaf has it’s easy to draw. It’s simple but distinctive. The immortal “world’s flags given letter grades” site awards Canada one of only thirteen A-level marks. The trouble is that leaf, since the maple tree is rarely seen in much of the country, but that was a Canadian symbol long before the flag fracas and our country is kind of big. If Canada had sprung from whole cloth the flag would have been very good indeed, and in the fifty-one years since it has aged well. Say what you will about the message it gave, but the flag itself is above reproach.

So no matter how long I harrumph at Pearson and the Liberal Party, today’s Canadian flag is attractive, appropriate, and was adopted fair and square. The current New Zealand flag debate shows things could be a lot worse.

Next month New Zealanders will cram ballots into mailboxes for their second vote on the government’s desire to replace their own flag, derived from the British Blue Ensign. In Canada, we reserve postal referendums for things like transit taxes the government doesn’t really want, but our sister Dominion has decided they are suitable for changing a nation’s face as well. The first referendum, conducted last December, chose between five options for a new flag, and the second in March will pair the winner off against the current one, like a heavyweight championship for vexillology.

New Zealand prime minister John Key, ostensibly a conservative, has been on the record supporting a new flag for years. However, previous efforts have been stillborn due to colossal public uninterest. Lacking the nerve to campaign on the issue and win a mandate, and hoping to gain legitimacy by direct democracy, his coalition government has worked to ensure the pro-novelty campaign has the best chance of victory while being able to wash their hands of the results.

The referendum was promised in Key’s election platform. A panel of elites was carefully chosen to represent the politicians’ trendiest identity groups, and graced a few citizen-submitted designs with their “inclusive,” “community-driven” imprimatur in a manner “consistent with the Crown’s Treaty Obligations.”2 The government propaganda has consistently highlighted the many great options available for change, with the occasional “oh you can vote for that British flag if you want” thrown in to feign fairness. For example, “word clouds” released by the government were filtered to hide the fact that the most common feedback by far opposed changing the flag, and one panelist worked for a government body that promotes the “fern” logo at home and abroad.

The official infographic comparing the two possible flags writes about the current one exclusively in the past tense, with its Britishness being the most important feature in of itself. The new flag, on the other hand, is in the present tense, alive and vibrant, associated with cultural tolerance and not being Australia. We are even told that “all New Zealanders having a say in this decision honours the rights and freedoms that have been fought for” is a point in favour of change. The electorate knows how the government wants them to vote, without a doubt.

Fortunately, the people of New Zealand are wise. All four (later five) designs on the new flag shortlist were pretty ghastly, overcomplicated try-too-hard rubbish better suited for an IT consultancy than an important Pacific country. A fraud-packed petition added the “red peak,” which looks like the icon of a Fascist party, to the ballot, but the voters managed to choose the least-bad option, it and its colour-swapped brother combining for over 80% of the vote. Not that such a strong preference means they actually like it. With weeks to go polling shows a heavy majority against change. The new-flag forces have been reduced to saying a 20-point deficit shows they have momentum. An Australian betting website will pay 5-to-1 on a victory for the new flag.

Commonwealth citizens are getting used to seemingly-safe leads in the polls evaporating by election day, but it seldom happens as overnight as all that. Nothing is certain in a democracy but this is just about as close as you’re going to get.

Is this an endorsement of direct democracy? In a sense, but remember that New Zealand no longer has a true Westminster system. They use mixed-member proportional voting in their unicameral House of Representatives, rendering the “mandate” possibly extinct. No party has won a majority since MMP was introduced for the 1996 election, and the rule has been ad-hoc coalitions of temporary allies that make a party platform nearly meaningless. Last election Key’s National Party actually came within a seat of a majority3, but he did so without the guts to put a flag change in his platform. What New Zealand’s got is a bastardized non-system that’s preoccupied the media beyond weariness, cost over $20 million, and regardless of the result is guaranteed to offend both winners and losers. The public has enjoyed crooked propaganda and the self-appointed elites who infest these quangos offering a menu of garbage and calling it modern. Even a rejection as decisive as the one New Zealanders seem set to give is hardly justice for enduring such a fundamentally crappy process. Imagine if a real House had a real mandate for change, picked out a simple flag the MPs could compromise on, passed the bill, and ran it up the pole! Or campaigned for such a mandate, failed to get it, and shelved the proposal! But that’s crazy talk.

No, right now the ol’ Pearson Pennant doesn’t look bad at all.

Showing support in theory and in practice

By Benjamin Massey · January 27th, 2016 · No comments

I don’t know what depression feels like. Statistically, most of us don’t. We all feel down sometimes, self-confidence low, our willingness to face another day held up by frayed threads, a bottle of wine, and a bit of glum Thursday evening Facebook. Everyone has times in our lives when we feel like the Earth’s most useless baggage since man’s ancestor first crawled out of the primordial muck. But, as we know, that’s not depression.

Depression, experts agree, is an illness. When feeling blue we can walk it off, or lose ourselves in our pleasures, or do what it takes to distract ourselves. You can’t distract yourself from disease. Reading a good book won’t fix a fundamental problem with your brain chemistry. The two are as different as chalk and cheese, and most of us know it. The message has gone out since I was in high school, there are TV ads and awareness campaigns, a sensitivity to depression is more common than knowing the symptoms of a heart attack.

Yet how many of us act like we believe it? Today is the day when a major Canadian corporation gives a few million dollars to charity and in exchange enjoys maybe the world’s largest 24-hour marketing bonanza, as the country’s social media light up with advertising1. In this campaign, depression occupies a privileged position. The poster woman is Clara Hughes, one of the finest athletes in Canadian history as well as a sufferer of depression. Twitter testimonials from the non-mentally ill tend to focus around depression. The ads are about depression. Attention is given to support and “listening” and all these undoubtedly good things that sound good for the depressed but don’t really apply to many mental illnesses. We relate most of the discussion to depression, because we think we can relate to it.

The Public Health Agency of Canada tells us that unipolar (“major”) depression and dysthymia (chronic depression) combined are about half as common as the collected anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders include things like post-traumatic stress disorder, major phobiæ, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks, social anxiety disorder, and more. None of these are unknown to the public and many are routinely trivialized. A person who is merely antisocial has social anxiety, one who sees mean tweets gets PTSD, something unpleasant causes a panic attack; all as disparate from genuine psychological problems as “feeling blue.” Yet these, and other well-known afflictions, are usually considered by those personally affected by them. Perhaps they are too foreign to a healthy mind, or perhaps the broken, terrified, and forgotten make unpicturesque spokesmen. The raving of an unmedicated schizophrenic on the SkyTrain is not inspiring or motivating, it is a visceral horror.

Intellectually we all know what depression is; in practice, we with no history of mental illness behave as though, deep in our sensitive souls, we see where the victims are coming from. Fight chemical imbalances in a person’s brain with whatever your hobby horse is, be it “raising awareness” or “creating affordable housing” or “gender equality” or “eliminating metaphors.”2 Some doubtless worthy goals, some mere posturing, and all of it comes from thinking we know our way around a stranger’s brain chemistry. It’s a mistake we wouldn’t make with, for example, obsessive-compulsive disorder. Even the person who says “I just have to keep my desk clean, I’m so OCD” seldom tries to relate with the person who washes his hands until the skin comes off.

Mental illness is a minefield for the professional, let alone those of us who think seriously about it once a year when the phone company tells us to. Objective criteria are vague or absent, so misdiagnoses are common. The nature of common conditions, as well as their correlations and causations, are up for debate. It’s like we didn’t know whether smoking causes lung cancer or lung cancer causes smoking. It’s even doubted whether some commonly-discussed disorders are “illnesses” in any meaningful sense. Even when diagnosis is accurate, treatment is scattershot and when something works we often don’t know why. Every revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American standard text, is a revolution against the previous. The workings, and dysfunctions, of the human mind are still the great mysteries of medicine, and have been not clarified but intensified by the MRI machine and other modern tools. Small wonder we stick to depression and professions of faith; the alternative is to admit we know nothing.

Partially this is the slacktivist ethos again. Few of us do enough for the suffering people of the world, and tweets at five cents a pop let us feel helpful and present our pious, loving faces in pride. The hashtag says “let’s talk,” so drown conversation in the unnavigable rapids of moral demonstrations. It does more good putting a $5 bill in the grocery store’s charity jar, but that’s hard to show off and comes with an actual cost. The most important thing we can do is being there for our friends and encouraging them to let us help with their troubles in our fumbling, stupid ways. In that connection, even besides the money anything that frees up conversation about mental illness is an absolute good. But let’s keep the self-satisfaction and flogging of our hobby horses to a minimum.

Money, money, money / Must be funny / In the rich man’s world.

By Benjamin Massey · January 20th, 2016 · 1 comment

Thanks to Laura Payton via Twitter I find myself on a website,, doing exactly what it says on the label: finding nominees for Canadian women on our banknotes. This is an argument many years old, but with Justin Trudeau in office advocating gestures of tokenism because it’s $CURRENT_YEAR the time is ripe for a revival. (Yes, the Queen has been on the money for the life of everybody reading this, but merely being the much-loved Canadian head of state for decades and maybe the world’s most famous living woman doesn’t count1. That’s the rule, don’t ask me.)

It’s true, Canada has no women except the Queen on our money, which is exactly what you should expect when you think about it. In this country public life was a predominantly male preserve until well into living memory, and apart from Her Majesty our nearest contemporary on a Canadian note is William Lyon Mackenzie King (died 1950). If we expect the people on our currency to have survived the passing of their own era with a certain timelessness, a completely random drawing of notable Canadians from fifty years ago or earlier would create an almost entirely male lineup. In practice, since the Bank of Canada has only ever put deceased prime ministers or reigning monarchs on our money, no Canadian-born woman has been eligible. Kim Campbell, prime minister for a few months before being blown up by Brian Mulroney’s grenades, will get there eventually, but admitting Campbell to the pantheon is rather too overt an admission of “the only thing that matters is her genitals.”2 Our history, where the public sphere was so overwhelmingly masculine for so long, means that a male lineup on the currency should not be viewed as a sign that present-day Canadian women are second-class. Yesterday’s feminists worked hard to change that, and the process is still on-going, but it’s too much to expect even the greatest revolution to apply retroactively.

But of course that’s the way some people do view it, or at least pretend to view it while making it quite clear they manage to overcome the pernicious messages allegedly drilled into the heads of the dwindling few who still use cash regularly. Anyway, what’s the harm? There’s no reason why prime ministers should dominate the currency, even if you’re going to have a hard time picking one to get rid of. King and Borden helped win world wars and the latter extended the vote to women into the bargain. Macdonald founded the country, and as the first francophone prime minister Laurier is considered almost an honourary co-founder, not to mention the patron saint of the Liberal Party. I can pick a prime minister who I’d happily drop for a worthy, non-political woman3. Probably so can you. But I think most of us would pick different people for very different reasons. We could get rid of Elizabeth… you know, the woman. Or sit around waiting for King Charles III, though I sense a greater degree of impatience than that.

Such a problem could be resolved if we could unite around a worthy figure of Canadian history. Agnes Macphail, a pacifist kook who advocated compulsory sterilization of the mentally unfit, is often suggested because she was the first woman elected to Parliament and appeared in a Canadian Heritage Minute on penal reform. Right behind her come the Famous Five, who won the right for women to be considered full “persons” in the political and judicial sense. Two of them, Nellie McClung and Emily Murphy, went on to minor post-Persons Case political careers, although not the sort you’d want to brag about in hindsight. That’s not necessarily a problem. Macdonald took bribes, King was an amoral schemer who was probably literally insane, people are products of their time. But with such light public achievements the case for Macphail, or any of the Famous Five, rests disproportionately on being moral exemplars. Otherwise we’re back to picking people purely because of their gender, and at least Kim Campbell actually was head of the government.

So we go back to, and see how far into the depths of Canadian history our people can plunge at need. Macphail and the Five are there, of course, God love ’em. So is Campbell. We have assorted aboriginal and black women whose popular knowledge and impact on history was nil but became convenient rallying points as identity politics two-fers. We have the joke entries, the accidental joke entries, current politicians, the randoms who no doubt led interesting and worthy lives but hardly qualify for what is, in practical terms, the highest honour a country can bestow unto one of its sons or daughters. Singers, actresses, ballerinas, “the first woman to” do something uninteresting. Les grandes dames of Canadian arts are well-represented: Margaret Laurence, Emily Carr, Alice Munro, my god even Atwood. Imagine that if you dare4.

Oh, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. If we must have a woman of Canadian history other than one of the Queens on the money, she would be my pick. Significant in her day while standing the test of time; remarkable, given how seldom juvenile fiction does. YTV thinks there are viewers to be wrung out of Anne of Green Gables even today. She even passes the formidable “has a single non-Canadian ever heard of her” test. Without a doubt Montgomery is the most recognition-worthy of any Canadian artist, living or dead, male or female. Yet I can’t totally sell myself on her importance, not more than William Lyon Mackenzie King’s, not even more than Pierre Trudeau’s. One of Montgomery’s online supporters asks “the UK will honour author Jane Austen on bank notes, shouldn’t we celebrate the author of the famous Anne of Green Gables series?” On a couple levels, that seems to answer itself.

It’s so easy to condescend, to say of a woman like (for example) Mona Louise Parsons, “oh, what an example she is!” with complete truth, but implicitly lowering our standards, judging the women by a lower bar than we do the men. We are not looking for good stories. We are looking for History with a capital H. It doesn’t have to be military or political history, but it has to register. If we play the game, if we divy up these honours according to whichever group of identity politicians thinks they need “recognition” in this specific form, it will cease to be an honour at all.

To be frank, if the nature of our society means that no qualifying Canadian woman exists yet, we should wait for her. Be in no doubt, she’ll come. She’s come elsewhere, in countries close to ours. Give it a few decades and Margaret Thatcher will be on the pound. History is in no rush, so don’t cheapen this honour for the woman who earns it.

Anti-reform maniacs against a referendum

By Benjamin Massey · January 12th, 2016 · 2 comments

Part of Justin Trudeau’s election platform was that “2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.” That’s a promise he’s still trying to keep, and now the game is afoot.

Oh, I don’t mean the argument over exactly which reforms will magically reverse Canadians’ cynicism and turn politicians into shining beacons of public spirit with bushy tails and infinite support for whichever party you like. We haven’t even got that far! The Liberals know change is essential, but what sort of change and the precise “problems” it’s meant to solve can be worked out later. No, we’re still arguing whether the Liberals have the moral right to implement reform through Parliament or whether they must submit to a referendum.

Most opponents of a referendum are reform’s most enthusiastic advocates. This leads to unpleasant implications. Supposed democratic zealots argue that we need a new electoral system to empower voters apparently too stupid to decide which electoral system they want. First-past-the-post allegedly creates false mandates when a plurality of the vote gives a majority of the power, but said power suddenly becomes legitimate when used for a reform you like. It’s, well, it’s Canadian partisan politics at its finest. Parts of the political class have decided they want change and they will get it, perhaps even convincing themselves there’s a silent majority supporting them, but by God you better not ask just in case you’re wrong.

This gives a lot of moral weight to a pro-referendum side aghast at the idea Trudeau could change the electoral system, possibly to the Liberal Party’s permanent advantage, more-or-less according to his whim. Mark Bonkowski in the Sun papers called it an “inherently dictatorial” “ripping apart [of] our democracy’s very foundation.” That sounds so like something Democracy Watch would have said when Stephen Harper used the bathroom without a Supreme Court reference that I got the giggles. Yet even the sane, like the National Post‘s Jen Gerson, can get worked up in favour of a referendum when the case against is made so feebly. Sensible reformists, like Andrew Coyne, accept a referendum under the right circumstances. The best arguments against a referendum have been that it is legal for Trudeau to eschew one (never in doubt) and that the ends justify the means. This is shabby stuff.

As a private in the anti-reform forces I feel like I am ferrying ammunition to the enemy camp. But in fact the argument most respectful of the parliamentary traditions we cherish is that a referendum is not necessary.

The fact is that Trudeau did win an election on a pro-reform agenda. That is what we used to call a mandate. It’s a weak one, since he advocated generic “change” rather than a specific electoral system, but the Liberals laid out terms that can be met. They promise an all-party committee which will weigh the alternatives and deliver its recommendations to Parliament, with legislation to follow. On the campaign trail there was great talk of conversation and consultation. Usually this is standard bafflegab meant to delay or deliver whatever results the party wanted, but if the Liberals take it seriously they’ll be entitled to pass whichever reform commands support. Despite murmurings to the contrary Canadians are not, broadly speaking, stupid. If Trudeau does something the electorate hates then he’ll get lit up like a wildfire in the next election. The opposition parties will be perfectly welcome to run on a platform of whatever reform they choose, including first-past-the-post.

From 1926 through 1955, Alberta had two electoral systems simultaneously. Single transferable vote was used in multi-member ridings for Edmonton and Calgary, while first-past-the-post and (later) instant-runoff voting was used in rural seats. The change from tradition was implemented by the United Farmers without a referendum, and was dispatched by Social Credit equally perfunctorily. At press time Alberta had not descended into autocracy and civil war, though we’ll see what happens if oil prices get much lower.

This is a feature of Westminster democracy. We elect parliamentarians to govern, and they get on with it. As Paul Wells pointed out, national referendums are rare in Canada. Of the three we had, one was a nineteenth-century question on prohibition that the government wound up ignoring, one was William Lyon Mackenzie King wiggling out of an election promise, and one was a demented second shot at a constitutional reform package which blew the Progressive Conservative party to smithereens. Justin’s dad didn’t bother with a referendum on the actual Constitution, and the formula for amending it requires very broad support from provincial legislatures but no referendum.

Our Mother Parliament in London did hold a referendum on alternative voting in 2011, but that was a result of a coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats and hardly applies here. The only other UK-wide referendum so far was the 1975 ballot on remaining in the European Economic Community, in hindsight an advertisement of the referendum’s very worst features. The Harold Wilson Labour government and Margaret Thatcher’s opposition Conservatives both bombarded the country with pro-EEC official propaganda the “no” side couldn’t match. Labour at that time was by no means unanimously pro-EEC and the referendum was essentially a government seeking a show of public approval for something it was going to do anyway, had in fact already begun doing, to cow dissent with a show of electoral force. This is a model to be avoided, not emulated.

Parliamentary supremacy is a core principle of Westminster democracy, and one that has served us well. The further we reduce the abstraction between polis and policy, the more entangled and unproductive our politics become. Take the much-derided and sometimes contradictory ballot motions of the United States or, more locally, the entirely useless greater Vancouver transit referendum. This isn’t snobbery or even anti-populism, merely acknowledgment of a successful system. We who defend first-past-the-post on the grounds that it is tried, tested, and true should not be so quick to demand displays of direct democracy for a change that, while important, would be neither fundamental nor irreversible. If Justin Trudeau oversteps his mandate and betrays his responsibilities, turf him next election in the time-honoured fashion. An extra political campaign might be good for pundits, and it might please die-hard anti-reformists, but it is by no means a political or moral necessity.

There is, I suppose, one serious problem keeping this argument from wider circulation. If you accept that the House of Commons has the right to implement reform without a referendum, provided Trudeau lives up to his mandate of consultation and compromise, you pretty much have to accept that the Senate has the right to block said reform if they feel he hasn’t. A Westminster parliament has its own checks and balances, and some are more fashionable among the smart set than others.

Bringing conservatism to the BC Conservatives

By Benjamin Massey · January 5th, 2016 · No comments

So, farewell then, Dan Brooks, leader of the British Columbia Conservative Party. Brooks announced his resignation as party leader, having taken over in April 2014. No, no, you’re thinking of John Cummins, the former MP for Delta—Richmond East, who managed to get some actual press coverage and double his party’s popular vote in the 2013 election. It’s okay. I don’t think I’d heard of Brooks either and I might fairly be called his party’s natural constituency. That photo up there is so bad because I couldn’t do better. For a sharp young politician who got a decent vote share in 2013 and won the leadership convention by a mile, Brooks is the invisible man.

I feel bad slinging too much mud at Brooks, who took on a very tough job without getting paid for it. However, he found not a fraction of Cummins’s media reach, and since the election the BC Conservative Party may as well not have existed. It can’t all be the leader’s fault, but the price of all that glory is being where the buck stops. “There’s not an election campaign on!”, true, “the media’s not interested in the nattering of a right-wing party with no seats!”, also true and even understandable. A November interview with Brooks did get into the Black Press papers, and started like this:

TF: There was a rumour that you’re in Victoria to join the B.C. Liberal Party.

DB: I don’t know where that started. It’s false. I’ve never talked to a Liberal about anything of that nature, ever.

So that went well.

But what have the Conservatives done for themselves? The official Twitter account has an obscure name, fewer followers than your humble correspondent, has never been more than semi-active, and consists mostly of retweets, media advisories, and Churchillian rhetoric like “no reason4 #BCFerries 2 reimplement fuel surcharge after Christmas season; shud B gone 4good.” The Facebook page is good for less than a post per month. The “Recent News” on the official party website contains a release on Brooks’s resignation, three short posts from December and June, and a Vaughn Palmer column from October copied out of the Vancouver Sun.

I am neither a strategist nor an insider, just some guy. To me, the party’s messaging is not only infrequent but fabulously uninspiring. The preamble of the BC Conservative constitution is a paean to fiscal responsibility. Galvanize the disenchanted Liberal voters of British Columbia with your “[firm commitment] to the concept of accountability to the taxpayers of the Province”! All this talk about “old, recycled ideas” from the Liberals and the NDP and how we need “change” and “a new voice” is so much hooey when your concerns resolve around the cost of a ferry trip and the allocation of hunting licenses. During the election, Cummins enjoyed a generally high profile given his party’s position and got headlines by proposing that convenience stores be allowed to sell beer and wine. Thanks to this plain, common-sense style, the BC Conservatives finished without a seat and several points lower in the popular vote than polling predicted.

Why would you vote for today’s BC Conservatives? Because you’re sick of the Liberals and hate the NDP? That’s a reason to stay home, as 42.9% of British Columbian electors did in 2013. If civic pride drags you to the polls anyway, and you overcome the urge to vote anybody-but-the-party-you-hate, then you might as well go Libertarian, or, hell, Excalibur Party or Marijuana, or whichever other “common sense” gang of no-hopers is available in your riding. The Libertarians wouldn’t only let you buy a bottle of beer at the convenience store, but let you turn it into a bong and get fucked on the porch while shooting a .22 at slow children1! Now that’s real change for British Columbians!

Realistically, not only do the Conservatives have no chance of forming government in the next election regardless of who the leader is but they’d fall over each other in joy if they won a seat. This means that you have to think big, bigger than “fiscal responsibility” and “a new voice” and hunting licenses. You have to give people something to vote for, rather than pointing at what they should vote against. That is common sense.

The BC Conservatives’ current irrelevance does provide one strength. They, for now, should be immune to the power-chasing, loosely-principled opportunists who have contaminated the federal Conservatives and numerous provincial parties. People who are basically Liberals but joined the blue team for tribal or careerist reasons, or as they are more commonly known in Canada “Red Tories,” are already safe within the BC Liberal Party’s bosum. Indeed, so strong is the Red Tory influence on the BC Liberals that wags joke they’ve made the BC Conservatives irrelevant. The past few decades show there’s a grain of truth to that joke, but only so long as the BC Conservatives call plays from the Red Tory book.

What if the BC Conservatives retook their natural role and, rather than splitting economic hairs with the Liberals, defended active, social conservatism? Brooks’s rural focus would have been a great first step had it been stronger. There are still British Columbians who want the tentacles of our government, extended by premiers of every party, cut back, not necessarily for financial reasons but out of principle. Multi-billion-dollar questions like public transit reform and huge new toll bridges sprayed across the Lower Mainland, and local conservative opportunities like neighbourhoods transforming into something long-time residents don’t recognize and don’t like. Fight for Canadians’ intrinsic freedoms from their government, inherited from a constitutional tradition going back to Magna Carta, rather than today’s citizen-against-citizen human rights racket. When the inevitable cantankerous candidate says homosexuality is an illness in front of a tape recorder, and he will, remind the outraged reporters that allowing people to speak on important subjects is an essential liberty in of itself, regardless of whether there’s any chance of them getting their way. There are issues, from how to treat the mentally ill to whether people should be allowed to enjoy their own vices2, that are moribund in provincial politics but seriously impact how people live their lives, and where the old conservative options should be spoken for, changing the conversation even if your party is miles from government.

In short, turn your conservatism into a moral position, a firm idea of how the world works and how government should, rather than dwelling on niche differences and whimpering “don’t you want change?” This will definitely outrage people who would never have considered voting for you anyway, but it might also attract voters who, even if only broadly, like what you’re saying, or like that there’s somebody out there who can say it. There is precious little to believe in if you’re a right-wing British Columbia voter these days, why not offer something? It’s no sure path to power, but trying to be the Liberals without the baggage won’t work either.