Canada’s seldom discussed political achievement is that it has managed to maintain a unique political culture while standing alongside the greatest political and cultural force on the planet. One-tenth the size of the United States, a smaller population than California alone, Canada, despite all odds, has achieved one of the Confederation’s primary goals, namely not to become American.
Being Canadian is more than just not being American, but it’s close. In contrast to the English colonies, French Canada was founded in the south. Nearly 50,000 dissenters, known as the United Empire Loyalists, fled the United States to Britain-held provinces during and after the revolution. The British North American Act of 1867, which as the Canadian Constitution was a law of the British Parliament, was designed in many ways to evade the centrifugal forces of the American Constitution that gave states enough power to rebel against the central government. English Canada was settled by refugees from the American Revolution, giving the “true North” a decidedly Tory composition that was open to the shaky revolutionary state in the south. It is worth pondering the political tradition that has evolved from the Tory origins of this not entirely American, but also not entirely British, constitutional democracy.
Ron Dart’s recent book on the North American High Tory Tradition argues that the idea of High Toryism contains a lot of political wisdom. Of the many Canadian authors he cites, George Parkin Grant is the one Americans may recognize – by which I mean, most Americans study Canadian subjects. Most who know Grant may know him because of his English-speaking justice system (1974). However, Dart spends much of his book on Grant’s Lawsuit for a Nation (1965), a heartfelt plea to preserve Canadian culture in the face of America’s intervention in national elections. The book was written by John Diefenbaker after the defeat of the Conservative Party, which, according to Dart, was influenced by Lester Pearson’s apparent preference of the Kennedy administration for the Liberals.
The nation lawsuit was a publishing success, even if it did not have much of an impact on the direction of the country. One thing it did was give left-wing intellectual Gad Horowitz the opportunity to leave us the term “Red Tory”. According to Dart, Grant wasn’t entirely happy with the term, but it seems a good fit. As Dart reports, Grant has been an active supporter of both the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CFF) and the New Democratic Party (NDP) for at least a while. Support for both, but certainly both, would undoubtedly put the red in Red Tory. According to the CCF’s Regina Manifesto, “no CCF government will be satisfied until it eradicates capitalism and enacts the full program of socialized planning that will lead to the creation of the Commonwealth Cooperative in Canada.” He may have had “some serious philosophical concerns about some of the deeper principles of the New Left”, but his writings and activities in the 1960s “clearly aligned Grant with the political left and the emerging vision of the NDP”. He would of course be appalled by the libertine anti-religiosity of the current NDP, but there was something about the socialist project that appealed to Tories and always appealed to.
Dart uses the terms Red Tory and High Tory synonymously. The point is that both reject the (American) conservative or classically liberal distrust of the state and see nothing wrong with using government power to achieve their goals. On this and other points, the older Tory concept, like socialism, opposes the liberal concept of the autonomous individual and freedom as an undisputed and indisputable good. One of the most telling definitions of what he means by this is his description of Stephen Leacock’s efforts to “plan and chart a balance between capitalism and communism.” The High Tory sees the two as points along a scale; Granted, far apart, but still on the same plane. Are you?
Dart’s account of the history of political thought is flattened by its planar perspective, which is essentially economic. Everything in modern times is “liberalism” of one kind or another, including communism and socialism. At one end of the spectrum are the radical individualists who seek profits for themselves, and at the other end the radical collectivists who redistribute those profits. The job of the statesman of the High Tory, with Diefenbaker being the last, is to navigate between these extremes using premodern resources, particularly the Anglican tradition. If you ask Diefenbaker, a Plains Baptist with no English heritage, to access these resources, it may explain why he was the last of the High Tories.
The lowly ecclesiastical Protestantism of the American Conservatives and their Canadian epigones makes them defenseless against the caustic power of modernity, according to Dart. In this part of his report the theological intervenes in the economy. The competition between Red Tory and Blue Tory (here the political “colors” are Canadian and British, with red tending to the left and blue tending to the right) is based on a theological distinction. While Red Tories are usually socially conservative and economically liberal (or more precisely corporatist) and the Blue Tories on the contrary, Dart finds the real cause of the distinction in the Reformation. As he puts it, “it all depends on how AD 1400-1700 is interpreted.”
Are we to believe that John A. Macdonald was a Hegelian?
From a philosophical point of view, however, the turning point comes exactly a century later in Jena in 1806. According to Dart, “the Canadian tradition of philosophy that is closest and most dear to the Canadian soul and psyche is a form of Hegelian idealism”. Are we to believe that John A. Macdonald was a Hegelian? This is just as implausible as the notion that each of the other Canadian Founding Fathers who met at the Charlottetown and Quebec City Conferences learned the world spirit when the BNA Act was passed. Dart’s argument is in tension with itself if he really wants us to believe that High Toryism is premodern and Hegelian at the same time. If you want to trace Hegel’s influence on Canadian politics, and it’s there, you can’t do anything better than look at my late father’s book, Viscount Haldane, “The Wicked Stepfather of the Canadian Constitution.” Dart falls victim to the temptation of what Tocqueville called “literary politics,” that is, the tendency to view politics as an exercise in philosophy alone.
The only remaining problem for Red Tories is that they are being overwhelmed and outmaneuvered by persistent political activists. Your proposed middle path between capitalism and communism is difficult to negotiate. Whatever High Tory financiers may have been in Toronto a century ago, they have long since left. This explains, in a way, why the red part of the equation is far more powerful than the Tory part. Indeed, most of the internal resources for opposition to modernity that the Tory might turn to are overwhelmed by modernity. We saw earlier that George Grant was embroiled in a political tradition that could make Bernie Sanders blush. But what about Anglicanism? Dart claims that “the ascetic tradition within the path of the high church is a radical criticism of property accumulation”. “Up to a point, Lord Copper,” as Evelyn Waugh’s character might say. There are very few organizations in the western world that are less traditional than the Anglican Church of Canada. It was “woken up” before wakefulness was a thing. The fictional Jim Hacker was confronted with this problem on an episode of “Yes Prime Minister” when he was forced to conclude that the ideal bishop would be a cross between a socialist and a socialist. It is hard to imagine that anything is less apt to withstand the fluid modernity, to use Zygmunt Bauman’s term, than the Anglican Church of Canada.
Dart’s understanding of Anglicanism is headstrong to say the least. He’d lead us to believe it didn’t start with “King Henry’s overactive glands.” No, it began over a thousand years ago and “has since been deeply Celtic, firmly Catholic, thoroughly Reformed, generously liberal, zealously Protestant, and openly charismatic.” The only plausible way to read this list is chronological, that is, as a sequence of features, that describe Christianity in England. How figures like Bede, Edward the Confessor, and John Henry Newman might fit, we have to leave aside.
The defenselessness of High or Red Toryism against the siren song of the radical left is openly shown in the first section of Dart’s book. Two of the four chapters of this section deal with the findings of Noam Chomsky and the last with the comparison of George Grant with the beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Maybe there are some surface-level affinities here. Chomsky is supernaturally devoted to the search for perfidy in all areas of American politics, as are many Canadians, including obviously Ron Dart. And yes, there is a wailing cry in both Grant’s Lawsuit for a Nation and Ginsberg’s Howl, but for the same purpose? No, we can’t follow the author there.
A major obstacle to the argument presented here is that this book is remarkably difficult to read. Phrases like “The Tory Party at Prayer” are nowhere near as original or funny as the author seems to think, and especially not after appearing in the book a dozen times. I found sentences that were repeated almost verbatim between chapters. It goes well beyond what could be useful in such a treatise. Do we need to take time towards the end of the book to compare Stephen Leacock, the Canadian economist and humorist, to TS Eliot? The author would have done better to follow the example of George Grant, who wrote much more concise, narrowly focused books.
What should you do with this book? The subject is excellent, especially since the critics of liberalism are on the right. Critics like Patrick Deneen or proponents of integral views like Adrien Vermeule’s Common Good Constitutionalism should look at a tradition that has real political influence. Ron Dart traces the political legacy of the High Tories from Sir John A. Macdonald, first Prime Minister, to John Diefenbaker. That’s almost a century. Is there such a thing as the influence of a pre-liberal tradition in America? On the other hand, the “red” elements of this tradition are exactly the kind of concern that partisans of the American Constitution express against Deneen, Vermeule, and others. Just try to get to church or cross national and provincial borders in Canada on terms of “the common good” amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As Orwell could tell you, a snowshoe stomping on the face of humanity is still a boot in the face.