Lament for a High Tory Conservatism

The Canadian political achievement, rarely discussed, is that it has been able to maintain a unique political culture while situated next to the largest political and cultural force on the planet. One-tenth the size of the United States, a smaller population than California alone, Canada has, despite the odds, achieved one of the primary goals of Confederation, namely, not becoming American.

To be Canadian is more than simply not being American, but it is close. French Canada was established in opposition to the English colonies to the south. Close to 50,000 dissenters, known as United Empire Loyalists, fled the United States for the British-held provinces during and after the Revolution. The British North American Act of 1867—which, as Canada’s Constitution, was an Act of the British Parliament—was designed in many ways to avoid the centrifugal forces of the American Constitution that gave states sufficient 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 in open opposition to the whiggish revolutionary state to the south. It is worth thinking about the political tradition that developed from the Tory origins of this not quite American, but also not quite British, constitutional democracy.

Ron Dart’s recent book on the North American High Tory Tradition argues that there is a body of political wisdom contained in the idea of High Toryism. Of the many Canadian authors he cites, the one Americans might recognize—by which I mean most Americans attentive to Canadian themes—is George Parkin Grant. Most who know of Grant might know him for his English-speaking Justice (1974). Dart, however, spends a good part of his book on Grant’s Lament for a Nation (1965), a heartfelt plea to retain Canadian culture in the face of America’s intervention in a national election. The book was written in the wake of the defeat of John Diefenbaker’s Conservative Party, influenced, Dart argues, by the obvious preference of the Kennedy Administration for Lester Pearson’s Liberals.

Lament for a Nation was a publishing success, even if it did not have much of an effect on the direction of the country. One thing it did was afford the leftist intellectual Gad Horowitz the opportunity to leave us the term “Red Tory.” Grant, according to Dart, was not entirely comfortable with this term, but it does seem to fit well. As Dart recounts, Grant was an active supporter of both the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CFF) and the New Democratic Party (NDP), for at least a time. Support for either, but certainly both, would undoubtedly put the “red” in Red Tory. According to the CCF’s Regina Manifesto, “No CCF Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Cooperative Commonwealth.” He might 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 be horrified by the libertine anti-religiosity of the current NDP, of course, but there was something about the socialist project that appealed, and always has appealed, to Tories.

Dart uses the terms Red Tory and High Tory interchangeably. The point is, they both reject the (American) conservative or classical liberal distrust of the state and see nothing wrong in using the power of the government to achieve its ends. Indeed, on this point and others, “The older tory notion, in fact, like socialism, resists the liberal notion of the autonomous individual and liberty as an unquestioned and unquestionable good.” One of the most telling definitions of what he means by either is his description of Stephen Leacock’s efforts to “plot and chart a middle path between capitalism and communism.” The High Tory sees the two as points along a scale; far from one another, admittedly, but still on the same plane. Are they?

Dart’s account of the history of political thought is rather flattened by his planar perspective, which is essentially economic. Everything in the modern era is “liberalism” of one sort or another, communism and socialism included. At one end of the spectrum are the radical individualists seeking profits for themselves, at the other the radical collectivists redistributing those profits. The task of the High Tory statesman, Diefenbaker being the last, is to navigate between these extremes using premodern resources, most especially the Anglican tradition. Asking Diefenbaker, a prairie Baptist with no English heritage, to call upon these resources may explain why he was the last of the High Tories. 

The low church Protestantism of American conservatives and their Canadian epigones leaves them defenseless against the corrosive power of modernism, according to Dart. In this part of his account the theological intrudes upon the economic. The contest between Red Tory vs. Blue Tory (here the political “colours,” are the Canadian and British, where red tends towards the left and blue to the right) is based on a theological distinction. While Red Tories are usually socially conservative and economically liberal (or more accurately, corporatist) and the Blue Tories the opposite, Dart finds the real cause of the distinction to reside in the Reformation. As he puts it, “everything hangs on how AD 1400-1700 is interpreted.”

Are we to believe that John A. Macdonald was a Hegelian?

Philosophically, however, the fulcrum comes a century later in, of all places, Jena in 1806. According to Dart, “the Canadian tradition of philosophy that is nearest and dearest 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 as implausible as fantasizing that any of the other Canadian founding fathers who met at the conferences at Charlottetown and Quebec City saw the World-Spirit coming to know itself in the passage of the BNA Act. Dart’s argument is in tension with itself if he really wants us to believe that High Toryism is at once pre-modern and Hegelian. If one wants to trace the influence of Hegel on Canadian politics, and it is there, one can do no better than to look to 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 think of politics as an exercise in philosophy alone.

An abiding problem for Red Tories is just this, that they get overwhelmed and outmaneuvered by hard-headed political operatives. Their proposed middle way between capitalism and communism is hard to manage. Whatever High Tory financiers there might have been in Toronto a century ago have long departed. This goes some way to explaining why it is that the red part of the equation is far more powerful than the Tory part. Indeed, most of the internal resources for resisting modernism to which the Tory might turn tend to be overwhelmed by modernity. We have already seen that George Grant was involved in a political tradition that might make Bernie Sanders blush. But what about Anglicanism? Dart claims that “the ascetic tradition within the High Church way comes as a radical critique of the accumulation of property.” “Up to a point, Lord Copper,” as Evelyn Waugh’s character might say. There are very few organizations in the Western world less traditional than the Anglican Church of Canada. It was “woke” before wokeness was a thing. The fictional Jim Hacker was presented with this problem in an episode of “Yes, Prime Minister” when he was forced to conclude that the ideal bishop would be a cross between a socialite and a socialist. It is hard to imagine anything less suited to resisting liquid modernity, to use Zygmunt Bauman’s term, than the Anglican Church of Canada.

Dart’s understanding of Anglicanism is, to say the least, idiosyncratic. He would have us believe that it did not start “with King Henry’s overactive glands.” No, it began over a thousand years earlier and “since then, has been deeply Celtic, firmly Catholic, thoroughly Reformed, generously Liberal, eagerly Evangelical and openly Charismatic.” The only plausible way to read this list is chronologically, that is, as a succession of characteristics describing Christianity in England. How figures such as Bede, Edward the Confessor, and John Henry Newman might fit, we must leave to one side.

The defenselessness of High or Red Toryism to the siren song of the radical left is on open display in the first section of Dart’s book. Two of the four chapters of this section are devoted to recounting the insights of Noam Chomsky and the last to comparing George Grant to the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Perhaps there are some surface-level affinities here. Chomsky is preternaturally devoted to finding perfidy in every feature of American politics, as are many Canadians, Ron Dart obviously among them. And, yes, there is a plaintive cry in both Grant’s Lament for a Nation and Ginsberg’s Howl, but to the same end? No. There we cannot follow the author.

One great impediment to the argument presented here is that this is remarkably difficult book to read. Turns of phrase such as “the Tory party at prayer,” are not nearly as original or witty as the author seems to think, and certainly not after appearing dozens of times in the book. I found sentences repeated almost verbatim between chapters. It ranges well beyond what might be useful in such a treatise. Must we, near the end of the book, take time to compare Stephen Leacock, the Canadian economist and humorist, to T.S. Eliot? The author would have done better to follow the lead of George Grant who wrote much more terse, narrowly focused books.

What is one to make of this book? The topic is an excellent one, especially as the critics of liberalism mount on the right. Critics like Patrick Deneen, or proponents of  integralist views such as Adrien Vermeule’s Common Good Constitutionalism, would do well to look towards a tradition that had real political clout. Ron Dart traces the political legacy of the High Tories from Sir John A. Macdonald, the first Prime Minister, to John Diefenbaker. That is almost a full century. Is there anything like that influence of a pre-liberal tradition in America? On the other hand, the “red” elements of this tradition are exactly the types of concerns that partisans of the American Constitution raise against Deneen, Vermeule, and others. Just try getting to church or crossing national and provincial borders in Canada in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic under the strictures of “the common good.” As Orwell could tell you, a snowshoe stamping on the face of humanity is still a boot to the face.