Politics all the way down

COYNE: Stop crediting the Tories with scruples they show no sign of possessing

Politics all the way down
Pawel Dwulit/CP

The story is told of the farmer who had an axe: a fine, handsome axe, of which he was very fond. Why, it had been in his family for generations. Mind you, over the years they’d had to replace the head twice and the handle three times, but to the farmer it was still the same axe his grandad split logs with.

The reaction to the Conservatives’ now extensive history of replacing their principles with something more convenient strikes me as similar. After each abrupt reversal of field, each casual discarding of the principles of a lifetime, the discussion centres on how hard this decision must have been for the Tories, how it “went against their principles.”

Yes, there’s nothing quite as hard as expediency, is there? Someday, historians will write about those Tory ministers who, under pressure, had the courage to do the wrong thing. Still, after so many such examples, it might occur to someone that these are their principles: not the ones they are presumed to have, based on past statements, but the ones they actually practice.

I’m not just talking about the party membership, the long-suffering Conservative base, who seem willing to put up with just about anything. I’m talking about the media. No matter how many times the Tories kit themselves out with new convictions, opposed to the old, the commentariat still cling to the belief that, in fact, it’s still the same axe.

This is a remarkable feat. Stephen Harper’s Tories can run $56-billion deficits, raise spending to all-time record levels, and grease every Conservative riding with layers of pork; they can abandon Afghanistan, coddle Quebec, and adopt the NDP approach to foreign investment; and still there exists in people’s minds another Conservative party, somewhere, for whom these policies are anathema.

I suppose it’s possible these other Conservatives exist in theory, as a kind of Platonic ideal form. And so the principles commonly ascribed to them may also be said to exist, as abstractions. But if they never actually act on them, of what real-world significance are they? How is it meaningful to talk about them?

Perhaps there may once have been this great tension between Harper In Reality and the Harper Who May Exist in Theory, wrestling with each other over every great decision. Probably it was a struggle, jettisoning long-held convictions for short-term political gain—the first couple of times. But after the 50th or 60th time I can’t imagine he even notices. So we should stop pretending he does: stop crediting the Tories with scruples they show no outward sign of possessing.

It’s not as if this is anything new, after all. The Tories have been signalling their disdain for principled politics for—well, since their founding, or indeed before. The lesson the party’s leadership drew from the Reform-Alliance experience was not that these parties had been undisciplined or ill-led, but that they had been too radical, too honest, too principled. And the lesson they had absorbed from the Liberals’ success was the corollary. So: make no promises, if you can, or if you must make some, do not be bound by them, or indeed by anything else. And now we have two such parties.

The consequence of all this realpolitik, oddly, is more or less to make politics extinct in this country, or at least redundant. The forms are maintained, the rituals are observed, but without purpose or urgency, the kind that motivates activists and inspires voters. To be perfectly clear: absolutely nothing is at stake in Canadian politics. There is no clash of visions, no conflict of values, because neither party has any. Nothing is riding, therefore, on the outcome of any election. It simply does not matter who wins.

Well, it does, but not in any way that is relevant to the voter: that is, whatever policies a given party or leader might enact after the election, in response to whatever random events or pressure groups, they must remain an impenetrable mystery before the election, or indeed at any time until the moment they are enacted. The analogy here would be with the stock market: it obviously matters what stocks you own, but you’ve no way of knowing how they will perform in advance. You might as well pick them at random. Likewise, I defy anyone to predict what the Conservatives—or Liberals—would do on any given issue. Certainly nothing they say or do beforehand should be taken as evidence of anything. Therefore no one who is not actually paid to follow politics should pay it any serious attention. It is not worth your time, except as a diversion.

I admit I have been as reluctant to admit this as anyone. My whole career has been based on the proposition that somewhere, under all the insults and lying and general bad behaviour that makes up the bulk of political life, there was some genuine issue at stake: that if you could just strip away the politics, you would eventually get to the policy. It has taken me all these years to understand that, no, it’s just politics all the way down.