Despite a few accusations to the contrary, I’m a conservative. I don’t think government is the solution to every challenge; I believe in the importance of individual freedom; I value our traditions and institutions; and I think the best judge of how to spend my money is me. In Canada, this makes me a Tory, at least notionally.
But here’s the problem: I also support gay rights. I believe immigration makes this country strong. I think climate change is real and needs to be addressed. And I don’t care if you want to smoke weed. You would think these would be natural conservative values—if you believe in personal freedom, shouldn’t that include who you can love and what you can smoke? And surely prudently protecting our environment is the essence of being “conservative”? Unfortunately, several candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada don’t just disagree—they actively oppose these values.
This reflects a central tension in conservative movements around the world. In the least nuanced way, this is described as being a struggle between social conservatives and libertarians. In Canada we use labels lifted from two now dead parties, one side of this ideological battle are called “Reformers”, and the others are “Progressive Conservatives”. It’s not quite so clean cut, of course; and in truth, many of the leadership candidates have taken a little from Column A, and a little from Column B. But, overall, there is no question the CPC skidded out of the last election, swerved right, and crashed into the socon ditch.
My last column, entitled “Confessions of a self-loathing Tory”, complained that the Conservatives had grown so acute I was beginning to wonder if we needed a new party, one that accurately reflected the values of all those Canadians who, like me, describe themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially moderate”.
Apparently, I am not the only one asking this question. Over the last few days I have received over a thousand emails, phone calls and messages from Canadians in every province and territory who share my dismay with the direction the party is taking, and wonder what they can do about it.
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Their responses are remarkably similar: these are voters utterly disenchanted with the direction of the Conservative Party. They want a smaller government, but they aren’t willing to abandon facts or compassion to get there. And they are tired of supporting a party that tolerates racism, climate change deniers and populist clowns. As one person wrote me: “Every day, it gets harder and harder to defend the party to my friends and family.”
In my column I proposed organizing three dinners, in Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal, to spark a conversation about the current values of the party. I’ll be honest—I wasn’t optimistic that anyone would be interested in joining me. But the response was immediate and overwhelming. In fact, we had to quickly set up a website (newconservatives.ca) to handle them all. So far over 1,200 people have signed up, and we have expanded the dinners to include Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Halifax.
Not everyone is supportive, however. Some party members, pundits, and even one of the leadership contenders dismissed my criticisms as those of a crypto-Liberal. What they strangely don’t understand is that you don’t have to be a big-government, social-engineering Liberal to believe in climate change, gay rights, or immigration. And, if these Conservatives still insist on labeling these values as “Liberal”, they are committing political suicide. Just ask all the people who are joining us for dinner.
Other conservatives have called me “disloyal”, suggesting debates like this should not be held in the open. This criticism is the hardest to fathom, but suffice to say, I will never support a party that is too frightened, or too controlling, to allow transparent debate.
More reasonably, there have also been concerns that if the political right splits, it would take us back to 2003 and keep the Liberals in power indefinitely. Perhaps it is too soon to be talking about starting a new political party. Regardless, the first question should be, “Does the CPC still reflect the values of moderate conservatives, and if not, can it change?” But if the party can’t move back to the centre, that will also ensure the Liberals stay in office for a very long time.
So here is the plan. Because of the huge response from you, the readers, I’m going on a national tour this month. There are several people now helping me to find some great venues, and organize these dinners. We’ll be joined by a few of Canada’s smartest writers and political researchers. Odds are, we are going to be coming to your town—so join us. Go to the New Conservatives website, sign up, and we’ll be sending your invitation shortly.
This is a great country. It got that way because every once in a while people just like you cleared their throats and asked, “Can’t we do better?” These dinners will give us an opportunity to do just that. Some interesting things might happen, and I look forward to hearing what you have to say.
Scott Gilmore is a member of the Conservative Party, and married to a Liberal Cabinet member.