Michael Ignatieff, being a man of letters and cultivated intelligence, is quite likely familiar with George Dangerfield’s 1935 classic book, The Strange Death of Liberal England.
The years before, during and after the First World War, swallowed up the British Liberal Party in a “strange death,” strange because of “the approaching catastrophe of which the actors were unaware.”
Now, peering into the electoral abyss at the end of a campaign Mr. Ignatieff and his party so resolutely sought, Liberals might be witnessing their own “strange death,” or at least a new stage of political deterioration that spells the end of Liberal Canada.
Liberal Canada lasted a long time, from the election of Wilfrid Laurier in 1896 to Pierre Trudeau’s departure in 1984. A recovery ensued under Jean Chrétien for almost a decade starting in 1993, but the conservative forces were foolishly divided in those years and the Liberals themselves were corrosively split into two factions that time eventually made devastatingly public in the sponsorship scandal.
Liberal Canada’s singular contribution had been to keep French Quebeckers and other Canadians united in one country. In retrospect, the 1981-1982 patriation of the Constitution, engineered brilliantly by Mr. Trudeau, weakened that bridge by turning many francophones away from the Liberals. In reinforcing a country, he lost a large part of a province for his party.
The Liberals have not won a majority of Quebec’s seats in a general election since 1980, and now they’re reduced to a shrunken harvest of largely non-francophone voters. They are the party, honourably, that stands for a strong central government in a province that doesn’t want one.
Liberals thought they could count on the immigrant communities for whom Mr. Trudeau and his legacy were so popular. But when the Harper Conservatives began contesting some of those communities with sustained attention, changed policies and repeated blandishments, even this pillar of the shrunken Liberal coalition, already weakened by the long-ago departure of Western Canada and the more recent disaffection of Quebec, began to shake.
So, too, Liberals were being ousted from the industrial and northern cities of Ontario they had dominated for so long. And for a party that had pioneered protection for the official languages, they were even losing ground in French-speaking areas outside Quebec, such as Acadia, Eastern Ontario and St. Boniface.
The arching coalition of Liberal Canada, therefore, had been shrivelling for years, even if “the actors were unaware” of the unfolding decline. Mr. Ignatieff and his advisers convinced themselves that the anti-democratic tactics of the Harper Conservatives and economic uncertainties post-recession had made the electorate ready for a change, although there was little evidence of such a readiness.
As a student of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Mr. Ignatieff forgot the lessons of the Russian general Kutusov, who waited and waited for events to destroy Napoleon, refusing to give battle until the French had been weakened by their own follies sufficiently to be defeated in combat.
The “approaching catastrophe” wasn’t what Mr. Ignatieff and his advisers had in mind when they precipitated an election the country mostly didn’t want. That they might be replaced by the NDP as the alternative to the Conservatives never crossed their minds, for when had that party climbed above 20 per cent in the polls?
They were confident that the more the country saw of Mr. Ignatieff, the more they’d admire him. But the reverse occurred, and some of those who couldn’t abide the Harper Conservatives turned to Jack Layton, who’d been around for almost a decade as NDP Leader and who kept repeating much of what he always said, a threat no Liberal took seriously until it was far too late.
Defeat will mean less public money and fewer private contributions. It will cost the party MPs, morale and purpose. Liberals have burned through three leaders in six years, convened a policy conference, tried campaigns of bold ideas and less courageous ones, and now can only recall through the mists of memory a time when there was a Liberal Canada.