Ernest Manning And George Grant: Who Is The Real Conservative?

Posted on Tuesday, February 10 at 12:00 by sthompson
The 1960s in Canada (and in many other parts of the world) were an unsettling and turbulent time. Much was up for redefinition. Two important political tracts for the times were written, in Canada, in the 1960s: Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965)and Political Realignment: A Challenge to Thoughtful Canadians (1967). As we briefly unpack and unravel these missives, we will get a feel for how Canadians have, in our history, understood the meaning of conservatism in different ways. It is as these two traditions lived in tension, there was some degree of political health. It is as these two traditions have fragmented, the republican brand of conservatism has redefined Canadian conservatism in a right of centre manner.

George Grant and Ernest Manning were the authors of these political missives, and the impact of these texts linger with us to this day. Grant’s Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965) stirred and awoke a generation of political theorists and activists to ponder the fate and future of Canadian nationalism in a new and more demanding way. It is interesting to note that Lament for a Nation made quite an appeal to the New Left in Canada. This raises some interesting questions for Canadian conservatism. Grant emerged from the Tory wing of conservatism, and his ‘Tory touch’ evoked much in the New Left. Most assume conservatism is the opposite of the political left. Is it, though? What is it about the ‘Tory touch’ in Canadian conservatism that nudges it toward some affinities with the political left?

Manning’s Political Realignment: A Challenge to Thoughtful Canadians (1967) also claimed to speak from a conservative place. Political Realignment, in many ways, proposed a very different vision for Canada than Grant. Manning interpreted conservatism much more through the lens of the American republican tradition. Manning’s tract for the times very much appealed to the political and economic right on the political spectrum. Manning and Grant, Grant and Manning? Who are the real conservatives? Let us, all too briefly, ponder some of these issues.

Manning was the premier in Alberta (our most American of all provinces) for twenty-four years. Ernest Manning, in the acknowledgments to Political Realignment, said, ‘Particularly do I wish to express my appreciation to my son Preston who researched much of the material contained herein…’ Political Realignment is divided into six sections: 1.The Need for Reorganization, 2) Elements Required to Rationalize Federal Party Politics, 3) A Rationalized Two Party Federal Political System, 4) The Social Conservative Position, 5) A Possible Vehicle for the Reorganization of Federal Party Politics in Canada and 6) Conclusion. Most of this political tract for the times (it’s less than 100 pages) is an assault on the Federal government, an apologia for liberty and freedom on a variety of economic levels, a turning to the American republican tradition for a model and a distaste and abhorrence for anything left of the political centre. A sort of cynicism about the two major political parties and the inability of federal politics to deliver much of substance is the constant refrain and chorus in this text that was timed to be published 100 years after Confederation. Political Realignment became, for many in the 1960s, the conservative manifesto of the time. And, it was from such a manifesto that Ernest Manning’s son, Preston Manning, would start the Reform/Alliance party. The new Conservative party in Canada is very much a child, in many ways, of Ernest Manning’s brand of republican conservatism, and Political Realignment is the sacred text of such a clan. Needless to say, American republicans would be most pleased by Manning’s tract.

Lament for a Nation was written to lament the defeat of Diefenbaker in the 1963 election. Lester Pearson played nicely into President Kennedy’s hands, and Kennedy was pleased with him. Much of the history of the Liberal party in Canada has been a history of finding ways and means to integrate and annex Canada to the empire to the south of us. Diefenbaker dared to oppose the Camelot crowd in Washington, and he felt the wrath of Kennedy for doing so. Lament for a Nation, like Political Realignment, is a small book, but much is packed into the few pages that walks a very different path than the trail Manning has hiked down. Grant, unlike Manning, argued that historic Canadian Toryism was about building a strong and free True North, and the role of the Federal government was to provide for the commonweal or commonwealth of this nation. It was also the role of the Federal government to keep the Yankees and Uncle Sam at bay. Tory Canadians, Grant argued, have been, from the founding of this nation, suspicious of the liberty loving Americans to the south of us. We have been more concerned with order, justice and good government rather than life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This was the vision of Sir J.A. Macdonald and the best of the Conservative tradition, Grant pointed out in the clearest way. It was conservatives, Grant argued, that created such important national institutions as the CBC, Bank of Canada, CNR and Ontario Hydro. Conservatives, in short, are not for privatization, deregulation and a perpetual wariness of Ottawa. Lament for a Nation is a historic, political and philosophic unpacking of the differences between conservatism and liberalism (both in Canada and the USA). Grant, in fact, argues that socialism is more conservative than liberalism. ‘Yet what is socialism, if it is not the use of the government to restrain greed in the name of the social good? In actual fact, socialism has always had to advocate inhibition in this respect. In doing so, was it not appealing to the conservative idea of social order against the liberal idea of freedom?’ p.72). Grant is suggesting, unlike Manning, that a firmer and stronger state (that promotes and protects the common good)is more in the spirit of conservatism. We can see why Grant’s understanding of tory conservatism (and its affinity with socialism) had an appeal to the New Left in the 1960s.

Who then is the real conservative? Grant or Manning? Manning seeks to conserve American republican notions such as the rights of the individual, the competitive nature of the marketplace, lighter taxes and lighter government. Grant seeks to conserve the rights of the common good and the nation, limit the exploitive power of the marketplace, tax well and fair so each and all will have access to the basic goods of this state. Manning seeks to conserve such liberal principles as liberty, individuality, choice and agency, whereas Grant seeks to conserve such tory principles as order, the commonweal and a limiting of choice so the goods of the nation can be equitibly distributed. Republican conservatism seeks to conserve liberal principles, and such liberal principles as liberty and individuality are rather new notions in the human journey. Tory conservatism seeks to conserve much older notions of the organic nature of society, the classical notion of the good and responsibilities of one and all to contribute to the commonweal at both the level of society and the state.

Who then is the real conservative? Grant or Manning? Much hinges on what is trying to be conserved. There is no doubt, though, that both brands of conservatism are part and parcel of the Canadian political psyche and soul. And, there is no doubt that Grant’s brand of conservatism is deeper and older than Manning’s brand of conservatism, and it is Grant’s type of tory conservatism that has played a significant role in the shaping and making of Canada.

Just a short comment by way of conclusion. William Aberhart was Premier of Alberta before Ernest Manning, and Aberhart’s Social Credit party was seen as conservative by many. Stephen Leacock (probably the finest political theorist and literary humorist Canada has produced) travelled to Western Canada in the 1930s, and his book, My Discovery of the West (1937) pondered the politics of western Canada. Leacock, like Grant, was a tory conservative. Aberhart, like Manning, was a republican conservative. Needless to say, Leacock had little good to say about the conservatism of the Social Credit and Aberhart.

Who then are the real conservatives? Leacock and Grant or Aberhart and Manning? I think the answer is obvious the more we understand the political difference between American and Canadian intellectual history.

Professor Ron Dart teaches in the department of Political Science/ Philosophy/Religious Studies at University College of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, BC. He is the author of The Red Tory Tradition: Ancient Roots, New Routes (1999).

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