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A dangerous crack is spreading across the Conservative Party windshield Print E-mail
Written by Link Byfield   
Thursday, 06 November 2008
Link Byfield

Now that the federal election is over, there’s something that “economic conservatives” should consider. The five-year-old coalition that won them a strengthened minority last month is already starting to crumble.

They seem unaware that many “social conservatives” are beginning to heartily detest the Conservative Party of Canada. It’s not just that the party ignores them. It actually now opposes them.

In the lead-up to the election, Harper first scuttled Ken Epp’s innocuous fetal-protection bill after years of difficult toil, and then – even worse – solemnly vowed to suppress pro-life activity in the new Parliament. These were a harder slap in the face than anything social conservatives suffered from Jean Chretien.

So an exodus of social conservatives has begun, and if Harper does nothing to end it soon, a large chunk of his base will inevitably disappear. Some will return to the Liberals, a few will go into exile with the Christian Heritage Party, but most will probably just stop voting.

Social conservatives have been double-crossed before, first by the Liberals and then by the (pre-Harper) Progressive Conservatives. Both parties courted social conservative votes, only then to oppose their proposals, however modest.

It’s easy to drive the social conservatives out if that’s the strategy. But who do the economic conservatives imagine will replace them?
 
In my view, this is a strategic mistake for the Conservative Party, just as it was for the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives.

Social conservatives are easy to ignore, but they comprise 10% to 20% of the electorate. Contrary to their media image, they are quiet. They pray quietly, work quietly, and quietly give more generously to charity than any other group. They quietly take their kids to church on Sunday instead of jogging or sleeping in. And they quietly but seriously disagree with abortion, gay marriage and the whole ideology of moral progress.

It’s impossible, really, to plot social conservatives on the right-to-left political scale we have all been taught by the progressive left to use. The scale doesn’t work.

In reality, there are three distinct sides in politics, not two.

Which of the following statements do you think is true?

These are distilled principles, and when we see them standing there, isolated and naked, we feel a strong urge to modify them – blend and balance them – knit them together. And so we should. All the same, they are the opposing corners of a triangle within which we all live and move.

triangle graphic

In Corner A we find economic conservatives and libertarians. Stephen Harper is firmly among them. The most extreme among them are nonreligious or anti-religious. They believe government’s main job (or only job) is to defend private property, national borders and open trade.

Corner B belongs to the progressive liberals and socialists – everyone from Joe Clark to Pierre Trudeau to Jack Layton. They can be moral progressives or economic progressives or both. They believe the role of the state is to care for individuals and shape society.

Milling around in Corner C, unhappy and defensive, are all us pro-family, pro-church social conservatives. We believe that the task of the state is to dispense justice, denounce vice, and encourage virtue among free citizens. We believe God’s rules don’t change: abortion is homicide and gay marriage is a fraud.

Nobody (at least nobody sane) occupies the extreme corners of the triangle. Most of us, whichever corner we favour, situate ourselves somewhere closer to the middle – which, given the shape of triangles, draws us closer to positions we don’t like but must tolerate.

Politicians learn very soon they can’t win a majority from their own preferred corner, so they have to make friends in one of the others, even though they don’t really agree with it. It’s a discipline of the trade.

The other thing they learn, sometimes painfully, is that it’s impossible to find or occupy the exact centre of the triangle; they end up rejected by all. This attempt to be all things to all men was the fatal flaw of “progressive conservatism.”

Now if, like Harper, your basic bottom line is “smaller government,” you have to decide whether you will get more agreement from the big-state progressives grouped around Paul Martin, Bob Rae, Greenpeace, Planned Parenthood and a thousand professional consultants and government-funded cause-pleaders, or from the religious conservatives who belong to organized faiths and underfunded pro-life groups.

The more you compromise with one side, the more you will alienate the other.

Some will say, “Yes, I’m an economic conservative, but socially I’m progressive.” Uh-huh. But so were John Turner, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, and somehow government hasn’t shrunk. Progressivism in any form swells the state.

If you really do want “limited government” you are in fact closer – much closer – to the social conservatives. They have learned to distrust the state as much as you have, but for quite different reasons – reasons having a lot to do with the will of God as they perceive it, and not much to do with taxes. Jesus said it’s good to pay taxes.

Harper prominently espoused an alliance of the two conservative camps five years ago, to bring the social conservatives back in after the Progressive Conservatives drove them out. It worked.

Well, let’s be clear. Most Canadians do not see “lower taxes” as their main political object. So before the party trashes the union that returned it to power, economic conservatives should carefully assess if they'll get “limited government” more easily from the social conservatives than from the “unlimited government” progressives.

Do they really want a “Conservative Party,” or the “Progressive Liberal Conservative Socialist Party”? Because they’re headed for the second one.

Link Byfield is an Alberta senator-elect and chairman of the Citizens Centre. The Centre promotes the principles of personal freedom and responsible government.

 
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