“The first study of a statesman,” Edmund Burke observed, “must be the temper of the people,” what Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls “the fundamental values and understanding of Canadians.” On the surface, Burke continued, public opinion simply involves complaints over the loss of an allegedly glorious past and extravagant hope for the future. But complaints and hopes, Burke said, are not the cause of any present discontents because complaints and hopes are always there.
Canadian politics have been shaped by statesmen: Macdonald, of course, but also Laurier and Mackenzie King. They could see beyond appearances and yet make rhetorical appeals to appearances to move the temper of the people towards successful change. Our statesmanlike prime ministers were partisan, but not just partisan. The statesmanship of Macdonald and Laurier is almost self-evident. Mackenzie King, so odd in so many ways, still laid the foundations for a regime that echoes in the partisan proposals of Justin Trudeau.
The point about statesmanship, Burke reminds us, is not whether one agrees with, say, the National Policy of Macdonald, or Mackenzie King’s wartime conscription policy. With statesmen, we overlook the irritations and complaints that can be directed at individuals and their often unsavoury associates and appreciate that they built better than they knew.
Inevitably, statesmen are followed by partisans. Party government replaces the greatness of statesmen with something more ordinary. Parties allow human beings to organize themselves for action around reliable, and often abstract, principles. In contrast, statesmen appear to be unreliable, especially to partisans. Besides, statesmen are not always available.
To see what is at stake in this election, which is a question separate from who might win, consider Stephen Harper to be the fourth statesman to appear in the century and a half of our history. Here, Burke is a reliable guide.
If properly informed, and not distorted and inflamed by their imagination, people’s feelings, Burke said, express their interests. The political face of interest requires the prudent rhetoric of a statesman who points out to the people what they already cherish. Such common sense and tradition, in Burke’s view, were almost always virtuous and reasonable, not vicious and arbitrary.
In that context, consider the words and deeds of Stephen Harper. He has said the election is not about him but about “cold, hard choices.” Canadians will vote not “on their read of personalities” but “on what they think is really in their own interests.” Those interests include lower, not higher, taxes and freer trade with the rest of the world in order to benefit consumers rather than a privileged group of chicken, cheese and milk-producing quota-holders.
That he would revoke the citizenship of dual nationals convicted of terrorist offences, protects, as Raheel Raza said, Canadian Muslims “from the worst elements within our own community.” Likewise Harper’s remarks on the inappropriateness of wearing the niqab for a major political event are nothing but the affirmation of a reasonable tradition that Canadians cherish. Reading the op-ed letters page in Canadian newspapers indicates the temper of Canadians on the matter. If Zunera Ishaq is uncomfortable in public without the niqab, reasonable persons might ask, whose obligation is it to rectify that? Or as Harper said, his critics are “fearmongering” about the niqab because they are “so offside” with the temper of Canadians.
In short, Stephen Harper is a rare statesman because he has made significant changes in accord with the temper of Canadians. The election will decide whether we return to ordinary “fearmongering” party government or enable the Conservatives to add to what they have already accomplished.
Barry Cooper is a professor of political science at the University of Alberta.