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True Patriot Liberal

Posted by padams under All, Political Strategy

Paul Adams

Paul Adams will be blogging the federal Liberal convention in Vancouver this week.

Liberals travelling from Central Canada to Vancouver for the party’s convention will be pleased to discover (as I did) that the flight offers more than enough time to read Michael Ignatieff’s new book, True Patriot Land.

The book sandwiches the story of his distinguished Canadian ancestors on his mother’s side between his own reflections on nationalism in general, and Canadian nationalism in particular.

Read as a purely political document (which in fairness, it is not), the book is not just an attempt to soften his image as a lifelong expatriate by emphasizing his Canadian roots. It is also aimed at re-staking the Liberal party’s claim to be the one, true wholly Canadian party. Ignatieff tries to re-inject energy into the Liberal national brand by reviving the good old-fashioned word “patriotism” – long in disuse here in Canada.

Michael Ignatieff has spent a significant portion of his life ruminating on the meaning of ethnicity and nationality, and their cousins, nationalism and patriotism. In fact, he can claim to be one of the two or three most important interpreters of the festival of nationalist rape and murder that followed the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.

His conclusion from the Balkan conflicts, simply put, was to reject ethnic nationalism but to embrace a civic nationalism, based on a set of common civic values, the rule of law, and tolerance of different ethnic, religious and linguistic traditions. Writing now about Canada, he emphasizes the role of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, for example, our social safety net, and our openness to diverse languages and cultures.

He also adds a vein of romanticism about the history and geography of the country – different from Jean Chrétien’s sentimental speeches about the grandeur of the Rockies mostly in its articulate expression. Finally he talks about the importance of a common hope and vision for a shared future.

Politically, it makes a lot of sense for Ignatieff to set his sights on reclaiming the Liberal Party’s role as the repository of national feeling. Having lost its grip on the West as early as 1957, and on much of Quebec way back in 1984, the Liberal Party has seen its claim on many ethnic and cultural communities slipping away as well. Far from being a “national” party, Stéphane Dion’s Liberals were truly competitive in only a little more than half the country in the 2008 election, and of course, carted away just over a quarter of the votes.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives had begun to develop an alternative nationalist vision, featuring a more robust military, a less multilateralist foreign policy, and a renewed commitment to the North among other things. For a while they seemed to be on their way to displacing the Liberals as the federalist alternative in Quebec, and they continue to chip away at the Liberals among many ethnic communities, including, notably, Jewish- and Chinese- Canadians, for example.

Michael Ignatieff’s Canadian patriotism, as he defines it in the book, is smart, modern, well-considered, and at the same time likely to evoke memories of the Liberals’ long-standing claim on Canadians’ sense of nationality.

However, that only takes us so far.

His book, like much of what he has said lately about Canada in other venues, surveys the country from such an Olympian perspective that it provides only vague clues as to what he hopes to do in government. In the book, he chews away at that hoariest of issues, interprovincial trade barriers, calls for an East-West energy grid, high-speed passenger trains in Central Canada and upgrades to the Trans-Canada Highway. All sensibly related to his Canadian “patriotism”, but well short of a program for government, or the shared vision of the future he talks about.

There is little clue in his book to his approach to the economy, beyond these infrastructure projects and a now-conventional mixture of market economics and modest government interventionism. There isn’t a word on global warming. Nor on Afghanistan – an issue about which he has apparently thought deeply, but on which his public pronouncements lately have been difficult to follow.

When Ignatieff became leader, there was a lot of talk about holding a “thinkers’ conference” to re-define Liberalism. He is, after all, a thinker himself, and his 2006 leadership campaign was awash with policy. (It was he, not Dion, for example, who resurrected the talk of a “carbon tax”, which has had toxic implications for the Liberal Party ever since Trudeau’s National Energy Policy).

But he decided — perhaps wisely from a tactical point of view — that a vigorous policy discussion among Liberals, followed by the adoption of hard policy planks, would give the Conservatives too much to shoot at. The Liberal convention this weekend in Vancouver will be practically uncontaminated with policy – unless Ignatieff brings it up.

But at some point, this weekend, this summer, or during a future election campaign, if Ignatieff’s current political momentum is to be sustained, he will need to leave the lofty heights of philosophy, romance and history, and tell us what it all means to those of us living down here on the ground. His political goals need not be as elaborated as Dion’s “Green Shift”, which ended up strangled in its own details.

But it will have to be more than he has given us so far.

Paul Adams, a former political correspondent for the CBC and Globe and Mail, is a member of Carleton’s journalism faculty and executive director of EKOS Research Associates. He is researching a book on the Liberal Party.