09w18:2 All Eyes on Ignatieff (2005)

by timothy. 4 Comments

All eyes on Ignatieff

Peter C. Newman
National Post

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Now that Paul Martin has recognized there exists a middle ground between shooting from the hip and rigor mortis, and has finally begun to act like a prime minister, the review of his leadership at next week’s Liberal convention is a predictable formality.

The real star at the gathering will be Michael Ignatieff, who has been asked to deliver the keynote address. Given the pivotal role he may eventually come to play within the party, the attention will be richly deserved.

The Toronto-born academic has taught at Cambridge University, l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris, as well as St. Anthony’s College at Oxford, and is currently a tenured professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He has written half a dozen defining books on ethnic nationalism and the moral imagination. But unlike most intellectuals, he has also ventured into fiction. His book Scar Tissue was nominated for the Booker Prize, while Charlie Johnson in the Flames has been compared to thrillers by Graham Greene and Len Deighton. His current projects include a book on Canada, which will follow the trail blazed by his great-grandfather George Munro Grant, the great principal of Queen’s University.

Ignatieff’s speech will be of interest not only because of the insights he is expected to offer on the prospects for a world in turmoil. Some senior party strategists have convinced themselves he might be persuaded to run for the leadership once Paul Martin decides to seek calmer pastures.

Significantly, it was Martin himself who recommended that Prof. Ignatieff address the convention on the theme of “Liberalism in the 21st Century.”

So far, switching careers is not part of Prof. Ignatieff’s life plan, but he doesn’t recoil in horror when the same idea is mentioned, as Pierre Trudeau did when the subject was first broached in 1967. Certainly, the aura of great things hangs about the man: A far-sighted TV crew is following his footsteps as he researches a new book, modelled on Alexis de Tocqueville’s epic journey across the United States 150 years ago.

If this still hypothetical but entirely plausible manoeuvre succeeds, it would be very much in keeping with the masterful strategy that has kept the Liberal party in power longer than any other democratic political movement in history. Unlike Conservatives, who seem to choose leaders by drawing straws, the Liberals take a more systematic approach. The eight candidates who have assumed command of the Governing Party since the 1919 leadership convention demonstrate a pattern: Liberal kingmakers often ignore the clamouring of ambitious Cabinet members and opt instead to pluck from obscurity an untried but inspiring outsider.

That’s political sorcery of the highest order. Instead of having to defend the corruption and patronage of the ancien regime, the freshly-minted leader can innocently declare: “Who me? What Sponsorship Scandal? This is moi, a new guy with new ideas.”

Thus does discontinuity rule.

The pattern began with Mackenzie King, the Party’s patron saint, still worshipped for turning Liberalism into Canada’s state religion. At the 1919 leadership convention, his main opponent was William Stevens Fielding, who had been a successful minister of finance in Wilfrid Laurier’s 1896 cabinet and was considered Laurier’s natural successor. Instead, delegates voted for King, then deputy minister of labour, who had briefly sat as a Liberal backbencher 10 years earlier, but left to become a consultant. A spooky bachelor who was so fastidious that he travelled with six spare shoe laces, he led the Liberals into office two years later, and kept them there for most of the next three (eternal) decades.

In 1948, when it came time for Mr. King to prepare his departure, Jimmy Gardiner and Chubby Power were the party regulars in line to grab the brass ring. Instead, Mr. King went outside his circle to recruit Louis St. Laurent, a Quebec City corporate lawyer, and manoeuvred the 1948 Liberal leadership convention to assure his victory. Ten years later, Paul Martin Sr., father of the current PM, was the obvious insiders’ choice. But the delegates selected Lester Bowles Pearson, a political neophyte who’d been a life-long public servant.

The transition that followed tested the outsider pattern with a vengeance. In 1968, when Mike Pearson felt ready to retire, nine candidates ran to succeed him, including Robert Winters, a handsome M.I.T. graduate who had served with distinction in the St. Laurent Cabinet before becoming one of Canada’s most powerful corporate bigwigs. Instead, the Liberals opted for Monsieur Trudeau, the ultimate party outsider, a man who only a few years earlier had been a member of the NDP, attacking the government for its nuclear-friendly defence policies. The convention delegates recognized in Trudeau the philosopher-king who could salvage their party, and he did.

Former Justice Minister John Turner was next up in 1984, having turned himself into an outsider a decade earlier, when he suddenly resigned from the Trudeau Cabinet to practise law in Toronto. Jean Chretien’s succession in 1990 similarly followed his resignation from the Commons in 1986 to follow Turner into the hedonistic hollows of Bay Street. Likewise, Paul Martin, Jr. became a nominal and temporary outsider when he was fired from his finance portfolio by Chretien. (In truth, though, he is the exception that proves the rule.)

Given his lack of expressed interest in the job — and the fact he has put down strong roots in the United States — Ignatieff has as great a claim to outsider status as any of these men. He follows closely in the Trudeau mould: a charming and distinguished academic who would endow the crumbling Liberal party with a sense of purpose and the excitement that comes with fresh ideas. Even those untutored Liberal apparatchiks who think charisma is a brand of French perfume will recognize his magnetism, and feel it when he evokes his vision of Canada’s Liberal future.

Ignatieff could be just the man for our time. Canada’s most serious dilemma is not the calamitous state of our health-care system, nor the dithering of our PM, or our growing irrelevance on the world stage. It is the belief among ordinary citizens that they can no longer change things through the political process.

Because democratic activism forms the core of Prof. Ignatieff’s writing and thinking, he might –once he has served his political apprenticeship — turn out to be the ideal successor to Mr. Martin.

During the decade-long Chretien-Martin feud, Canada’s public life became legalized mayhem. Michael Ignatieff’s divine mission, should he choose to accept it, will be to restore the civility, trust and vitality that give birth to creative politics. Next week’s convention will be his proving ground. (National Post 2005)

The speech Ignatieff gave is transcribed in Goodreads Special Content. – Timothy

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