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Liberal Renewal: A Time to Propose Not Merely Oppose

Toward a Return to Radical Liberalism
Beryl P. Wajsman 1 February 2006

“I am a liberal of the British school. I am a disciple of Burke, Fox, Bright, Gladstone, and of the other Little Englanders who made Great Britain and its possessions what they are.”

~Henri Bourassa


“Somehow liberals have been unable to acquire from life what conservatives seem to be endowed with at birth: namely, a healthy skepticism of the powers of government agencies to do good.”

~ Daniel Patrick Moynihan


Among the reasons so many potential candidates have decided not to enter the Liberal leadership race is that they have no real fidelity to the idea of liberalism. And that includes the outgoing Prime Minister. They engaged with the Liberal party because of family traditions; electoral expediency; or simply because it was a winning machine. The same way star athletes want to play with a championship team.


Now that all these factors have been rendered  meaningless by the regional breadth, if not the depth, of the most  dramatic electoral shift in a generation, they are left rudderless. They simply don’t know what brought them here in the first place. Power had always trumped principles. That was the raison d’être of the Natural Governing Party. Be all things to all people at all times at all costs. Just get the votes. With apologies to Karl Marx, that is not the small-l “liberal dialectic”. It is time for all good Liberals to go to re-education schools and understand what being liberal really means.


Industrial liberalism as we know it, both in its political and philosophical contexts, arose out of the aspirations of the newly emerging, and newly enfranchised, middle classes of the industrial revolutions of the mid-19th century. This new class served the needs of both the teeming agrarian masses flooding urban centers to work the new engines of industry; as well as the entrenched monied classes who financed these engines but did not, or could not, direct them.


For the former, the small merchants of the middle class provided the necessities of adapting to life in the new leviathan. For the latter, the new managers of this class provided the expertise to keep it moving. The economic and political clout of this new class grew rapidly. As did its frustrations. Its members kept hitting a ceiling that was not so much glass as brick.


As the wealthy grew wealthier and the privileged more powerful -  through the efforts of this new class – they refused to surrender any political or economic imperatives in return. An explosion was bound to come and come it did. Across Europe stormy and bloody confrontations marked the years from 1848-1858. These mini-revolutions failed. But their legacies created the hallmarks of a new political agenda.


Much as FDR forged the New Deal to drag the vested interests of his time toward reforms that would protect and stabilize a free, but failed, political economy teetering on the brink, so the vested interests of the 19th century came to accept the necessity of recognizing this new political agenda reflective of the aspirations of a new class that was now not only professional but political as well. It knew the secrets of the upper classes, and maintained the fidelity of the working classes it had helped to adapt.


For the many who, despite just grievances, felt the radical philosophies that were sweeping the world at the time too constricting and confining, the goals of industrial liberalism fit like a well made suit. It was a philosophy of liberation from the economic domination of the monied elites represented by conservatism, without replacing it with the philosophy of dictatorial fiats from the arrogant social engineers represented by socialism. Liberalism was the political manifestation of the transcendent yearning for redemptive change in which the liberty of each citizen would be constrained only by the demands of equal liberty for another.


No less a “radical” than Winston Churchill encapsulated the core of liberal priorities when he served as Minister of Social Welfare in the Liberal Asquith government in 1911.To raise people up from poverty. To reconcile private interests with public rights. To attack monopoly. To reward enterprise, but not with untrammeled privilege and preference. To exalt the individual over ruler or regulation. To expand freedom at home and abroad. This is our liberalism. This is the signature of our society.” Nothing more, nothing less. No one has said so well since.


Those words held as the keystone of liberal thought for every Liberal party in the western world for several generations. But something happened to the Liberals of Canada over the past twenty years. Instead of remaining loyal to the principles of political inclusion; the legal traditions of the equity of just consideration; and the expansion of economic opportunity; they chose the politics of division and exclusion; they chose to make of law a two-edged sword of craft and oppression; and hungrily became the subventors of corporate welfare and cheap pork-barrel vote grabbing schemes to the point where it reached almost one-third of our federal budget over the past thirteen years.


They got so caught up with power for power’s sake that they nearly destroyed the very fabric of our society. To balance off the money they were spending to get corporate financial support and the votes of any special interest group that made any degree of noise, they imposed massive tax burdens on the backs of the working men and women of this country. In their typical connivance, they tried to bamboozle Canadians by implementing politically correct nanny-state programs that intrude into every aspect of our lives. They kept saying it was for our own good. They knew how to run our personal lives better than we did. In truth it was nothing more than fodder for flyers for the next election. As Caesar said about Gaul so the federal Liberals have done to Canada. “They made a desert and called it peace.”


John Ibbitson has called the new Conservative government possibly the, “most principled caucus in recent Canadian history.” For the federal Liberal party to have any future meaning; for there to be any real chance at renewal; for it to find the courage to abandon its incestuous and reckless economic and statocratic policies; it must find the character to return to liberal principles and re-educate itself toward an understanding of the liberating philosophy that liberalism has been for most of the past century in most of the western world. The Liberal Party of Canada must re-discover its conscience, and resolve to engage in a radical transformation to free itself from the central control of arrogant elites into a broad national alliance forged from thousands of centres of creative energy and daring that working together will sweep down the last vestiges of injustice and inequity and restore this party as the oasis of hope for the millions that it has been in the past.



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