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Manitoba History: Review: Charles Taylor, Radical Tories: The Conservative Tradition in Canada

by Patricia Jasen
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 7, Spring 1984

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Radical Tories: The Conservative Tradition in Canada. Charles Taylor. Toronto: Anansi, 1982. 231 pp. ISBN 0-88784-096-5.

Radical Tories is one man’s personal quest for the world we have lost. Unhappy with the legacies of Liberal continentalism and cold-blooded, present-minded, “technocratic politics,” distressed by the pettiness of our political life and unable to align himself with the hucksters in the Conservative party, Charles (son of E. P.) Taylor explores the possibility that a more humane and truly Canadian conservatism may still survive.

To be “radical” means to get back to the root of something, and this is what Taylor is trying to do in Radical Tories. He draws upon the notion of a golden age of Burkean conservatism in Canadian public life and, relying mainly on Donald Creighton’s analysis, he exposes the betrayal of MacDonald’s tory vision by the Liberal party and by the liberal historians’ “Authorized Version” of post-Confederation history. This book adds little to the tiresome contest between the myth-makers in the conservative and liberal camps, and contributes to the bankruptcy of these political labels in the present day. Taylor’s uses of the words “liberal” and “conservative” are entirely arbitrary. No tory is a real tory unless he is “my kind of tory,” and in his definition of conservatism he seeks to absorb all that is humane from the traditions of both liberalism and socialism.

Although he says that he began with few preconceptions about the kind of tory he was looking for, the studies of individual conservatives reveal that he had definite qualities in mind. The association with things British is clear. How else could he be deceived that W.L. Morton looked more like a “yeoman” than an academic? How else could he be awestruck by the Manitoba Legislature? (“My God, it is stupendous! ... it’s Buckingham Palace surmounted by St. Paul’s Cathedral.”) He is convinced that an attachment to the land and an interest in one’s ancestors are singularly tory traits. Possessing these, Al Purdy is labelled a conservative despite his protestation that he is “a hazy socialist ... an NDP type.” Taylor has read his Horowitz and makes much of the idea that it is tories, not liberals, who have a social conscience and a sense of community. But as an ardent follower of Burke, he is able to explain that conservatives can embrace the welfare state because they believe in the mutual obligations among all classes. A capitalist, by the way, is a right-wing liberal, never a true conservative. For Taylor, one of the tory’s most engaging qualities is that unlike the liberal technocrat he is passionate, he has “heart.” The ideal conservative emerges looking very much like the Dickensian gentleman.

Anti-Americanism is an unpleasant trait which several of Taylor’s men shared. Creighton’s racism disturbed him when it was aimed at Quebecois or blacks (“All those ranks of grinning, idiot, black faces at the United Nations”), but his “incredible dislike and hatred” of the American people was quite acceptable. The author celebrates his own loathing of the United States and, even though one understands that his attitude is coloured by his Vietnam experience, his failure to distinguish between the American government and the dissenting voices of so many individual Americans is a sad reflection upon the tory mind.

Much of the material in Radical Tories is drawn from personal interviews with famous men who say interesting and sometimes outrageous things. For this reason the book is entertaining. But one does not have to be a liberal, a continentalist, or an admirer of our uses of technology to find much of what Taylor passes off as passionate social concern to be both anachronistic and unpalatable.

Page revised: 27 October 2012

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