The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Monday, June 14, 2010

Red Is Not the Color of Toryism

The June 2, 2010 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press contained a tribute to the late Duff Roblin entitled “His love for Manitoba marked the province”. The author of this piece was Frances Russell. Russell, classy as ever, used the opportunity this article afforded her, to politicize our province’s time of mourning over the loss of a beloved statesman.

Russell’s remarks, however, were not just tasteless and inappropriate. They were also false, promoting a favorite myth of the Canadian progressive left. Here are the remarks in question:

Roblin was a Progressive Conservative in the full meaning of that term. He embraced British Red Toryism, not the libertarian conservatism Canada recently imported from the U.S.

Today's Canadian Conservatives represent free market forces, rampant individualism and punitive intolerance towards what they regard as social and moral misbehaviour. Society is a jungle where the fittest survive; government merely sets the rules and gets out of the way. Too bad for those who can't make it. They're on their own.

Red Toryism, Roblin's conservatism, is the polar opposite, anchored in the belief that society is an organic entity. Government is the means for society to achieve the best outcome for all by working to achieve the best outcome for each one. The whole can't prosper if the many are in want and deprivation. All for one and one for all.

All error contains an element of truth. If it were not so, it would never deceive anyone. It is true that traditional Canadian conservatism is a version of British Toryism. It is also true that traditional conservatism is “anchored in the belief that society is an organic entity”.

Belief in an organic society, however, does not lead, either necessarily or logically, to the idea that the government's role in society should be expanded, that it should minutely regulate our everyday lives, or that it should manage the economy and redistribute wealth.

Russell identifies traditional British and Canadian Toryism with “Red Toryism” but they are not the same thing. “Red Toryism” is an abstract construction created by thinkers like Gad Horowitz and Dalton Camp. It is also a contradiction in terms and a clever ideological switch and bait. The basic idea of “Red Toryism” is that because Toryism regards society as an organic whole and historically and traditionally opposed liberalism, which prior to the 20th Century was individualistic and capitalistic, Toryism therefore, would, could, and should support the agenda of radical, progressive, and collectivist movements, because these too are opposed to individualistic and capitalistic liberalism.

Traditional British Toryism, however, was even more opposed to those things than it was to classical liberalism. Indeed, one of its primary objections to classical liberalism was that liberalism would open the door for all sorts of other radical movements.

The Tories defended the interests of Crown, Church, nobility, and landed gentry against the rising class of merchants and factories owners who sought to reshape society into their image, reducing it to what Thomas Carlyle would dismiss as a “cash nexus”. Edmund Burke, the converted Whig of the 18th Century whose ideas would inspire the Tories of the 19th Century, spoke in disgust of how the age of chivalry had been supplanted by that of “sophisters, economists, and calculators”.

Do those sound like the kind of people who would approve of the establishment of an army of government bureaucrats and inspectors who think their university degrees give them the ability and right to micromanage everybody else’s affairs for them, answerable only to elected politicians, supported by levels of taxation that were unheard of prior to the 20th Century, and charged with the task of intruding into the everyday life of society to make sure everybody is treated fairly, and that members of previously disadvantaged groups are treated more fairly than others?

“Red Tories” and their admirers on the progressive Left make much out of the fact that Benjamin Disraeli, who helped reshape the Conservative Party in the mid 19th Century, in his Premiership under Queen Victoria introduced a number of policies aimed at alleviating the conditions of the working class. Disraeli, prior to his career in the Tory Party, had been considered a Radical of sorts and those searching for a pedigree for a Toryism that is red, believe that he brought socialist sympathies into the Tory Party with him which manifested itself as “One Nation Conservatism”.

Disraeli, however, was clearly attempting to thwart radical causes and movements with his policies, not accomplish their goals for them. Whatever his ideas may have been in his youth, Disraeli the statesman was a Tory by sentiment. Radicals were attempting to form an army out of the working classes to wage war against traditional society – they had already attempted revolutions across continental Europe in 1848-9. Disraeli hoped, by his programs, which were quite modest in comparison to those that became part of the 20th Century welfare state, to nip this threat in the bud. The idea behind “One Nation Conservatism” was not to create a society in which the “have nots” have a claim on what belongs to the “haves”, but to ensure that all classes had a stake in maintaining the traditional social order so that none could be talked by demagogues into seeking to tear it down.

While it is difficult to define a Tory economic position precisely there are a great many parallels between traditional Tory economic policy and the view known as “economic nationalism”. Economic nationalism was adopted as official policy by the Conservative Party of Canada in 1878 and remained Tory policy for decades. The last true Tory Prime Minister of Canada, John G. Diefenbaker, was certainly a committed economic nationalist.

What is economic nationalism?

Economic nationalism is the belief that the proper role of the government in the economy is to ensure the country’s economic prosperity by protecting its productive capacity and by maintaining its transportation infrastructure. In economic nationalism, however, the government is not responsible for guaranteeing the economic well-being of any individual in particular let alone all individuals in society. In economic nationalism, as in Adam Smith’s economic liberalism, people are the best administrators of their own economic well-being. The government looks out for the country’s economic interests, families and individuals look out for their own economic interests, and those who are for one reason or another incapable of looking to their own interests are cared for by institutions intermediate between the individual and the state.

What exactly is this “organic society” that is at the heart of traditional Toryism?

It is best understood by contrasting it with the liberal vision of society. Liberalism believed that individuals were prior to society, that society was the creation of individuals, and that society was best organized along the principle of voluntary contract. The relationships of the business world and the marketplace they believed were ideal patterns for all human relationships. Nobody would be bound by anything to which they had not consented beforehand.

Toryism, on the other hand, maintains that most basic social unit, the family, is itself prior to the individual, and that society is not a contractual construction of individuals, but a natural outgrowth of the social life that begins in the family. Families live together in neighborhoods, worship together in churches, and out of their cooperation form communities, which generate the customs, traditions, and prescription that form the cultural and social foundation upon which the political and economic edifice which is the country is built.

Society is organic, because the institutions which comprise it, have their distinct functions which cooperate together to make the whole work, the way a body’s organs and systems work together. In the Tory view of society, the Queen and her ministers have their place and their role, the Church has its place and role, the upper, middle, and lower classes have their places and roles, the neighborhood, the school, the family, have their places and roles, and there is a time and place for business and the market as well.

St. Paul in the twelfth chapter of his First Epistle to the Church in Corinth, likens the spiritual community which is the Church, the Body of Christ, to an organic body in this manner. Each part belongs to the body as much as every other part, and should not envy the others their roles. St. Paul wrote:

If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?

The same principle applies to the larger society as well.

Society, we are told by progressives and “Red Tories” has a responsibility to the widow and the orphan, to the poor, the sick and the infirm, and to the needy in general. They are correct in principle but err in their application. These societal responsibilities are traditionally met by institutions like the family, the church, and the neighborhood community. Government, which has its own place in society and its own role to play, is not well-suited for meeting these needs. The government exists to enforce the basic laws of society, to administer justice, punish crime, and to provide for the common security of the society. Other institutions would do poorly in these roles, just as government does poorly in the role of nurse, mother, and care provider.

Furthermore, when the government attempts to do these things which other institutions were designed to do, it undermines those institutions, weakening their authority and their role in society. To borrow from St. Paul again, it is as if the ear were saying to the hand “I have no need of thee”.

Toryism’s organic view of society is then, an argument against the welfare state, socialism, and the progressive, collectivist agenda in general and not an argument for these things. “Red Toryism” is a contradiction in terms.

The welfare-state is not an “organic society”. It is an attempt to re-create by government the organic society which liberalism had sought to destroy. Organic society, however, cannot be created by government fiat. It must grow naturally, out of the everyday communal life that is generated by the cooperative efforts of families, churches, and neighborhoods.

Robert Nisbet wrote, towards the end of the final chapter of his landmark The Quest For Community:

I cannot help thinking that what we need above all else in this age is a new philosophy of laissez-faire…We need a laissez faire that will hold fast to the ends of autonomy and freedom of choice, one that will begin not with the imaginary, abstract individual but with the personalities of human beings as they are actually given to us in association…What we need at the present time is the knowledge and administrative skill to create a laissez faire in which the basic unit will be the social group. (pp. 278-279).

Those words, originally written in 1953, come from a sociologist who spent his life as an advocate of both organic society rooted in local community and limited, non-intrusive, government. They express quite well the traditional Tory understanding of what society needs – even if they were written by one of the founders of American conservatism.


  1. Disraeli, however, was clearly attempting to thwart radical causes and movements with his policies, not accomplish their goals for them.

    That was an interesting observations, Gerry, and could equally be applied to Stephen Harper as a minority PM.

    Opposition parties with radical causes. Check.
    Government policies thwarting radical causes. Check.

    Even if PM Harper does not gain a majority, his control of Canadian governance has becalmed an Opposition Loyal only to the their own agenda.

  2. Maikeru,

    That is an interesting interpretation of the Harper premiership. If correct it means that Harper's heart is in the right place. In this day and age, however, a defensive policy against radicalism seems a little like locking the barn door after the cows have escaped.

  3. Toryism seems like non-ideological conservatism (i.e., "organic"). Basically, a Tory will promote anything that increases social stability and oppose anything that decreases social stability. Since it's non-ideological, Toryism can align itself with big government or direct democracy, big church or local community congregations, with traditional social norms or with individual liberty, with hierarchical institutions or with grassroots workers movements. Toryism has no unchanging loyalties beyod it's loyalty to principle of public good.

  4. Toryism defends the attaiment of the common good as the proper function of State. To accomplish this the State needs to unite forces from the different classes in society as explained by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. It is true that to Toryism every group has its place in society and that is why it rejects the usurpation by any group of a function that does not belong to it. But, to defend that the State is not allowed to regulate market according to Toryism is a mistake, because not to regulate it is to atribute to the Market a function which does not belong to it. As "Marmalade" has stated "a Tory will promote anything that increases social stability and oppose anything that decreases social stability"

  5. The market is a place where people go to exchange what they have for what they want. The State does have the authority to regulate it, the question is when should the State use that authority?

    Consider two possible regulations.

    The first states that in any market transaction it is the crime of fraud to deceive someone about the value of that which you are exchanging. This does not cover subjective value, of course, because that is not quantifiable, but it would mean that you are not allowed to advertise a 15 pound bag of potatoes as a 20 pound bag of potatoes.

    The second regulation states that you are not allowed to sell a specified amount of a specific good for either more or less than a particular amount of money.

    The difference between the two regulations is the difference between the kind of market regulation the State should make and the kind of market regulation the State should not make.

    The first kind of regulation prohibits deceiving and cheating others. Such a regulation actually helps create a framework within which the market functions better.

    The second kind of regulation tells people who are preparing to exchange goods for money, that they cannot come to their own agreement as to how much goods for how much money. Such a regulation serves no legitimate purpose and is intrusive, as intrusive as if the government were to come to your house and tell you when you have to get up, when you have to go to bed, and what you are going to eat for supper.

    Intrusive laws actually decrease rather than increase social stability because they promote discontent with the law of the land.