Margaret Thatcher—the mother of Canadian Conservatives -

Margaret Thatcher—the mother of Canadian Conservatives

Paul Wells: Thatcher’s legacy will weigh heavy on Harper as he pays homage

The mother of Canadian Conservatives

Fred Chartrand/CP

What will be on Stephen Harper’s mind as he flies to London for Margaret Thatcher’s funeral? What will the champion of feints and defts, a man who edits his speeches to take out the memorable bits, be thinking as he approaches the valediction of an Iron Lady?

The Canadian conservative movement has more than a few household gods, as befits a large and diverse group. The summer before he became prime minister, Stephen Harper told me the most exciting item on his vacation agenda was a meeting with Australian prime minister John Howard. When Kory Teneycke was Harper’s communications director he had a 1984 Ronald Reagan “Morning in America” campaign poster decorating his office. Jason Kenney actually helped chase Preston Manning out of politics, but you should see the look of affection on his face when he watches the Reform party founder speak today.

But Margaret Thatcher is the Big Kahuna of Canadian conservatism, for reasons having as much to do with timing and culture as with her own considerable accomplishments. While she was Britain’s prime minister, Canada was led by Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, the provinces by the likes of Bill Davis and Robert Bourassa. A generation of Canadians grew up believing our own country’s politics was a sea of vanilla pudding. Only Maggie offered grit. She stared down the unions, counselled Reagan and watched, warily, as the Cold War ended. On our TVs every night, endless handwringing over Meech Lake, whatever the hell that was. And then the news from London, Maggie steadfast against the tide.

So it’s no wonder that when Alberta’s Ralph Klein and especially Ontario’s Mike Harris rose to power a few years later, they were conspicuously surrounded by youngsters whose political conscience was incubated in the petri dish of ’80s Thatcher envy. There was a sense that it was in those two provinces that conservatism meant something, because it was about radical reform and steadfast serenity in the face of concerted opposition. And there is unmistakable nostalgia in the Canadian obituaries for Thatcher, because people who admired her do not believe there is much going on in today’s Canada—Harper’s Canada—to compare.

“She was and is particularly loved by young conservatives across the West, who viewed her resolve to place convictions ahead of political expediency—even when it was unpopular—as a godly virtue,” Adam Daifallah wrote in the National Post. He calls her “the most important non-American conservative figure of the 20th century and possibly the most important non-American political figure of any stripe.” Churchill? Gandhi? De Gaulle? Lech Walesa? But the claim is easy to understand. We are products of our surroundings.

It’s possible the outpouring of affection for Thatcher and Ralph Klein after their deaths will put a little extra pressure on Harper from the right this spring as his caucus chafes, the economy sputters and the Liberals unite behind a popular new leader. The Conservative convention this summer in Calgary will be important for Harper as he seeks to reassert himself as a leader whom Conservatives owe not just their gratitude, but their continued fervour. He has, after all, led his party for 11 years under the Canadian Alliance and Conservative brand names. Thatcher lasted not quite 16 before her own caucus turfed her.

He would protest, with some justification, that the times are different. The oil shock of the mid-1970s sucker-punched most of the Western economies in ways the bloated postwar social state, inflated by 30 years of easy money, couldn’t sustain. A sharp shock was necessary: the state and the labour markets had to learn to live within the new realities. Countries that adjusted early did better. Countries that never adjusted are dragging Europe down even today. Britain got a Thatcher when it needed one. Canada today needs a nudge, not a shove. Especially not a shove from a Prime Minister who first won the office with the smallest parliamentary minority since Confederation.

But the longer you survive in power, the more talk like that sounds like self-justification. Harper will land in a London he barely knows. He rose too late in our politics to know the Thatcher crowd, and he has not been close to David Cameron. He was gracious in inviting Brian Mulroney to join the Canadian delegation, and one suspects the flight will help cement a wary reconciliation between the two men. But Mulroney’s presence will underscore Harper’s estrangement from Thatcher’s era.

In an interview at the end of 2011, Harper said, “I’ve seen too many majority governments, the bureaucracy talks them into going to sleep for three years, and then they all of a sudden realize they’re close to an election.” He promised to stay “busy,” and he has done that, but in a manner designed to avoid the spotlight. What would a Stephen Harper who did not hold public office say about the one who currently serves? And how can he be sure Conservatives have not begun to say the same about him? These questions will be on his mind as he goes to pay homage to the mother of Canadian conservatives.

On the web: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at


Margaret Thatcher—the mother of Canadian Conservatives

  1. war criminals should never be allowed to die a natural death

    • What war crime?

      • The sinking of the Belgrano comes to mind, even though it was no longer in the exclusion zone.

        • It is not actually a war crime to sink any enemy warship in a war. It is in fact quite normal. Exclusion zones are there to warn neutrals that they might get shot at if they enter a given patch of sea – not to offer a guarentee of safety to enemies outside that patch.

          • I think first of all that an exclusion zone means exactly that. It *is* a guarantee of safety to forces outside the area, Second of all, it was not an act of war and is not protected by international conventions as the UK never declared war on Argentina. So it was essentially a terrorist act. Furthermore, the only real result (beyond the 300 dead) was to harden the resolve of the Argentinian government and lengthen the conflict. And the British did not take the sinking of the Sheffield with equanimity. The Falklands Conflict was an unnecessary war used as a tool to ensure Thatcher’s reelection. Where have we seen that before or since?

          • I think first of all that an exclusion zone means exactly that. It *is* a guarantee of safety to forces outside the area

            You are wrong. Germany, for example, declared an exclusion zone around the British Isles in WW1, and that was certainly not seen as a guarentee that they would not attack British ships outside that area.

            And you don’t have to declare war on a government when they have already attacked you. There had already been fighting on the Falklands and South Georgia. People had been killed.

          • It doesn’t excuse what the Argentinians did but without a declaration of war on one side or the other (and there was none) it is not a war and therefore not protected by international treaties. So the British had no right to establish a exclusion to begin with and the sinking of the Belgrano remains an act of terrorism.

            I will never find anything that horrid little woman did forgiveable. So you might as well give up right now.

          • I came across an anecdote about a waitress who accidently spilled hot coffee on Geoffrey Howe when he was her Chancellor of the Exchequer. Aparrently Mrs Thatcher jumped to comfort the waitress, who was embarrassed by her mistake.

            I look forward to your telling me why this act was unforgiveable…

            BTW – Germany and Russia never got around to declaring war on each other during WW2. So by your argument, every Russian soldier who shot a German was committing a war crime.

          • And Hitler loved one of his nephew dearly and was very kind to his mother. It doesn’t excuse what he did and I’m sure you agree.

  2. I believe mr. Wells has it wrong. If he checks, I believe he will find that mr. Mulroney received his own personal invitation based on mrs. Thatcher’s wishes and required no invitation fro mr. harper and that he did not travel with mr. Harper.

    • Oh yes, I can assure you Mr. Mulroney traveled with PM Harper.

  3. “What would a Stephen Harper who did not hold public office say about the one who currently serves?”

    He’s run an attack ad against himself. Taking great care to NOT quote anything his in office self said within context. And i imagine he’d be looking high and low for some incriminating pics of himself, shirtless, wowing a room full of ladies at a charity event. Failing that he’d claim that he only played the Beatles poorly on the piano at public concerts, because he didn’t know any catchy Bach tunes.

  4. No fan of Harper me. But even i couldn’t imagine Harper being chintzy
    or petty enough to think depriving school kids [ many of whom truly
    were below the poverty line in today’s inflated terms] of free milk and
    oj. But that’s how Maggie rolled as PWs likes to say. Her idea of a cure
    for the common cold, or an addiction to a statist economy was to cut
    the head off rather than pass around the tissues. The woman was a bully
    and a tyrant, and politically incorrect as it may be to say so, she only
    got away with it then because she was a woman. Even now i could
    probably round up loads of people that would have cheerfully run her over
    on sight, if they could’ve afforded the gas at the time.

    I don’t buy, never did, that her sadochistic tough love was unavoidable. Despite
    differing circumstances it is often forgotten other countries [such as
    Germany] got by and prospered without resorting to the Maggie touch.
    Give me Willy Brandt or Helmut Schmidt any damn day of the week over Maggie. Those two got almost no credit for the ending or managing of the cold war. Whereas Maggie was overrated in that regard. She certainly was fortunate that the Soviet system coughed up Gorbachov rather than an Andropov or Putin to deal with.

    Couldn’t bring myself to read Conrad’s take on her. I just knew he’d call her saintly or something equally ridiculous. But i guess that’s the way her admirers rolled too.

  5. Heard an item on BBC radio yesterday that included interviews with several offspring of miners whose union was crushed by Thatcher. These young adults, who were born during or shortly after her regime and have only vague early or no personal memory of it, left the clear impression that, in the north of England, among their contemporaries, she is still widely and deeply reviled a generation later.