A personal reflection on the Ignatieff Era

Colby Cosh on how the Liberals had little choice but to shout down questions about his suitability

I thought that, if for no other reason than the benefit of historians, someone really ought to record a remark on the bizarre final hours of Michael Ignatieff’s time as Liberal leader. His concession speech on the evening of May 2 was immediately praised by sympathetic journalists for its respectfulness and its reflectiveness. Few of them, probably, were watching it quite the way I was—as somebody who had money riding on the result from Ignatieff’s own riding, Etobicoke-Lakeshore. I was watching those returns like a Predator drone circling a cave full of terrorists, so I was exceedingly surprised that Ignatieff’s concession speech seemed to be predicated on him remaining, at least for a little while, as leader of a Liberal rump. He spoke as though his constituents had already invited him to be part of this new caucus, though their preference for Bernard Trottier was, by that hour, fairly apparent. Ignatieff even stressed the need for “continuity”:

I’m going to need the help of every Liberal, everyone who loves their country and loves this party, to stand with me as we rebuild and renew. I will serve as long as the party wants to make me serve, or ask me to serve, and not a day longer. This party needs the continuity, this party needs the faith to continue the work that we have done, and I am willing to serve to help us do that work of renewal, reform, and growth.

He didn’t close the escape hatch at any point, but he emphasized that his occupancy of the leadership would be up to the party to curtail. By the time he gave his speech, this was true only in a tenuous technical sense—he is the first Liberal leader to lose his seat in a general election since 1945—and Ignatieff was forced to write a humiliating cadenza to his own political career the next day.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I take this curious awkwardness, this slight off-kilterness, to be a metaphor for the whole Ignatieff experiment. (I felt the same way about his adoption of a Bruce Springsteen song as his spiritual anthem; given Springsteen’s all-American corniness, it struck me another “Oh dear, has no one told the poor man?” moment.) If you’ll pardon a moment of self-indulgence, I feel as though I’ve been standing at a level crossing, waving red flags at Liberals and anti-Tory centrists for six years; and now that the train wreck has happened, the survivors are still confused by my behaviour.

When I argued that Ignatieff’s long absence from the country was a problem—very, very carefully distinguishing my own argument from the content of Conservative attack ads—I was greeted with a chorus of “How dare you?” I was told I had no standing to criticize a man of Ignatieff’s intellectual attainments; by that standard, none of those who have been living Canadian politics for the last quarter-century had any right to speak—so how’d that argument work out? I was told that I was engaging in a “personal attack”; how’d the argument that personalities have nothing to do with election success work out? I was told that love for Canada is all that matters, and you can love it just as much from a distance as you do from the inside; how’d the lovefest turn out? This is not just idle gloating—and even if it is, maybe it is about time for Liberals to stop obsessing over the psychological motives of commentators and start listening. This is about whether the Liberal Party is capable of making use of criticism, even unfriendly or biased criticism, as advice. This is the question, fundamentally the only question, that will determine whether it has a future, if it wants one.

Ecch, that’s kind of an arrogant paragraph. Let me climb down from the high horse before I get thrown. I recognize that the Liberal Götterdammerung is as much a tragedy as a product of conscious collective error. The party took a close look at Ignatieff’s leadership qualifications, after all, and rejected him on the only occasion they had the leisure of a considered judgment. After the 2008 election, nobody could have dreamed that Stéphane Dion would look like a green giant of statesmanship in retrospect. (I had one last spasm of psephological shock on the bus home from Calgary yesterday, when I saw that Dion’s 26% national vote share—the good old days!—has dwindled to less than 19%.) Ignatieff was put in charge at a moment of crisis, and from that moment on, the Liberals really had little choice but to shout down questions about his suitability. It is not clear any alternative action would have worked out better.

But by the same token… this election could have been avoided if Ignatieff hadn’t been allowed to commit to a “Not another second of Conservative government” position on the 2011 budget. I don’t know what story Paul Wells will tell in his sprawling Making Of The Prime Minister 2011 feature, and if he disagrees with me I would strongly encourage you to take his word over mine. My information is that the Liberal high command was playing a calculated gambit by leaving the go/no-go choice on Jack Layton’s desk. They thought that a spring 2011 election was better for them than an autumn one or a 2012 one. And they thought that Layton, in any event, would probably be too ravaged by illness not to support the budget—in which case they were prepared to go out and blame him for every jot and tittle in that document. This makes sympathy for the Liberal braintrust very, very difficult.

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