Taking Leave Blog Notes by Bob Rae July 20/21 2019
Politicians leaving us with some thoughts on politics is not a new thing. My speeches in the last months of office in 1995 had a reflective tone, as they did in 2013 when I was preparing to leave the House of Commons for a second time. They were mainly in the “lessons learned” category, and that tone has carried through the books I’ve written since, and even the government reports on the Air India bombing and higher education in Ontario. I’ve never been one to say “my way or the highway” or “Je ne regrette rien”. I made my share of mistakes and have always tried to learn from them.
Politics today takes on a different tone. It is more deeply partisan than it was when I first entered parliamentary politics in 1978, and each year seems to become even more so. Social media outlets lend themselves to this kind of language and discourse, and that is no accidental. As Marshall McLuhan said many years ago “the medium is the message” – a politics of impulse and quick slogans, blurting out hashtags and insults by the bucketload (character assassination in 144 characters), is well suited to Twitter.
Readers of this note will no doubt point out that I use Twitter myself. Yes, I do, and in many cases my efforts at irony and humour are missed and taken as proof positive that I have no ide what I’m doing. What I like about the medium is its directness, and the fact that it is wild and wonderful world out there. What I dislike is that its abusiveness it intended to destroy, and not just to hurt, to humiliate, and not to persuade. The more abusive can be blocked, or reported, but no one could possibly believe that this does anything but shield the reader from the worst outbursts. They’re still exploding somewhere, just not directly in my face.
Theresa May’s “final” words – (don’t worry Theresa, you’ll have many more kicks at the cat, or the bull) focused on this issues of increased partisanship, abusive discourse, and the search for easy, ideologically based answers to complex issues of public policy. There is a certain irony in all this, of course, because anyone, like Theresa May, who has been active in the partisan arena these past few years would have had to be knee deep in all this stuff in order to survive. In her case her argument for “One Britain” Toryism flies in the face of the decision made by the British Parliament to let the issue of UK membership in the European Union be decided by a simple majority (“50% plus one) referendum.
The decision to hold a referendum on the complex issue of membership in an economic union that had been in place for over forty years – a decision in which all the political parties in the UK were complicit – was hugely consequential. By its very nature it was bound to be intensely divisive, meaning that there were only two answers to what is, in reality, a deeply complex and complicated problem. By positing “Yes” and “No” as the only two answers, and then insisting that only a simple majority was required to lead to Brexit, parliamentary democracy has been disastrously weakened.
Jacques Parizeau, the Quebec Premier who insisted on holding a second referendum to determine Quebec’s choice of staying in the Canadian federation or leaving, once told a group of European diplomats in Ottawa the genius of the referendum strategy was that it was a “lobster trap” – once the Quebec public (in this case, the lobsters) walked into a vote to leave Canada, they could not change their minds or extricate themselves from the trap.
For a very long time populists have portrayed parliaments as places of compromise and corruption, where irrevocable decisions are never made and “hard choices” never made. In reality, the ability of parliaments to allow for many shades of grey to buffer against the world of absolute good and evil in which populists love to live is its greatest strength. Together with courts and other ways of ensuring that absolutist choices are avoided, this has proven the way to ensure that wisdom prevails.
My argument with Theresa May (who, to change the analogy, was left with a hand that she could not possibly have played successfully) is that in complaining about what was wrong with politics – too much extremism, too many simplistic slogans, too little respect for the need to find reasonable compromises – she was not prepared to admit that giving into the entire Brexit project by eating the referendum apple has contributed disastrously to the very culture that she claims to dislike.
In Canadian politics Thomas Mulcair used to mock the Liberal position that 50% plus one was not enough to break up a country. This ignores the fact that there are many examples in constitutional democracies of countries insisting that constitutional change should not be made too easy, and that higher thresholds of consensus are essential for huge changes in political identity to be happen. Constitutional amendment in most countries is difficult. When Pierre Trudeau wanted to repatriate our constitution with a charter of rights and freedoms he was told by the Supreme Court of Canada that democratic and federal conventions required more than just a majority vote in the House of Commons.
As a country that, in Dean Acheson’s famous phrase, “has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role”, the United Kingdom will not yet be soul searching, asking others for advice, or seeking to learn from others’ experience. More’s the pity and there’s the rub.
When Winston Churchill stepped down as Prime Minister, he had these words –
“The day may dawn when fair play, love for one’s fellow-men, respect for justice and freedom, will enable tormented generations to march forth serene and triumphant from the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell. Meanwhile, never flinch, never weary, never despair.”
Churchill was not one to apologize or second guess, and he was not about to start doing that in 1955. He chose instead to warn about how difficult and perilous the times were, and how despair and fatigue could never be wise counsellor in those times. But these were more meaningful words than a rant against the media or the politics of division.
George Washington’s famous Farewell Address was allegedly drafted for him by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, two of the authors of the Federalist Papers. His eight years as President had not been easy – the transition from the aspirations of the Revolutionary War and the realities of politics had been trying for him.
He begins with a note of weariness –
“The acceptance of, and continuance hitherto in, the office to which your suffrages have twice called me have been a uniform sacrifice of inclination to the opinion of duty and to a deference for what appeared to be your desire. I constantly hoped that it would have been much earlier in my power, consistently with motives which I was not at liberty to disregard, to return to that retirement from which I had been reluctantly drawn. The strength of my inclination to do this, previous to the last election, had even led to the preparation of an address to declare it to you; but mature reflection on the then perplexed and critical posture of our affairs with foreign nations, and the unanimous advice of persons entitled to my confidence, impelled me to abandon the idea…Satisfied that if any circumstances have given peculiar value to my services, they were temporary, I have the consolation to believe that, while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it.”
Washington did not really campaign for the Presidency. He accepted the burdens of office as a duty he could not avoid – having led the country in war, and watched a period of some chaos after the peace of 1783, he realized that no other person could take on the challenges of the Presidency once the new Constitution was successfully ratified.
He did not run for the exits, but two terms was more than enough for him.
But while deeply critical of the tendency of division and faction that he saw as a negative tendency of American politics, he was completely aware of the power of these factions. Hence he chose the Farewell Address, like Churchill’s to not be about him, or worry about his legacy, or dwell on his critics. He had bigger fish to fry.
Emphasizing that experience had shown that the experience of a united country ensured much greater strength than any regional or factional interest, he went on to say
“To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliance, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute; they must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced. Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay, by the adoption of a constitution of government better calculated than your former for an intimate union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.”
Washington had two major concerns – that the spirit of party and faction, and the desire to make too many sudden constitutional changes, would end up disrupting the federation and the executive too much, and that a romantic (for that read Jeffersonian) desire to support the French Revolution would lead to alliances and foreign engagement that would end up hurting American interests.
He used the Farewell Address to talk about these big, critical issues. In so doing he and his political allies knew full well he was warning against those he thought did not really have the national interest at heart, and seeking to consolidate the gains of the constitution making of the recent past to ensure the continuity of what he saw as more than just a personal legacy: a federal government in which the centre and the member states both had the capacity to act in their interests and where the concept of limited and rule based government was firmly entrenched in the constitution.
Our British friends would do well to read Washington, and to avoid the slick sloganeering that threatens to overtake British politics. They have got themselves in a fine pickle and getting out of it will take more than cheap headlines and egomaniacal Tweets.