Last week, Canadians struggled with whether it’s wholly Canadian or utterly incomprehensible that the interim leader of the Official Opposition Nycole Turmel can, in the span of six months, be a social-democrat, a Canadian federalist, and carry membership cards in two Quebec separatist parties.
Ms. Turmel shrugs were good enough for fellow New Democrats: she’d been a New Democrat for twenty years and had only joined the Bloc Quebecois to “help a friend.” Her comings and goings had nothing to do with policy; besides, her “social values” were supported by all three of her memberships.
Stephen Harper was criticized for sounding like a ROC (Rest of Canada) philistine for saying he was disappointment by her confusing loyalties. Arguably, Harper should have kept his feelings to himself. His first obligation is to hold the federation together. If separatism and federalism are such toothless ideas that considerations like friendship, social policy and union rights can come first then Canada’s status quo should hold. No abstractions up here to rock the boat!
However, maybe Harper was bothered by a looming partisan consideration: if a leader of a social democrat party can be both a Canadian federalist and an ethnic nationalist what’s left to block the merger of the New Democrats and the Liberals?
I’m sure this sounds stubbornly old fashioned but, I can’t see how a serious political leader can be so unserious about her core values. Literary and linguistic postmodernists are free to reconfigure relationships and misplace ideas. However, national political parties are born to advance—and persist by carrying forward—a few dominant ideas.
The right spent a decade agonizing over what a conservative was. Does the left have nothing left to agonize about? Doesn’t the left not have a big idea to inspire—and discipline—a future merger?
Liberals and social democrats can do politics together because their core beliefs are common: both stand for the emancipation of the individual and the constructive potential of tolerant, rational dialogue. They may disagree about the reach of the democratic state and the effectiveness of voluntary co-operation, market incentives and state planning. However, both the socialist and the liberal, since Rousseau, Marx and Mill, have stood—often in dire circumstances—against the bullying claims of ethnic nationalism.
Quebec nationalism may never have the courage and vitality to break up Canada. Nevertheless, ethnic nationalism in Quebec—as in many other modern societies—remains a partisan menace to minority rights and individual expression.
A social democrat leader, interim or permanent, can’t be on both sides of that struggle. Let’s hope Liberals continue to put universal liberal principles first when conferencing with New Democrats.