What Do You Mean Trump/Brexit Won't Happen Here?

A very enjoyable evening last night with Timothy Garton Ash, the Oxford historian and sometimes journalist who delivered the Donner Lecture, sponsored by the Donner Canadian Foundation, at the Appel Auditorium of the Toronto Reference Library.

Enjoyable, but not encouraging. Ash thinks there’s a one per cent chance that the UK simply changes its mind on Brexit and decides to stay in the European Union on present terms. He thinks there is a ten per cent chance that the UK can negotiate its way to the sort of foot-in-the-door agreement Norway enjoys.

The audience (sold out!) had many questions on the similarities between the Brexit and Trump votes. One mentioned by Ash and of interest to me is that youth, on the losing side in both contests, did not vote. Another is that the winners, in both instances, were totally unprepared for their triumphs, if such they can be called.

There was plenty of discussion on the emergence of conservative populism in both countries, and there were questions from the audience on its spread. Is France next? Italy? Germany? And on down the list of European countries. There was also evident concern, floating around the room, encouraged by recent commentary in the Canadian press, that conservative populism might happen here. Is Kellie Leitch our Trump? Our Boris Johnson?

Astonishing to me how quickly we forget our own past. Canada, in fact, had its populist conservative moment. We generally refer to it as the Harper era. It lasted ten years and it was marked by studious attention to hard-working middle-class families who have been in danger of being left behind. It was mildly hostile to the Ottawa establishment (not so much drain-the-swamp, as per Trump, but marginalize-the-swamp). It hated and shunned the mainstream media. It delivered policy directives by twitter. It was vicious in its attacks on political opponents. It railed against elites, whether of the political, corporate, or monied variety. It cut taxes and championed law-and-order and security and was relatively more militaristic (at least in rhetoric) than most governments we’ve had.

Canada was an early adapter of conservative populism, and we managed to make of it a relatively benign thing, without seriously disturbing our historic international alliances, or our important domestic institutions, and while enjoying ten years of reasonable economic progress. We were fortunate to have as a leader of our movement a man infinitely more serious, responsible, and intelligent than Donald Trump, and less cynical than Boris Johnson. We had in Harper a man as close as any nation is likely to get to a statesman of populist conservatism.

None of this is to suggest that it could not happen again here in a more virulent form with a more troubling leader. The fact that it happened once, in milder form, proves we are not immune to populist conservatism. I nonetheless think that we’ve had our dalliance with this style of politics and that the odds are against a recurrence.