Harper's lead: Canada's case study in minority government
Stephen Harper, Canada's prime minister since 2006, provides an object lesson in translating political weakness and minority support into lasting power.
Why do minority governments succeed or fail? This was the subject of a piece I wrote recently for the Financial Times, contrasting the successes of Asquith's 1910 Liberal administration and Alex Salmond's 2007 Scottish government with the relative failure of Labour's three 20th-century minority governments (counting 1974–79 in effect as one long minority government). Minority governments succeed, I believe, when they harness broader alliances for change behind their political projects, rather than stumbling from vote-to-vote.
One lesson to draw from this history is that the Conservative party has tended to prosper from the failure of Labour minority governments, rather than governing in a minority itself, preferring instead to form coalitions if it cannot win outright majorities. We therefore have relatively little historical experience to guide us when thinking about how a minority Conservative government might work after the next general election, should that be the outcome in May. However, we can look across the Atlantic for inspiration, to a prime minister who is the object of considerable admiration among British conservatives: Canada's Stephen Harper.
Harper formed two minority governments in 2006 and 2008, before winning a majority in 2011. He united a divided right, bringing together the splintered forces of Canadian conservatism into one powerful electoral force. He governs with determined, almost Thatcherite conviction; he is climate sceptic, fiscally conservative and largely neocon in foreign affairs. Above all, Harper is politically ruthless, consistently outmanoeuvring and defeating his opponents. Astonishingly, given how long he has been in office, he is starting to close the polling gap with his Liberal opponents in the run in to this year's Canadian federal elections, and may yet win another term as PM. His leadership of the Canadian conservative movement is an object lesson in how to turn political weakness and minority support into hegemony.
The term 'hegemony' is an apposite one to use here, since the founding text of Harper's conservatism was a right-wing book written in the 1980s by a British-American journalist, Peter Brimelow, entitled The Patriot Game, which deployed Gramscian categories to analyse the dominance of liberalism in postwar Canada. Brimelow argued that liberal ideology had become the accepted common sense in Canada, embodied in its institutions and practices. It sustained the political and economic power of a bloated public class of Ottawan politicians, liberal media outlets, civil servants, public administrators and the teaching establishment. This alliance suppressed and exploited conservative western Canada, extracting rents from its economic resources and shutting it out of power by uniting against it the cadres of liberal English Canada and francophone Quebec. Crucially, Brimelow said, this state-centric liberalism was selling Canada short, by continually appeasing the Quebecois and stripping the country of its British imperial heritage and monarchical identity. According to Harper's biographer Paul Wells, the book: 'landed like a bomb amongst Alberta conservatives because its arguments weren't novel and isolated but gave expression to something deep-seated, broadly based and cultural.'
When he took office in 2006, Harper set out to turn these insights into a political strategy and a practice of statecraft. He began to starve the Ottawa government of resources by promoting the fiscal autonomy of the provinces and cutting federal expenditure. He governed from a narrow circle of advisers and ministerial supporters, thus marginalising parliament and civil servants while promoting his power base among particular minority groups and his core western conservative base. And he promoted his own leadership credentials while ruthlessly attacking those of his opponents.
Critically, when faced with losing a vote of confidence in 2008, he upended the fixed-term parliament legislation he had himself enacted, and secured a prorogation, using the breathing space it gave him to destroy the coalition ranged against him. His critical argument, made in heated exchanges in parliament, was this:
'Mr Speaker, the highest principle of Canadian democracy is that if you want to be Prime Minister, you get your mandate from the Canadian people, not from Quebec separatists " The deal that the leader of the Liberal Party has made with the separatists is a betrayal of the voters of this country. A betrayal of the best interests of the economy.'
It is not difficult to translate these words to Britain in 2015, nor to see why Stephen Harper holds such appeal to British conservatives weighing their party's prospects. We can expect quite a few of them to beat a path to Ottawa in the weeks and months ahead.