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Eyes on the Prize

The second edition of Brent H. Cameron’s book, “The Case for Commonwealth Free Trade: Options for a new globalization is available now on Amazon worldwide.

In 1992, I volunteered on the local campaign to seek ratification of the ‘Charlottetown Accord’ – a set of changes to the Canadian Constitution that were backed by the apparatus of all three major political parties, most provincial premiers and leaders from business and labour. Like the ‘Stronger in” campaign during the Brexit vote, we had all the organization, the money and the political firepower. And, like the ‘Stronger In’ campaign, we lost. Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells played a role eerily similar to Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, while Preston Manning was clearly the proto-Nigel Farage.

Like David Cameron, Brian Mulroney would resign as Prime Minister within a short time, and the party would – by virtue of its majority – choose Kim Campbell to lead it.

Like Theresa May, Campbell displayed all the aloofness, stubbornness and uninspiring blandness of a person who could only supervise a trainwreck.

In 1993, I worked on the local campaign in a riding that had only one dalliance with the Liberals back in the 1920’s – otherwise it had been solid Tory. Like many Conservatives in the UK right now, I ignored the naysayers and prophets of doom. Yes, it was a horribly run campaign, and Campbell was an atrocious leader, but we were going to fight the good fight and sort out the mess later.

We did not get that chance, and the Progressive Conservative Party – the party of Sir John A. Macdonald and Confederation – was reduced from a majority standing of 169 seats to just 2. It was bittersweet that the only surviving Tory incumbent, Jean Charest, was the person I voted for against Campbell at the leadership convention.

I went through Canada’s centre-right civil wars that would last a decade, where Jean Chretien and Paul Martin comfortably won power through the vote-splitting that took place between PC and Reform. I saw how each election further polarized partisans. Reformers viewed PC’s as perpetuating a corrupt and bankrupt political status quo, while PC’s saw Reform as a bunch of reactionary American-style Republicans who had stabbed them in the back.

I remember 2003, and when the two parties would finally come together in a merger. I also remember that while most of us wanted to build bridges, there were those who could never, ever make peace with those they deemed to be traitors. They would declare PC’s like myself who stayed as ‘sellouts’, and would gravitate to the Liberals, the NDP, the Greens, or drop away from partisan politics altogether.

As I wrote in a Daily Globe UK piece in January, I thought that the direction that politics was taking in Britain was similar, and that great caution was needed by the government to avoid the fate of their Canadian cousins in 1993. Just as Kim Campbell was no good at taking advice or reading the signs, Number 10 seems equally oblivious – even more so as they at least have the benefit of our experience to draw upon.

I believe that for the May government, the Rubicon has been crossed. Forces have been unleashed and there is no going back. The only option available to the Conservative Party is damage control.

If the Canadian pattern is followed fully, the Tories will be decimated and Labour could form a government against a fractured opposition, thereby overturning Brexit altogether (as opposed to the current government’s strategy of death by a thousand cuts). A recent poll of voting intentions for the Euro elections had the Conservatives at 13%. While PR blunts the trauma of a straight ‘first past the post’ election, bear in mind that Kim Campbell’s 1993 flame out yielded a popular vote of 14%

And so – notwithstanding the local and Euro elections – some friendly advice on Westminster contests from across the pond.

Whether or not it is understood, the Brexit Party needs the Tories, and the Tories need the Brexit Party. Each has an element of what the other lacks. That may not be evident at the moment, but it will in a protracted political civil war. That means some element of compromise when it seems less likely. It is analogous to a Game of Thrones plot where the breach of the wall changes the dynamics on the ground. Fighting a common foe for a common goal is what matters.

In this respect, the Brexit Party has all the cards – the policy coherence, the momentum, and the flexibility – and so it needs to lay out the plan.

If I were asked my opinion (and I’m not), I would recommend that the Brexit Party confine its Westminster run to those constituencies where a recalcitrant Remain MP represents a Leave constituency. I would call a truce on seats held by members of the ERG as they will be natural allies in a governing coalition. I would also avoid Conservative seats where the Remain vote was more than 60%, as it only serves to hand the seat to Jeremy Corbyn.

For Brexit, it allows the party to conserve resources and mount a more fulsome effort in the constituencies it can dominate easily – and preserve resources for the national campaign, like the leader’s tour and the ‘air war’ on television, radio and print. It also has the dual purpose of nudging the Tories more to the Leave column by pruning off Remainers in Leave constituencies.

Done carefully, it accomplishes two things. It forces a change in leadership and direction in the Conservative Party without killing it off completely, and it allows for enough good will between the Brexit Party and the remaining Conservative MP’s and the DUP to form a coalition that will actually deliver a true Brexit. Down the road, one might even consider a merger that creates a Conservative Party more in tune and responsive to its grassroots membership.

In Canada, we had the luxury of fighting a centre-right civil war. We didn’t have a major issue like Brexit in the balance, and the worst we had to endure for that lost decade were fairly moderate, centrist Prime Ministers like Jean Chretien and Paul Martin – not a Jeremy Corbyn.

I am proud to have friends who count themselves on both sides of this new divide. They are all, to a person, men and women of integrity who want a strong and independent Britain that is free to chart its own course. As a Canadian, I want to see that course converge with ours, Australia’s and New Zealand’s in a broader CANZUK effort. I also want to see it evolve into a broader Commonwealth movement – multi-national and multi-ethnic – that can build a bulwark of freedom against the rising forces of illiberalism and totalitarianism that will mark our world in the coming decades.

Brexit is a pivot point for which much rests. Any sincere effort to see it through is worthy of consideration.

As the saying goes, eyes on the prize.

About Brent Cameron

Profile photo of Brent Cameron
A writer and commentator on Commonwealth trade issues, Brent Cameron is the author of 'The Case for Commonwealth Free Trade' (2004, 2018) and numerous essays and articles. He is also a member of the Advisory Board of Commonwealth Exchange, a London, UK-based research group. Cameron worked as Telecommunications Coordinator for the Federal Ministry of Labour in Ottawa, Canada before joining SES Canada Research (now Nanos Research) as a Research Associate. He also worked as an assistant to former Ontario MPP Harry Danford, Member for Hastings-Peterborough and Parliamentary Assistant to Ontario's Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. Cameron was a member of the Advance Team for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney during the 1988 Canadian federal general election. During the 2007 Ontario Referendum on Electoral Reform, he acted as Coordinator for the 'No MMP' campaign for eastern Ontario (excluding Ottawa). Cameron has also served as a member and contributing columnist on the Community Editorial Board of the Kingston (ON) Whig-Standard newspaper. He holds an honours degree in politics from Queen's University and a Certificate in Municipal Administration from St. Lawrence College (Kingston, ON). In 2014, Brent Cameron was elected to the municipal council for the Township of Central Frontenac, in southeastern Ontario, Canada, and serving as Deputy Mayor in 2017.

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2 comments

  1. The parallels between the UK and Canada are interesting.

    The Tories still have 4 years to run in government. If the polls go badly for the Tories May will probably be ousted and her successor will either split the party or have a lot of time to work out the next step. It depends on the successor and there is no clear contender at the moment. Boris Johnson or Philip Hammond would probably split the party but a dark horse candidate could arise who is tolerated for a few years. If there is a dark horse out there they will have time on their side. The optimal role for the Brexit Party would be to coordinate the infiltration and take over of the Tories if they cling to power.

    • Very much concur, John.

      Civil wars are as unpredictable as they are messy. We are a quarter-century past the meltdown here, and 16 years past the merger to put things together, but there are people who harbor grudges to this day. I find that there are people for whom a civil conversation about politics is difficult – despite the fact we worked alongside each other on campaigns many times in the past.

      I have no doubt that if Britain follows our example, and there is an eventual entente, there will be Conservatives who will steadfastly refuse to be in the same room as Brexit Party members and will opt to go elsewhere – either to the Change UK folks or the Lib Dems.

      For those who don’t leave the room in a huff, there will be challenging days. How difficult those days will be will be a function of how much bad blood there is. Strategic voting and campaigning from the start will help shorten the recovery period.

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