Stephen Harper, Canada's former prime minister, in Washington in October 2017. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images)
Global Opinions contributing columnist

It is telling that the most interesting thing to happen in the world of Canadian conservatism over the last few months was an American commentator interviewing a retired politician.

On Nov. 18, Ben Shapiro sat down with Stephen Harper, the former Conservative prime minister, for a wide-ranging podcast conversation about politics and ideology.

As the YouTube comments attest, it was a morale-boosting moment for Canadian Conservatives. Unshackled from the restrictive obligations of office, Harper was free to be his most authentic self: a compelling center-right intellectual with opinions grounded in a coherent and considered philosophy.

As Harper shared insights on trade, markets and immigration in a smooth, confident tone punctuated with moments of frankness, conservatives across Canada — many of them fans of Shapiro — were wistfully reminded of what used to be. The former prime minister’s heavy intellectualism contrasted not only with the lightness of his successor, Justin Trudeau, but also his follow-up as Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer, whose timidity personifies the old cliche of the politician attempting to lead the parade from behind.

Yet the interview also highlighted the current crisis in Canadian conservatism, born from the complicated inheritance of the movement’s well-liked former leader.

Harper’s chat with Shapiro was predictably self-serving. He painted an image of a satisfied, competently-run Canada free of the strains and tensions of other nations gripped by populist upheaval — a satisfaction he correlated with his decade of sensible, pragmatic and conservative rule.

The boundaries of their conversation seemed clearly circumscribed in advance, with Shapiro fastidiously avoiding any mention of Trudeau or any other issue Harper has traditionally displayed apathy towards — including climate change, abortion and social issues, more broadly. Shapiro’s American ignorance of Harper’s governing record, coupled with the host’s trademark mile-a-minute pacing eliminated any real opportunity for accountability.

The conclusion to draw is that, even as Canada enters its fourth year of Liberal rule, Harperite Conservatives still have an active interest in promoting a controlled narrative of Canada that’s not terribly different from the one spouted by Trudeau’s liberals. Namely, that Canada is a broadly well-run country possessing no significant anxiety about immigration, employment, health care or economic inequality.

This is what savvy former leaders often do: take credit for building a legacy strong enough to overshadow the relevance of their successor. During the Bill Clinton administration, Reaganites enjoyed arguing that the president’s “New Democrat” centrism was proof of the triumph of their ideas. In Britain, former prime minister Margaret Thatcher offered a similarly self-flattering one-liner when asked for the greatest monument to her success: “Tony Blair.” Not coincidentally, such commentary occurred during periods of relative weakness for both Republicans and Tories, in which both possessed great incentive to ideologically rationalize their powerlessness.

There is doubtless truth to the implication that Trudeau’s present popularity owes something to inheriting a country in better shape than most. Yet Harper solidly lost Canada’s 2015 election to him just the same. However nostalgic they may be for his rule, Conservatives cannot avoid the fact that Harper’s loss triggered a substantial change in the direction of the country — the elevation of a comparatively unqualified progressive leader whose quick ascent was a populist phenomenon of its own. The consequences of Trudeau’s election — and seemingly certain reelection — cannot be understated, let alone ignored.

If the issue was simply marketing, that after a decade voters were just sick of Harper and found the notion of another four years of him exhausting, then Conservatives made no mistake hitching their wagon to Scheer, who Trudeau calls “Harper with a smile.” Liberals often come close to echoing this theory themselves, with an enormous part of their 2015 victory narrative centering around Harper’s supposed late-career turn to “Islamophobia” — a charge that implies a friendlier leader might have fared better.

If 2015 was a more substantial verdict, however, then Harper’s Conservatives clearly failed to prove themselves as persuasive guardians of what he described to Shapiro as his core political motives: “the interests of ordinary people and their concerns.”

As they begin their uphill battle for next year’s election, Conservatives do not have to eschew the Harper record. But there is ample reason to believe the specific flavor of conservatism that Harper practiced — primarily one of alleviating the economic difficulties of the middle class — may have lost relevance in an age of fresh social anxiety where partisanship is increasingly an expression of culture.

Watching a Q-and-A session with Shapiro at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver recently, I was struck at the complete lack of interest the young people in attendance had for anything resembling the economic issues that would proceed to dominate Harper’s chat with Shapiro. No one had much to say about trade imbalances or industrial bailouts, but plenty of thoughts on gender relations, free speech, the rights of trans people, the abortion question, the state of academia and sociocultural stratification.

Harper spent his nine years in power avoiding those topics as much as possible, and clearly intends to continue doing so today. In evaluating this strategy and others, Conservatives must contemplate the uniqueness of the present when deciding how much of his example to follow.

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