George Grant was “wrong. Wrong. Wrong again.” So wrote Michael Ignatieff in True Patriot Love in 2009 while he was seeking the Liberal party leadership, as the golden boy recruited to lead desperately power-starved Grits to victory in 2011. But George Grant was right about a key part of his Lament for a Nation: that the cozy relationship between Liberals and big corporate interests was not good for Canada.
The charge might sound surprising given how the Liberals have pretended, with much success over the years, that the Tories were the ones in the pocket of corporations.
Brian Mulroney’s background kind of made it look like that, and was indeed one of the things that made the Tories acceptable to Bay Street in 1983. But no. The Liberals have long been — and very obviously remain — the party of the rich; the party of big corporations. Think PowerCorp, Jean Chrétien, and Paul Martin in recent years. But the connection goes back a lot further.
Grant, a great philosopher of Canadian Toryism, wrote Lament for a Nation back in 1965, inspired in part by the defeat of John Diefenbaker. And that defeat was, in turn, due partly to the Conservatives’ unwillingness to accept nuclear warheads on Canadian soil. The Liberals, he said, were the party of corporatism rather than Canadian nationalism. And they were prepared to allow nuclear-tipped American Bomarc anti-bomber missiles to be stationed in North Bay and La Macaza. Grant pointed to the reign of Clarence Decatur “C.D.” Howe, the so-called “Minister of Everything” in the 1948 to 1957 government of Liberal Prime Minister Louis St Laurent.
“During the Howe era,” Grant wrote, “the wealthy had become used to running the country; they assumed it was natural there should be an identity of interests between themselves and the Liberal government” because “the Conservatives handled the machine of state capitalism less skilfully than had the Liberal smoothies.”The result was that, “Our rulers, particularly those who enjoy wielding power, move in and out of the corporations, the civil service, and politics.” He gave as a further example Mitchell Sharp, “a leading civil servant under C.D. Howe, directing the development of our resources by continental capitalism.”
Many of Canada’s Liberal cabinet ministers got their start in the expanding civil service of the post-World War I era, including J.W. Pickersgill, Mitchell Sharp, and two future prime ministers, W.L. Mackenzie King and Lester Pearson. And these Liberal potentates always found a soft corporate landing when they were out of power. When St Laurent’s Liberals lost power to the insurgent Tory John Diefenbaker, who won a minority government in 1957, Grant recalled: “many Liberal leaders immediately retreated into the cover of the corporations.”
Mitchell Sharp, for instance, “had to move to Brazilian Traction,” the Brazilian Traction, Light and Power Company, later Brascan. “He had the gumption, however, to be interested in the revival of the Liberal party at its lowest ebb,” when an unsteady Pearson was leader of the opposition, until they could win the 1963 election. “And so today,” Grant wrote, by 1963 Sharp “exercises power as the Minister of Trade and Commerce.”
All of this seems like a long time ago — until we learn that the Clerk of the Privy Council attempted, last fall, in 2018, to browbeat the former Attorney-General, the Hon. Judy Wilson-Raybould, with the curious intelligence that, “There is a board meeting on Thursday, … with stockholders.” The fact that a corporate board meeting would be assumed to dictate the timing as well as direction of government policy offers a glimpse of that long-standing cozy and corrupt nexus between the Liberal Party of Canada, elements of the Public Service, and a very large company that George Grant disliked more than half a century ago.
And who is the chairman of SNC-Lavalin? None other than Kevin Lynch, the former Clerk. There is nothing wrong with corporations or big business in themselves. On the contrary, they are vital to our modern economy and high standard of living. But there is something very wrong with a fusion between corporations and the state, leading to such loathsome things as crony capitalism and corporate welfare. There is also something improper with a fusion between corporations and one particular political party. And there are lines between politics and business that should not be crossed. So it’s Ignatieff who was wrong on this as so many issues. And Grant, alas, was right. Right. And right again. In 2019.
C.P. Champion edits The Dorchester Review.