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Monday, July 1, 1996

RIGHT TO WRITE OFF THE RIGHT? Hugh Segal and Dalton Camp


July 1, 1996, Books in Canada

In August 1991, shortly after going to work for Brian Mulroney, Hugh Segal attended the Progressive Conservative Party general meeting in Toronto. There he witnessed

beyond the normal affection for a leader who had brought them to power twice with historic majorities, an outpouring of confidence and affection I had never seen before....On one day Mulroney gave fifteen speeches... campaigning with an intensity and level of connection with the crowd that was stunning....It was awesome.

I was at the August 1991 meeting. It was more than usually tedious in its unrelenting ritual enthusiasm. As I walked away from one of Mulroney's speeches, I thought he needed someone to keep him humble. Hugh Segal was apparently not the one for that. Segal has made himself since the party's rout in the 1993 election the most prominent national Tory after Jean Charest. He has gone on the road to speak to local party meetings and has repeatedly debated David Frum on the future direction of the party. No Surrender is an attempt in the form of a personal memoir to set out what is valuable in the party, to explain its devastation, and to map a course for its future.

He was born in 1950 and became a Tory in 1962 when Diefenbaker spoke at his school, breaking with the conventional Liberalism of his Jewish immigrant family in Montreal. Since then he has spent most of his life in Progressive Conservative politics. He was the candidate in Ottawa Centre in 1972 and 1974, doing remarkably well. He was legislative assistant to Robert Stanfield and then went to work for Bill Davis in Ontario until the end of the constitutional negotiations in 1982, with brief time off as a young corporate relations vice-president at Labatt's, a position he won through his Ontario Tory connections. From 1982 to 1991 he worked for the public relations and public affairs offshoot of Camp Advertising. He then went to work in Brian Mulroney's office, soon becoming his chief of staff. Tirelessly genial, he early earned the sobriquet "the happy warrior", and has known every prominent Tory of the last twenty-five years and a great many obscure ones. Scores and scores are mentioned and praised in No Surrender. Only two Tories are criticized: Joe Clark and Kim Campbell. Even Joe Clark cannot escape his praise: he was "a bright, confident, able, thoughtful, and caring person" with "a tremendous commitment to the country." It is hard to reconcile this with the detailed picture Segal gives of a stolid, self-important incompetent too insecure to thank those who had worked for him and the party.

The teenage Segal had been impressed by Diefenbaker's appeal to Canadians of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. He suddenly saw the Liberals as the party of the establishment and those on the make, and the Conservatives as the open party of the outsiders. But there was also a lot of adolescent teen spirit in his fateful commitment:
The identification with Diefenbaker and his message became a means of self-realization....Some people do it through sports, some through rock music....For me, the path of self-definition became the Conservative party, a blessing and a debt I can never repay.
The party gave him companions and recreation from his teens, and employment through most of his life. But there is no doubting Segal's loyalty and sincerity. What is not clear is whether he can say what the party has to offer Canada.

When he leaves the details of political organization and campaigning to discuss policies and principles, his bland prose becomes prolix and vague. His account of BILD, the Board of Industrial Leadership and Development, on which Davis ran his 1981 general election campaign, is in terms that may have gone down well in election publicity, but offer no insight into whether the program could be justified on any grounds beyond its electoral success:
BILD was the ultimate coming together of province and enterprise because it spoke about Ontario's industrial, energy, social, technical, and agricultural self-sufficiency so as to give us the capacity to export our excess in a way that generated value-added jobs and opportunities.

He devotes nine pages of introduction and several more pages later to his decision to go to work for Mulroney in May 1991. The agonizing he recounts is implausible. Any financial sacrifice was evidently short-term. Someone as addicted to politics as Hugh Segal would not pass up the chance to be the prime minister's right-hand man, hailed in Maclean's as the one who might save his party and possibly the country.

He had not been close to Mulroney. In 1983 he had tacitly supported Joe Clark's re-election to the leadership despite his low regard for him. In a curious mix of cynicism and naivety, he supposed that Clark could not last long and would give his hero, Bill Davis, another chance at the national leadership of the party. But Segal became the staunchest of Mulroney loyalists; he is still trying to figure out why the media were so hard on him. Perhaps he was disarmed by Mulroney in his first interview before he went to work for him, when he listened to
the frankest, most bare-knuckle self-assessment, assessment of the country...I had ever heard from any source, all presented in a fashion so humble and direct as to make me wonder whether or not he was too down on himself to help. He understood why he was where he was in the polls.
Apart from the usual line about having had to make unpopular decisions and an unspecific reference to his style, Segal offers no details of this self-assessment. Perhaps he is just too genial ever to have given Mulroney the rough handling he needed. Perhaps that was why he was chosen.

Segal argues that Mulroney had to personify or personalize his government to protect against the fractiousness that had historically undermined Tory governments and oppositions. But such a tactic, if it was a tactic, combined dangerously with Mulroney's vanity, to identify the party and its loathed leader. Mulroney was not jealous of potential successors, but he left a party sure to be crushingly defeated at the polls, discouraging most likely successors from seeking the leadership. Kim Campbell's curious emergence needs no further explanation. The last-minute idea of Segal's own candidacy, broached for the "five days in April" recounted here in detail, was another symptom of the party's weakness.

When Segal tries to set out where the party should stand, particularly in a long stretch at the end of the book, it is impossible to make out what exactly he is saying. He is clearly against separatism, though, as he blames it all on the War Measures Act, he shows little understanding of the threat. And why should he be so proud of the party's "recognizing Quebec's right to self-determination" in August 1991? For the rest he struggles to map out a middle ground that the Liberals have always succeeded in occupying. But he seems to think the Tories are the natural party of opposition made up essentially of outsiders. He blames the party's present state on its having governed.

Dalton Camp has been Canada's best-known behind-the-scenes Tory since his dramatic role in the ejection of John Diefenbaker from the leadership in the 1960s. In the imaginings of Diefenbaker loyalists and other traditional Tories, he has been behind more scenes than he ever knew about. He was first active in politics as a Young Liberal. He became a Tory simply on being invited to become executive secretary of the New Brunswick party at twenty-nine, as a bright boy who had been to the Columbia School of Journalism and, on a Beaverbrook scholarship, the London School of Economics. For over forty years he has served the party formally or informally, finally serving Mulroney as a senior policy adviser in the Privy Council Office from 1986 to 1988. His reputation has been as an organizer, speech-writer, and campaign strategist. He served and worked with Tories of all stripes, including Diefenbaker. He had a particular soft spot for George Drew. If he was called a Red Tory it was more as a term of abuse coming from older Tories suspicious of his influence than any serious assessment of his political position, which was inscrutable.

Whose Country is This Anyway? is a collection of his journalism from recent years, largely columns in the Toronto Star. As I do not read the Star, I had not observed Camp's emergence as a scourge of the New Right, corporations, and Americans and champion of the deficit, taxes, and big government. His book comes with praise from Linda McQuaig and Rick Salutin. Perhaps because he cannot attack free trade head on, only Maude Barlow is missing. In retirement in New Brunswick, Camp at full throttle seems no longer Tory and just Red.

Lest I expose myself to the scorn Camp dumps on a Young Tory who, Camp reports, accused Jean Charest of Communist tendencies-who knows, the young man may have been on to something; no-one else has been able to discern any political principles in Charest yet-I hasten to say that there is no evidence that Camp is a Communist or a Socialist or subscribes to any particular political doctrine. It's just that when he gets a little heated he looks a bit reddish:
It is simply a disgrace that the failure of capitalism-its chaotic dysfunction and its disastrous default of social responsibility-has made a civic virtue of selfishness and turned the middle class upon the victims of its failure.

Few writers can collect columns and make a decent book of it. Camp is not one. He can write well, but does not always do so, and not as well as he fancies. There is sometimes a self-consciousness to his writing that is wearing at book length. He has some wit but little humour. "It is the function of the columnist," he writes modestly, "to say what he thinks...with grace, preferably with wit, and with the full strength of his conviction." There is little grace and doubtful conviction in a book almost relentless in its sneering. It comes oddly from him to criticize Kenneth Whyte's Saturday Night for snideness. He seems as upset by the youth of the New Right as by its doctrines.

The book is divided into sections, the first headed "Carpet Bombing the Deficit". Interestingly, it begins with one of the oldest columns reprinted, praising Michael Wilson's first budget. In May 1985 he thinks the deficit is a problem, blaming it on a "protracted reign of fiscal irresponsibility under the previous government." He likes it that Wilson raised taxes. Wilson also cut spending and Camp does not comment on that. Ten years later, the deficit is still with us, the national debt has doubled, and Camp thinks the deficit is not a priority, though he is ready to pay more tax and make the rich and corporations pay more: the left's fantasy solution to all fiscal problems.

The attack on the attack on the deficit runs through the book long after the subject has been exhausted. Four columns make fun of an alarmist editorial in the Wall Street Journal, and despite Camp's promising to drop the subject, digs at the Journal run through the book. His line on the deficit is conventional, much like that of McQuaig and Salutin, who also share with him the claim that they are voices crying in a wilderness against a stifling consensus that has been mysteriously imposed by sinister forces. In fact one has heard it all before without reading the Star. There is no argument or persuasion in his pieces, which can only give comfort to those beyond persuasion.

Reform Camp describes as "a party populated by bigots, racists, and haters, and led by a charismatic authoritarian" in a piece full of ominous hints of a new Nazi threat. This sort of thing can be mildly amusing in Frank. But, being myself someone who has plenty of harsh things to say about the Reform Party and would not join it if it were the last party in the country, I feel free to say that Camp's attitude to Reform is bigoted if not simply affected.

There are only two pieces in the book that deserve reprinting and those are the longest: on his time spent waiting for a new heart, and a cagey valedictory on Mulroney's resignation. Camp knew Mulroney too long and worked with him too closely for him to be decently hard on him, but he is not prepared to expose himself by praising him as Segal does. He manages to give some idea of how a likeable young man became a loathed prime minister.


It is not clear that Camp still has any interest in the Conservative Party. His suggestions to Charest amount to a revival of late 1970s nationalist left Liberalism, which got us into our present mess. He seems not to have expected the Tory victory in Ontario, won by young Tories as skilled as he ever was in campaign strategy. He turns his fire on Mike Harris immediately after the election.

Camp will not debate David Frum. He makes a column of his refusing an invitation to do so. Segal will debate Frum. But Segal believes that what they both call, somewhat inaccurately, neo-conservatives, have no place in his party. Camp believes they have no place in the country. Both depict a caricatured, straw-man New Right. The question is whether the Progressive Conservatives are a right-wing party at all. If they are, they can find room for hard-liners in a coalition broad enough to win back most Reform voters, command moderate right-wingers, and return to government. If Segal and Camp are right, Reform supporters were right to reject the Progressive Conservative Party and form a new party. Writing off the right, as these authors do, there can be no future for the Tories. This will make Segal sad. Camp is past caring.