After Theresa May spelled out her philosophy in the Conservative manifesto, it has become common for pundits to label her as a Red Tory. Many point to Phillip Blond’s innovative work with ResPublica as the source of Red Toryism, but its true origin lies in Canada.
The term was originally coined in the 1960s by Gad Horowitz, a Canadian political scientist, to describe the Tory tradition which had grown in opposition to liberalism in Canada, and in turn prevented the emergence of a major socialist party. It is a communitarian form of conservatism which is distinctly different from the more libertarian forms of conservatism which have flourished in the United States. Red Toryism’s closest analogue in Britain is One Nation Conservatism.
Up until the free market revolution during Brian Mulroney’s tenure as Prime Minister in the 1980s, the Canadian Tories favoured the power and independence of the nation state. Sir John A. Macdonald, a Father of the Confederation, was the first and greatest practitioner of Red Toryism. Macdonald built a strong Canadian nation state through a “National Policy” of protective tariffs and national infrastructure projects.
A century later, John Diefenbaker, the last significant Red Tory Prime Minister, tried and failed to exercise a Canadian foreign policy independent of American influence during the Cuban missile crisis. It was this episode which provoked George Grant, a Canadian political philosopher, to write Lament for a Nation, a classic statement of Red Tory philosophy.
These Red Tories believed that the state should act as the guarantor of the social order. Economic and cultural nationalism underpinned their approach to state intervention, especially in their desire to resist the Americanisation of Canadian economy, culture and politics.
Christianity is also a crucial part of Red Tory philosophy. High Church Anglicanism provided Red Toryism with its need to pursue the common good. It bears some similarity to the influence of Catholic social teaching on Christian Democratic thought in Europe, as well as the English school of distributism.
Red Toryism is now largely defunct in modern Canadian politics. There are centrists in the Canadian conservative movement but they do not hail from the same Red Tory philosophy which flowed from Macdonald to Diefenbaker. As anti-globalism spreads across the Western world, it is strange that Red Toryism has not undergone a revival in its birthplace.
In Britain, however, Red Toryism has found a new lease of life. Brexit represents a “quiet revolution” for May which goes beyond discontent with the European Union. It was also a rebuke of the political classes for their failure to respond to the the economic and cultural divisions created by globalisation. In order to heal these divisions, May has provided her party with a communitarian conservatism rooted in her personal patriotism and Christian belief.
There is always a temptation among British conservatives to look to America for inspiration. Conservatism in the world’s most powerful nation cannot be ignored, but it is not the only, nor necessarily the best, source of political wisdom. As a parliamentary democracy with a welfare state, Canada has more in common with Britain. Canadian Red Toryism is a fascinating tradition which has gained a new relevancy in an age when political discourse is being defined by the clash between globalism and nationalism.