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The philosopher politician

Will another liberal intellectual lead a party to power, this time in Canada? Fred Fletcher profiles Michael Ignatieff

Fred Fletcher 10 March 2009 2079 words

Canadian Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff meets Barack Obama at the Ottawa International Airport last month. Jim Watson/AFP Photo



WHEN BARRACK OBAMA met Michael Ignatieff, Canada’s new opposition leader, on a recent working visit to Ottawa, the president is reported to have opened the conversation by saying, “I’ve read your stuff.” This, of course, is a standard form of greeting among published authors and academics, and underlined the fact that both are former professors and public intellectuals, as well as fellow graduates of Harvard University. If Ignatieff succeeds in defeating Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper and leading the Liberal Party to power after the next election, he will join three other liberal intellectuals – Obama, Kevin Rudd and Britain’s Gordon Brown – who are also heads of government.

Soon after Ignatieff was appointed leader, he disappeared from public view for three weeks because, according to a spokesperson, he was putting the finishing touches on his latest book. That book, True Patriot Love: Four Generations in Search of Canada, to be published in late April, can be seen as a companion to his acclaimed 1998 book, The Russian Album. Where the earlier book traced his roots on his father’s side, mixing family memoir with broader social commentary, his new book deals with his maternal side, a family of Scots-Canadian intellectuals.

Even more than Obama, Ignatieff’s family background and personal reflections are on the public record. With sixteen books and nine honorary doctorates under his belt, he is by no means the first intellectual to lead a major Canadian political party. But he is by far the best known. Unlike Pierre Trudeau, who led Liberal governments from 1968 to 1984 and was often called Canada’s “philosopher king,” Ignatieff has lived outside the country for most of his adult life.

After making his name as a journalist, broadcaster and academic in Britain and the United States, Ignatieff resigned suddenly from a prestigious position at Harvard – as director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy – and accepted a visiting position at the University of Toronto. A few months later, in January 2006, he was elected MP for a Toronto constituency, having won preselection when all the other candidates were declared ineligible. He was re-elected last October, and by December he was interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. His leadership is to be confirmed at a party convention in May.

Ignatieff’s swift rise to the leadership of the centrist Liberal Party, which has held power for nearly seven out of every ten years since 1900, partly reflects the fact that the previous party leader, Stephane Dion – himself a professor of political science – failed to capture the public imagination, not least because of his shaky grasp of spoken English. Fluency in French and English is now a political necessity for national party leaders in Canada but it remains unclear how well Ignatieff, who has a house in Provence and speaks French elegantly, will connect with Canadian voters in other ways. To date, though, Ignatieff’s background – descendant of Russian aristocrats and Scots-Canadian stock – does not seem to have been much of an issue with the public.

The recent successes of other liberal intellectuals in politics, particularly Obama, might herald a new era of political discourse in which a former Oxford fellow and Harvard professor doesn’t have to hide his intellect behind a six-pack. As opposition leader, he is close to power, but much will depend on public acceptance of a cosmopolitan public intellectual as a potential national leader. As he wrote in his 1994 book, Blood and Belonging, “If anyone has a claim to being a cosmopolitan, it must be me.”

In a country not known for its reverence for academics, at least among English-speaking Canadians, the life of a party leader who (in the view of a few cynics) has written more books than some members of parliament have read will not be without challenges. Although he worked for Trudeau in 1968, served briefly as a national youth organiser for the Liberal Party and signalled his interest in politics in the yearbook of Toronto’s Upper Canada College, Canada’s elite private boy’s school, Ignatieff has spent most of his life observing, aloof from the battle. As he approached his sixtieth birthday, however, it appears that the observer wanted to have a more direct influence on policy.


WHILE IGNATIEFF may have been ready to enter the political fray, what seems to have brought him back to Canada was active recruitment by a group of influential Liberals concerned about the future of what they consider to be Canada’s natural governing party. Torn apart by scandal, regional differences and personal rivalries, the Liberals needed renewal. Like the key members of his staff, Ignatieff is an outsider with an insider background. He made his name abroad, but his father was a Canadian diplomat with strong connections to political and intellectual elites in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal.

As a thinker, Ignatieff seems to have been influenced more by the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin than by his education at the University of Toronto and at Harvard. Indeed, Ignatieff’s politics have been described as “left-liberal in the Isaiah Berlin sense,” and in 1998, he published an award-winning biography, Isaiah Berlin: A Life. Like Trudeau and other Canadian Liberal thinkers, Ignatieff is comfortable with many of Berlin’s central beliefs: the importance of individual freedom, equality of opportunity, preference for pragmatic rather than utopian goals, the need to seek balance between competing rights and values, and a commitment to communitarian values combined with a concern that active government must do no harm.

The concept of balance plays an important role in Ignatieff’s writings. In The Needs of Strangers (1984), he explores the philosophical conflict between individualism and communitarianism. In The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in the Age of Terror (2004) he seeks to balance the values of security and liberty. His willingness to consider extraordinary measures in time of crisis proved to be controversial among human rights activists, though he denies allegations that he would countenance torture.

This pattern of thought seems to have led Ignatieff to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq – a position, based on his concern for minority rights, that he later recanted as he observed the aftermath of the US action. His concern for human rights also led him into controversy over the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006. He first showed a lack of concern over civilian casualties and then suggested they might be a war crime, losing support on all sides. However, he has been consistent in his support of Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan. These aspects of his thinking on foreign policy have provided considerable ammunition for his critics on the left, despite his long-standing defence of human rights and his opposition to ethnic nationalism.

On domestic policy, his principles are less clear. In a 2006 article in the Canadian magazine Maclean’s, Ignatieff set out some of his core political beliefs about Canada:

Canadians have created a distinctively progressive political culture in North America. We believe in universal rights of access to publicly funded health care; we believe in the protection of group rights to language; in group rights to self-determination for Aboriginal peoples; we believe in equality rights for all citizens, regardless of sexual orientation, including rights to marriage. Strong majorities of Canadians believe that while abortion should be rare, it should be a protected right for all women. In addition, Canadians do not support capital punishment, and we do not believe in a constitutionally protected right to bear arms. We also maintain that human freedom is best protected in a market economy where risk taking is rewarded, taxes are kept competitive, and the public finances are managed prudently to avoid burdening future generations with debt. We believe, finally, that we are stewards of our land, air and water and have an obligation to hand these treasures on to the next generation redeemed and renewed.

I am in politics to defend and develop this progressive achievement.

This passage illustrates Ignatieff’s commitment to balancing individualism and community interests and places him in the middle of the Liberal Party spectrum. In the current economic crisis, Ignatieff has pushed for a large and rapid stimulus package, with a nod to prudent spending and a longer term plan for a return to balance budgets. When the minority Conservative government presented a budget that reflected these principles in January, he and the Liberal caucus supported it, permitting the Conservatives to retain power in the face of opposition from the two smaller parties.

Overall, his views appear to place Ignatieff squarely in the middle of the Liberal Party spectrum, a leader who can balance the social justice preferences of progressive Liberals, usually called “welfare Liberals,” and the more conservative Liberals, generally styled “business Liberals.” As a result, Ignatieff has been criticised for moving the party to the right, away from the stronger welfare and environmental commitments of his predecessor. Perhaps he is best described as a conservative progressive or a progressive conservative. In terms of personal priorities, he could reasonably be placed in the more conservative wing of the Australian Labor Party.

The consensus of the Ottawa commentariat is that Ignatieff is learning the language of politics and that he managed his first big challenge as leader – a parliamentary crisis in late 2008 – adroitly. He has already surrounded himself with an experienced staff and has embarked on the difficult task of rebuilding the Liberal Party, whose divisions had become more apparent in opposition and whose fund-raising capacity had fallen far behind that of the Conservatives.

National polls indicate that Ignatieff’s leadership has improved the Liberal Party’s public standing significantly. While still far from majority numbers, some polls now show support for Liberals and Conservatives to be quite close, a swing of nearly 10 per cent. In one recent poll, Ignatieff was the only leader who had a net positive personal rating: 43 positive and 32 negative. Because his support is relatively strong in all age groups and in all regions except the prime minister’s Conservative stronghold in Alberta, analysts believe Ignatieff’s support has the most growth potential. One source of his popularity is that he has successfully toned down the political rhetoric in Ottawa and has been credited with making political discourse more civil after a period of raucous partisanship, much as Kevin Rudd was able to do when he became Labor leader.

Yet although Ignatieff has high name recognition, Canadian voters do not have a clear sense of the man, despite the wide publication of his personal and professional thoughts. It is too soon to say how well his measured and academic style will hold up in the bear pit of Canadian political debate. He may well benefit from the fact that his chief opponents are also inclined to be rather wonkish in their public discourse. If he is not comfortable with manure on his boots, as one commentator recently suggested, that is equally true of Prime Minister Harper. In his campaign appearance in the last few months, Ignatieff has sought to connect with voters at the level of policy, discussing farm subsidies in rural areas rather than trying to make himself into a cowboy.

In electoral terms, however, he will have to cope with the perils of being a public intellectual. When his academic and philosophical writings are compared with those of Prime Minister Harper, who has also written a considerable amount on policy issues, will his public standing suffer? Will the fact that Harper is writing a book on ice hockey, Canada’s most popular sport, make Ignatieff’s work seem effete and elitist?

Certainly, the Conservative “war room” is gearing up for a rhetorical attack on the new leader. The kind of opposition research pioneered in the US has been imported to Canada and Conservative strategists concede that they are closely monitoring his public statements and comparing them with what he has said and written in the past. Commenting on this, Ignatieff said: “I am trembling in my shoes. I am quaking.”

In Canada, at least, where George W. Bush was massively unpopular, it is a good thing he did not say: “Bring it on!” More like President Obama, Ignatieff seems prepared to listen and debate. •

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