On February 6, 2014, Stephen Harper celebrated (or at least one presumes that he celebrated) his eighth anniversary as Prime Minister of Canada. Although not an unusually long time in office by Canadian standards, this milestone places him ahead of several prime ministers who left their mark on the country: Mackenzie, Bennett, Diefenbaker and Pearson to name a few. By the end of 2014, on the fairly safe assumption that he is still in office, Harper will rank as the most durable Conservative prime minister since John A. Macdonald. Assuming that the next election is in October 2015 and that Harper leads his party into that election, he will have been Prime Minister for nine years and eight months, a term of office exceeded only by Macdonald, Laurier, King, Trudeau and Chretien. If Harper's party wins enough seats in that election to keep him in office for a while he will easily surpass Chretien, who was Prime Minister for ten years and one month.
What does Harper's successful career to date tell us about the state of Canadian politics in the second decade of the 21st century? Has the centre of gravity of Canadian party politics shifted sharply and decisively to the right? Is Canadian party politics becoming less consensual and more polarized? Are we witnessing the Americanization of our political system? Have the recent changes been so fundamental that we have entered an entirely new party system, our fifth since Confederation, as a former student of the present writer has argued? How significant a figure will Harper appear to be in the evaluations of future historians? How does he relate to the past history of conservatism in Canada? And, to pose the last question as crudely as possible, is he really as bad as the chattering classes of Canada seem to believe he is?
Harper and King: The resemblances
While I cannot definitively answer any of these questions, I will begin the discussion by suggesting that, of the 21 prime ministers who preceded him, the one that Harper most resembles is William Lyon Mackenzie King. Without access to Harper's private papers, and without the opportunity to have known him personally as a leader, employer or colleague, I can only make this assertion very tentatively, but the similarities are striking and interesting. This is not to say that Harper will last as long in office as King did, an accomplishment that is probably impossible for any democratic leader in the present era. Nor is to suggest that Harper is likely ever to be ranked as the greatest Canadian prime minister, an accolade that was posthumously (and in my opinion erroneously) bestowed on King by a committee of distinguished historians in 1997. (1) However, the parallel is worth pursuing.
Even Harper's worst enemies will probably concede that, like King, he is a skilful and effective politician. Like King also, he is totally lacking in the quality that is nowadays usually referred to as charisma. To say the least, neither King nor Harper could be credited with the oratorical talents of Pericles, Lincoln, Churchill or even Laurier. Neither ever said anything particularly memorable, unless one counts "not necessarily conscription but conscription if necessary" to King's credit. Neither seemed or seems particularly comfortable talking to ordinary voters, in the populist style of a John Diefenbaker or Jean Chretien. Both are devout Protestant Christians from middleclass Ontario families. Unlike any of our other prime ministers, both had postgraduate training in economics. Both left politics for a while to work in the private sector, and then returned to become successful party leaders and prime ministers. Even Harper's reputed fondness for cats and King's well-documented fondness for dogs suggest a warmer and more sentimental side to their respective personalities than is superficially obvious from their political behaviour.
Most significantly, perhaps, both were successful in reinventing, or at least rebuilding, a party that had fallen on very hard times, and thus prevented a radical change in Canada's party system. The Liberal Party that King...