Both Canada and America had to sort out these issues in their politics and, as they did, conservatives in the two nations arrived at markedly different perspectives.
At the start of the 1960s, the Republican Party in America was a coalition between liberals like Nelson Rockefeller—who promoted a growing welfare state, generally supported the UN, and were friendly to the “Northeastern consensus”—and libertarian or free-market conservatives like Barry Goldwater, who opposed the growth of the welfare state, sought a militantly anticommunist foreign policy, and mostly hailed from the West and Midwest.
Goldwater’s wing of the party grew quickly, and as it did a group of conservative intellectuals was waging a self-conscious campaign to redefine American conservatism, as an ideology and a movement. They saw it as a fusion between libertarians, who emphasized freedom, and traditionalists—often religiously motivated—who emphasized order and public virtue. Chief among these thinkers and writers was the late William F. Buckley, who embraced both small government and a religiously motivated moral traditionalism. He and his cohort were so successful in engineering this fusion that even libertarian conservatives like Goldwater made the restoration of public virtue a part of their political appeals. The success of Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” in 1968-72 gave the Republicans an influential new mass of morally conservative voters, and Republican conservatives had all but driven liberals out of the party by the time of Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980.
As issues like gay rights, divorce, and abortion emerged, conservatives found, in their concern with public virtue, political reason to oppose change. Then, as the religious right mobilized in the late 1970s, it was able to identify its activism as “conservative” on these grounds, and supported traditional-value Republicans. Once established as a legitimate part of American conservatism, social conservatives benefited from the ability of religious groups like the Moral Majority to mobilize voters and from the openness of American institutions to influence by interest groups. But it was the ideological legitimacy that came first.
The Canadian situation was different. In 1960s Canada, conservative ideology was not a movement in search of a party but the property of a single party, the Progressive Conservatives. At its core were libertarian pro-business conservatives. But to a much more significant degree than in the United States, this core was modified by the influence of another ideological tendency—Toryism. Tories saw themselves as heirs of the Loyalists who had fled the American Revolution two centuries earlier. They were fueled by an almost aristocratic sense of noblesse oblige, a sense that community came first and that a strong, interventionist state was necessary to preserve it. They also believed firmly that public virtue was not a matter for politics, or legislation: That was the responsibility of churches (Canada was still a markedly religious society in the 1960s) and society’s elites. They drew on statements by British Conservatives that it was important to differentiate between sins and crimes.
When the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau introduced changes to Canada’s criminal code in 1968 that allowed access to abortions in hospitals (subject to approval by a committee of doctors), allowed no-fault divorce, and decriminalized sodomy, the Progressive Conservative leadership offered very little opposition. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, still under the influence of the Tories, the party kept American-style social conservatism at arm’s length. A series of court decisions in the late 1980s striking down the reforms to abortion law of 1968 forced the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney to attempt to fill the legal void; Mulroney made two attempts to pass a bill that would have enshrined a gestational approach in Canadian law, intending to make abortions progressively more difficult to obtain as pregnancy progressed.
Both of them ultimately failed, sunk by politicians on both left and right who couldn’t agree on a compromise, and many of whom believed abortion shouldn’t be up for debate at all. As a result of this ends-against-the-middle outcome, abortion in Canada is subject to no legal regulation, governed instead by prevailing medical codes of ethics and its definition as a medically necessary procedure under Canada’s health care funding law.
When gay rights emerged as a political issue in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was Mulroney’s conservative government that allowed openly gay Canadians to serve in the military and placed some antidiscrimination provisions in the federal human rights code.Continued...