This spring that we are soon to exit from has been buttressed by two elections; firstly, in the land of my birth and family, Ireland; more recently, in the land where I now reside, Canada. To borrow Francis Fukuyama’s oft-used phrase, both of these elections were viewed, to some extent, as “The End of History” – moments in which institutions that were regarded (and more tellingly, regarded themselves) as part of the political furniture in their respective states were vanquished.
Around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Fukuyama wrote that the advent and perceived success of Western liberal democracy might well signal the end of humanity’s sociocultural and geopolitical evolution. Things have not panned out exactly like that, with the post-9/11 decade signalling that history is not about to reach its conclusion without some unexpected hiccups.
The Irish and Canadian elections of this spring saw two parties – Fianna Fáil and the Liberal Party, respectively – humbled beyond what their most vicious nightmares might have foretold. Their hubris was to believe, within their individual states, that they had reached the end of history and had become their nations’ natural governing parties. The Liberals even went so far using “natural governing party” as a synonym for themselves, but the party was reduced to 34 seats in a 308-seat legislature two weeks ago. That’s not the work of a natural governing party.
The most commonly used translation of Fianna Fáil – Soldiers of Destiny – reveals an intrinsic sense of self-worth and belief in manifest destiny within the organisation from the outset. Pride is an essential component of any successful party, but there is a fine line between pride and hubris.
Fianna Fáil and the Liberals both more or less occupied, or attempted to occupy, the political centre within two-and-a-half party systems. Ireland might legitimately be seen as more innately conservative than Canada, which explains the generally more populist right agenda of Fianna Fáil. For the Liberals, the very word – then as now – is something of a blank canvass onto which individuals, political parties, nations and continents can paint a fresh meaning. In the United States, to be liberal is to be firmly on the left. In most of Europe, to be liberal is to be a cheerleader for free market economics while holding progressive social views. In Australia, the conservative centre-right party is called the Liberal Party. When somebody asks, ‘are you liberal?’ I usually answer based on the origin of the person who asked the question.
And so Canada, with a population largely drawn from the old world but an address in the new one, got a chance to create a fresh liberalism, defining it positively as pragmatic centrism with a liberal (excuse the pun) glazing of diplomacy abroad and help for the needy at home, and negatively as ‘not conservative’. The modern mistake of the party comes in two parts: believing that its domination of the 1990s was because it was loved and believing that pragmatic centrism, as defined above, was the permanent will of the majority of Canadians. Now, with a Liberal Party based in the East of the country (12 of the 34 Liberal MPs take their mandate from the smaller Atlantic Provinces) and a conservative government whose strength lies in Ontario and the West, the Liberal Party is also geographically removed from the Canadian centre.
After the 2002 and 2007 elections, Fianna Fáil gave the impression that it believed its version of liberalism was here to stay. Immediately after the 2007 election, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern entered RTE TV studios and essentially stated that the party was now the natural choice for Irish people. And to some extent, he was correct, but the folly was to consider this to be a permanent state of affairs. Fianna Fáil, along with the Catholic Church and the Gaelic Athletic Association, completed a trifecta of loyalties that largely defined twentieth century Ireland. They will not define the twenty first.
And neither will the Liberals, unless they stop tweaking things at the top and think fundamentally about how to become a governing party again, and not necessarily a “natural” one. The roles have been reversed since the consolidation of conservative forces in 2003 and the rise of the NDP in 2011, perhaps making the Conservatives – if anybody has a claim to the title – the natural governing party.