It is not every day that you get a chance to interview a former leader of a major Western nation, rarer still one that has the political and economic legacy of Canada’s Brian Mulroney.
Under his tenure, Canada underwent a free market revolution – not unlike the ones experienced in the United Kingdom under Margaret Thatcher – with significant privatisation of state assets and the signing of a landmark free trade treaty with the United States.Yet, it was also his premiership that marked the last time his party, the Progressive Conservatives, would ever hold meaningful office again.
I had the pleasure of meeting him at the Saïd Business School, to ask him about his political experiences and outlook. First off, I asked if, given how his premiership could be placed in the wider context of the free market movement in the 1980s, a stridently neo-liberal approach was the key to electoral success for centre-right parties. “Well, I think so. There hasn’t been any change in the basic philosophy,” is his immediate reply. He goes on to account for how he experienced fierce opposition to his landmark free trade deal and, according to him, a Liberal Party politician vowed “to blame every sparrow that falls on free trade”.
He reminisces about the subsequent electoral challenge. “I had to call an election which turned out to be one of the most brutal in Canadian history,” he remarks. Mulroney follows this up, in a somewhat triumphalist manner, by claiming that he had to “call a general election and win it with a big majority, to implement free trade”. Mulroney’s success was one repeated in Australia, the United Kingdom and America. Centre-right governments, which stood on platforms of anti-protectionism, tax-cuts and privatisation, enjoyed similar political success. His reason for such an approach? Simple: economic success.”
So, what are the consequences 30 years later? 4.9 million new jobs created in Canada. We have one of the most stable banking systems in the world, and are one of the most prosperous nations in the 200 of the UN.” Clearly proud of his economic record, I probe him on the wider question of how governments make the case for free trade to those left behind by globalisation. Mulroney points out that the alternative is the absence of free trade and “then you are on a treadmill to oblivion.” While in the short-run it may seem beneficial, 10 or 15 years down the line, the countries who you appealed to can turn around and stab you in the back.
His line remains a consistent one: free trade creates the wealth and jobs to sustain a successful society, regardless of its shortterm disruptions. He is not, however, of the view that government has no role to play in this changing process. “The government also has an obligation, given the kind of dislocations you’ve talked about, to provide its citizens with vast retraining programmes and investments in their education to allow them and their families to bridge this gap and to come out of the other end with new skills that will allow them to integrate in this new and changing marketplace.”
He is not oblivious to the harsh consequences that such an economic approach can bring. Nor is he of the view that such consequences should be allowed to prevent the achievements of a long-term goal. The interview then shifts from the wider issue of economic policy to the domestic nature of Canadian politics and its similarities to the UK. Mulroney’s party, the Progressive Conservatives, famously went from 156 seats to just two in the 1993 Federal Elections. The reason for such a defeat was due to a historic split within Canada’s right. Preston Manning’s right wing Reform Party led to a division in the right wing voting base, from which the Progressive Conservatives would never emerge as a party of government again.
I probe him on whether, as Prime Minister, he could have done more to prevent such a split from occurring, but he uses this as an opportunity to attack the discord that the Reform Party caused. “No,” he abruptly replies to the notion that he could have done more to prevent such a split taking place.
He reminds me again how he won the greatest election victory in Canadian history and how Conservatives usually average over 40 per cent of the vote. “What he managed to do was split the Conservative vote 50/50. The Liberals only got 33 per cent of the vote and they won”. It is clear that he still has not forgiven the Reform Party for the part they played in delivering the Progressive Conservatives a defeat from which they never quite recovered.
The fear for many British Conservatives was that UKIP would play a similar role in sundering the centre-right vote, to the detriment of the governing party. I ask him about how established parties can prevent votes bleeding to populist fringe movements – a political trend throughout the Western world. “It’s a hard one to answer,” he responds. “Because it’s easy if you’re sitting on the outside to criticise and say we’re more extreme on the right wing, or on the left.”
He is under no illusion how convincing such politics can be and, indeed, his party has suffered the most under such political campaigns. But at his heart, despite his strong ideological commitments, he is a deep-rooted political pragmatist. “The problem with [being too ideologically focused],” he remarks, “is that you can’t be elected dog-catcher”.