Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
January 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


History of the Liberal-Conservative Party of Canada



[This text was published in 1948. For the full citation, see the end of the document. All parts between brackets [.] have been added by Claude Bélanger. In the text presented below, the argument made by Wallace about the dominance of opportunism (i.e. policies developed for simple political gain, or policies merely sustained as a reaction to government policies, regardless of what these might have been) within the Conservative Party is well taken. However, it would be fair to argue that such opportunistic policies are a characteristic of both the Liberal and Conservative parties in Canadaand, thus, are not peculiar to the Conservative Party of Canada.


While the author of the text might be overstating the tendency of the Conservative party to sponsor "socialistic" policies, - the text was probably first written during the Great Depression at the time of the interventionist Bennett New Deal - there is no doubt that, from time to time, the party has found its inspiration on the left of the political spectrum and has championed some progressive measures. To some extent, this is why the Conservative party of Canada used the name of "Progressive-Conservative Party" from 1942 to 2004; in the same vein, there has been a continuous string of "red-tories" in the Conservative party of the XXth century. Such "left" tendencies have vanished altogether since the merger of the Conservative party with the Canadian Alliance in 2004. The party is now squarely one on the right of the political spectrum, and one that is increasingly more ideological in orientation and influenced by the American right.]


[The Liberal-Conservative Party] is the official name of what is commonly known in Canada as the Conservative party. The name had its origin in the fact that in 1854 John A. Macdonald, the founder of the party, succeeded in uniting the moderate or Baldwin Liberals of Upper Canada with the High Tories and moderate Conservatives of Upper Canada and the English-speaking Conservatives and French-Canadian bleus of Lower Canada, leaving in opposition the "Clear Grits" of Upper Canada and the rouges of Lower Canada. In other words, he succeeded in detaching from the Liberal party its more moderate elements, and in absorbing them in the Liberal-Conservative party. This was a policy which he pursued throughout his long and successful political career. To a Liberal partisan, whom he hoped to make the captive of his bow and spear, he once quoted the words of the popular hymn:


"While the light holds out to burn,

The vilest sinner may return."


At the time of Confederation, he was again able to detach from the Liberal party a considerable element in support of his policies; and in 1917 the so-called Unionist government of Sir Robert Borden won over the support of a large wing of the Liberal party on the issue of compulsory military service. Many Liberal Unionists reverted after the Great War to their former party allegiance, but some did not; and there is thus ample historical justification for the name "Liberal-Conservative."


The basis of the Liberal-Conservative party has varied at different times; and opportunism has played no small part in the platforms it has espoused, as it has in the platforms of other political parties [in Canada ]. The party came into existence in answer to the radical policies of the extreme wing of the Reform or Liberal party; but it promptly justified its existence by stealing two of the planks in the platform of its opponents, the secularization of the Clergy Reserves and the abolition of the seigniorial tenure. At a later date, in 1879, it espoused the National Policy of high protection, partly because the Liberal government of Alexander Mackenzie had taken its stand on the doctrine of free trade; and it opposed reciprocity in trade with the United States, both in 1891 and in 1911, though it had previously sought earnestly for reciprocal relations in trade with that country. It opposed the nationalistic programme of Sir Wilfrid Laurier; but when Sir Robert Borden came into office, the Liberal-Conservative party committed itself to nationalistic policies which went beyond anything Sir Wilfrid Laurier had achieved. Under Sir James Whitney in Ontario, and under the Right Hon. R. B. Bennett in the federal sphere, it has sponsored legislation which can only be described as socialistic, though socialism is not one of the historical tenets of the party. The Liberal party has been, on occasion, more conservative than the Conservatives; and the Conservative party more radical than the Radicals.


It is easy to say that in principle there is no great difference between the two great historic political parties in Canada - no greater difference, as Goldwin Smith put it, than between "the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians in Lilliput." Undoubtedly, the policies of a political party are subject to the influence of the elements that compose it; and considerations of race, religion, class, and geography have repeatedly helped to mould the policies of the Liberal-Conservative party. It has become predominantly the urban party in Canada , as opposed to the rural; the Protestant, as opposed to the Roman Catholic; the English, as opposed to the French; the privileged, as opposed to the under-privileged. But to say that it has been without principles would not be true. It was the party of Confederation, of the National Policy, and of the Canadian Pacific Railway. It was also the party of federal rights, as opposed to provincial rights, and of the British connection, as opposed to [independence]. If it is true that considerations of race, religion, class, and geography affect the principles of political parties, it is also true that political principles create parties, and attract or repel support. If the Liberal-Conservative party [was, until mid-XXth century] predominantly an urban party, that is because it has been the party of the National Policy of high protection. If it has gained the support of the English elements in the country, rather than the French, that is because, since 1891, it has adopted policies that appeal to the English, rather than the French, though the French [were] naturally more conservative than the English. The Liberal-Conservative party may not always have been more conservative than the Liberal party; but this does not mean, as some writers have suggested, that it is without principles.


The truth is that the platforms of political parties change with changing conditions. The platforms of the Liberal party under George Brown and Sir Oliver Mowat appear conservative to-day; and in some respects Mr. Mackenzie King is more conservative than Mr. R. B. Bennett. Ideas become out-moded; and nothing in politics is static. But the Liberal-Conservative party is still mainly the party of economic as distinct from political nationalism within the British Empire, of the industrial as opposed to the agricultural interests in the Dominion, of the English and Protestant elements in the country as opposed to the French and Roman Catholic. As John Sandfield Macdonald once said, "a government must support its supporters."


There has been no scholarly attempt to trace the history of the Liberal-Conservative party in Canada [over the entire life of the party]; but an interesting analysis of the bases of the party will be found in E. M. Reid, Canadian political parties (Contributions to Canadian Economics , vol. vi, 1933). [The following books may be consulted to learn more on the history of the Conservative party: John R. WILLIAMS, The Conservative Party of Canada, 1920-1949 , Durhan, 1956; J. L. GRANATSTEIN, The Politics of Survival: The Conservative Party of Canada, 1939-1945 , Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1967, 231p.; John ENGLISH, The Decline of Politics: the Conservatives and the Party System, 1901-1920 , Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1993, 237p.; Larry A. GLASSFORD, Reaction & Reform. The Politics of the Conservative Party under R. B. Bennett, 1927-1938 , Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1992, 308p.; Peter REGENSTREIF, The Diefenbaker Interlude , Toronto, Longmans, 1965, 194p.; and, of course, the seminal study of Donald CREIGHTON, on John A. Macdonald (2 vol., Toronto, Macmillan - several editions)]

Source: W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., "Liberal-Conservative Party", in The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. IV, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 400p., pp. 73-74.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College