The wildcard in BC politics, from the mid-1950s until 1996 was the old Liberal Party of British Columbia. In the 1953 election, the Liberals were reduced from governing party to rump party, eking out a small space in nearly every BC legislature until their unexpected transformation into, to paraphrase Roy Romanow, the Social Credit witness protection program and, consequently, the new right-wing government in waiting.
The Liberals’ forty-nine years out of government, from their defeat in 1952 to their triumphant return to power in 2001 are often narrated as a time of failure and irrelevance, which is fine as far as it goes. But what such a story misses is what the Liberal Party was during those long years in the political wilderness. Why did the party keep going? Whom did it represent? What was it for? And how is it that we needed that thing so badly that we made this weird little party all over again, out of the unlikeliest raw materials?
In many ways, it was just like its third-party namesake in the United Kingdom, a perennial electoral bridesmaid, whose MPs hail from, as one commentator eloquently put it, “university towns and the Celtic fringe.” Such a description is a useful starting point for describing the old BC Liberals led by David Anderson, Arthur Laing, Pat McGeer and Gordon Gibson. The Liberals’ ridings were always the whitest in the province with a particularly Celtic aesthetic, containing either a university or one’s bedroom community.
The party’s leaders typically had advanced degrees; they were lawyers, medical doctors, university professors, as were most of the party’s small caucuses, which, until 1991, never represented more than four ridings at once. The core BC Liberal vote, which usually fell between 5% and 20%, was only sufficiently concentrated in a few places to produce sustained victories that lasted more than a term.
The party’s longest-held area was, of course, Oak Bay, followed by Vancouver-Point Grey, Victoria and then Vancouver’s North Shore. That is because Liberal voters could best be described as too rich to vote NDP, and too educated to vote Social Credit. Being a Liberal in BC during the Cold War, when the two main parties battled for the heart and soul of BC’s mining and logging towns and its volatile, populist proletariat, was not really about policy or political ideology. It was about class, a very particular performance of class.
Liberals could be spotted on sight, festooned in their Celtic tweeds and corduroys, with their fine white features and soft hands. Electing a Liberal MLA constituted the ultimate political assertion of secure, old money, the same way a Vancouver Lawn Tennis or University Women’s Club membership might. To be a Liberal was to be above the fray, so secure in one’s privilege as to tut dispassionately at the indecorous rubes who dominated the legislature.
Of course, in dire emergencies, it was sometimes necessary to make common cause with the coarse boozers and used car salesmen who kept the province in order for the companies whose shares the Liberals owned. In one rare emergency a couple of caucus members had to join the Social Credit Party’s cabinet. But that was the exception, not the rule. As long as the coal and timber flowed out through the port, privilege was about effacing one’s relationship to the populism and rentierism that structured BC’s economy and politics, showing one’s security by remaining above the fray, one’s job unconnected to boom-bust rentierism but instead of family trusts, the VSE, the local hospital or the UBC and UVic tenure streams.
When the BC Liberal Party was suddenly and unexpectedly called upon to shoulder the burden of running BC’s government for the province’s robber barons, the party chose a leader whose personal style and record could keep this constituency on board. Gordon Campbell, anointed by the Grande Dame of BC Liberalism, herself, May Brown, was the logical choice. While not a son of privilege, himself, Campbell was steeped in the values, culture and, of course, civic associations, of the BC Liberal tradition. In the hands of another, Campbell’s orgy of sweetheart deal privatizations and fire sales of the province’s assets might have been seen as simple corruption but he had that curious Liberal dignity that allowed him to invest this exercise with technocratic legitimacy, to redescribe simple looting as an esoteric experiment in the technocratic management of public assets.
Ironically, despite her much deeper roots in the BC Liberal tradition, Christy Clark lacks that gift and so, consequently, something of a seismic shift has been taking place in BC politics.
The old BC Liberals are back, led by a roiling mass of tweed, corduroy and messianic intellectual grandiosity, a man who, if they could have, would have been engineered by the old BC Liberals. Andrew Weaver, the incumbent MLA for the safest true Liberal seat in BC has everything: the tweeds, the corduroys, the elbow pads, a real, live proper British accent, a PhD, a professorship and a propensity to lecture his perceived inferiors on how to do their jobs. Not only that; he appears to decide how to vote on the government budget by tossing a coin, his reasons always unfathomable and obscure, conveying that he deems himself and his party above the fray when it comes to such small things the amount of money allocated to public schools.
Foolishly, my party has decided to field a prominent environmentalist against Dr. Weaver, as though the people of Oak Bay elected him based on his environmental credentials, as opposed to his perfect haute bourgeois aesthetic. What we needed was a candidate in an ascot, preferably owning both a yacht and a horse, and one with a higher-class accent than their opponent, managing their family trust’s nature conservancy. Then, we might have had a fighting chance!
But, as British Columbians adjust to the new meaning of “Green Party,” this will place limits on the brand’s appeal, as much as it might open opportunities, even in the party’s heartland. On the Island, north of Shawnigan Lake and Cobble Hill, people’s British accents don’t keep getting thicker every year as they do further south. In Nelson, even working class English accents are too snooty for an MLA candidate.
More fundamentally, performances of haute bourgeois indifference to the minutia of political economy are in shorter supply these days because of people’s very real, material insecurity, both environmentally and economically. The old BC Liberals are back, in the form of Weaver’s Greens, but does not so much signify their graduation to the status of contender as much as it does their entrapment in the most gratuitous, irrelevant part of electoral class politics in BC.