A lot of people are wrong about Michael Ignatieff. They talk about his arrogance, his sense of entitlement and blame it on his aristocratic lineage. He’s the closest thing to a Liberal Canadian pure laine as you can get – related not only to George Ignatieff and Russian aristocrats before that but to George Grant of Lament for a Nation fame, and to George Munro Grant before him.
If you’re looking for entitlement and arrogance, you can find it in Ignatieff’s literary political auto-postmortem Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Canadian Politics. The Maclean’s political editor Paul Wells, one of the country’s best observers of national politics, found plenty to chuckle at when Ignatieff recounted being torn up watching his father’s disappointment about not being chosen as Governor General: ‘It’s a classic Canadian story,’ Wells writes. ‘Who among us has not watched in dismay as our dad failed to become governor general?’
Some have favourably reviewed Fire and Ashes, but it’s safe to say that in Canada many of those closest to the political scene saw what they wanted in Fire and Ashes: a confirmation of the Ignatieff they think they know.
The odd thing is that the book actually shows Michael Ignatieff to be one of the least arrogant leaders the Liberal party has ever had, a man looking for recognition, not demanding entitlement. Naïve? Partly, though inexperienced is probably the better term. Someone in need of better advisers? Definitely. But also honest. And, with all his pedigree dragging from his foot like a political ball and chain, Fire and Ashes actually shows Michael Ignatieff to be a lot more like many ordinary Canadians than most career politicians. But that’s just the point. That’s why he is no longer Liberal leader, and never was prime minister.
Fire and Ashes opens with Ignatieff recounting a visit from three ‘Men in Black’, his term for the three Liberal insiders from Toronto, who came to convince him to come back to Canada and be a contender for the leadership of the Liberal party whenever Paul Martin called it quits. I can’t think of a more honest political opening than the one here. He admits that he didn’t really know why he wanted to be in politics, why he said yes to them. Probably it was his ego, his sense of needing to live up to his family, to prove himself. All of these, he admits, are the wrong answers.
To even talk like this is not to be a good politician. It is to break the rules of essential dissemblance and dishonesty. He’s supposed to talk about service, and he does, eventually. But at this point in his life and at this point in the book, the answer is an honest one. If we’re honest with ourselves, it might be the kind of thing anyone would say (except the part about living up to one’s family). Ignatieff was an accomplished public intellectual and author. Few Canadians knew the kind of international success that he achieved. Yes, he lived outside the country for years. But so did Wayne Gretzky. Some kinds of success mean going abroad. If, after this kind of career, someone came to you and offered you the opportunity that these men offered Ignatieff, many would be tempted just like he was.
What followed, we know, was not success but the failure part of the title – the ashes. His timing couldn’t have been worse – not in getting into parliament, in trying for the leadership the first time, or in finally attaining the leadership. It didn’t help that he was new to the job, and learning slowly.
Ignatieff early reminisces about his romantic ideas of a Canada long lost – the Canada of his parents generation, when the Liberal party was the government party. ‘It never occurred to me,’ he writes, ‘when I returned home and entered politics, that their liberal world and the Canada they had made had long since vanished.’ (16) On this Ignatieff couldn’t be more wrong, on two fronts. In many ways Ignatieff is very much like a Pearson or a St Laurent, both men who achieved great success out of politics, and then were lured into it by political insiders, men in grey flannel suits perhaps. They were, in their own way, idealists, not very good politicians. But the Liberal party of this era was stuffed with men who could do the dirty work while the leader kept his nose in the air. Ignatieff writes fondly of Jack Pickersgill working in the 1950s to bring Hungarian refugees to Canada. This is an example of the Canada he is nostalgic for. But Jack Pickersgill couldn’t have been further from an idealistic liberal. He specialized in the kind of dirty dissembling tricks beneath the surface of a seemingly placid calm. As a civil servant, he had been known for his love of power, for ignoring the niceties of civil service discretion, and just doing what his political masters wanted him to do. The Liberal party of this era depended on bagmen who routinely hit up companies getting government contracts for donations to the party. It was the Liberal party tax of doing business for the government of Canada. The Canada of these years was big and small L liberal. The idealists existed in mutual symbiosis with the political hacks.
Moreover, the Canada of today is vastly more liberal (small l) than the Canada of Pearson or even Trudeau. This is what so angers the minority of Canadians who form the political base for the CPC. On a range of social issues, Canada has been transformed since that era, including during the Mulroney, Chretien and even the Harper years. The liberal progressive Canada is splintered and divided, it isn’t gone.
But perhaps that’s what the loss to Harper over Ignatieff’s years in Ottawa has done – made him see the world through the eyes of those who won the political battles. Certainly it is unfortunate to see in Fire and Ashes the way Ignatieff internalizes the attacks against him – about his not really being Canadian. In this book, as at the time, Ignatieff can dissect why the attacks work, but not how to combat them.
One of the best things about reading this book is the occasional sightings of Ignatieff the brilliant intellectual that emerge. They’re not there on every page (it’s almost as if the political life was a cocoon from which he is only partially emerging) but they shine nonetheless. His line on Stephane Dion’s leadership victory in 2006 is priceless. He calls Dion ‘a Quebecker whose many qualities included the fact that he was neither Bob [Rae] nor me.’ Viciously accurate. Or then there is his self-deprecating description of his fumbling statements about the war in Lebanon during his bid for the leadership: ‘With a couple of ill-chosen sentences, I had managed the almost impossible feat of alienating Muslim, Jewish and Lebanese groups alike.’(76)
Watching Ignatieff during his time as Liberal leader was sometimes painful. It’s clear even he knew it. He writes of how ‘I had to unlearn being clever, being rhetorical, being fluent and start appreciating how much depends on making a connection, any connection, with the people listening to you.’ (56) Often this means dissembling, on not really being who you are, not telling the truth, putting forward a shadow of yourself. Some people are good at this. Ignatieff was not.
His rictus-like grin never managed to convince you that he was comfortable. And Fire and Ashes shows us that he wasn’t. If he had come at a different time, in a different era, he might have learned the tricks of the trade. After all, Harper has his own wacky grin. He’s far from a natural social animal. But timing is everything, and Ignatieff’s timing was bad.
Many critics lament the lack of insight in Fire and Ashes, what Ignatieff doesn’t tell us. They complain that we don’t get enough policy, not enough insight into the secrets of the game, the stories as they unfolded. And it’s true that the book does fall short on juicy details.
One thing that will last is Ignatieff’s assessment of Stephen Harper. Ignatieff calls Harper ‘a transactional opportunist with no fixed compass other than the pursuit of power…’ (106) ‘He conveys the impression of having fixed and steady convictions, when in fact he is prepared to jettison any policy when it suits him. It is a rare gift to combine the impression of conviction with total opportunism…’
Ignatieff is bitter. Who wouldn’t be? But his assessment of Harper is spot on. It actually matches up with what Paul Wells says in his new book on the Harper years, the best book yet to dissect this government and this prime minister. The main difference is that while Ignatieff is wistful and resentful, Wells is distant but admiring.
Close observers of politics like winners. They see what works, how power operates, how those at the top make it work for them. To talk of politics is to talk of strategy and technique.
Ignatieff was never quite able to get to this. Even in this book, he still holds back, intellectually understanding it, but not able, unlike someone like Wells, or someone like Peter Newman or a Bruce Hutchison from an earlier generation, to just admire the technique.
In that way, Michael Ignatieff is a lot like most Canadians – just not in a way that helped him to get elected. The fact is we don’t actually like politicians, but we seem to like bad ones even less.