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What Farage can learn from Canada’s Reform The Reform revolution may require another figurehead

Farage launches his contract with the people (Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Farage launches his contract with the people (Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images)


June 18, 2024   6 mins

A Tory government rules over a discontented nation: the polls show it is headed for catastrophic defeat. As the hapless Prime Minister stumbles into one public-relations blunder after another, commentators say that the race has been all but won by the centre-left opposition. Meanwhile, a maverick populist force under the banner of “Reform” emerges to challenge the Tories from the Right: its leader is a quirky character who nonetheless speaks compellingly about issues practically ignored by the political elite. The fledgling party’s sudden rise threatens not to just upend the dynamics of the race but to permanently realign the country’s politics in one way or another. 

This may sound like the current general election campaign in the United Kingdom but it is, in fact, an account of another campaign in another country and in another decade: Canada’s historic 1993 federal election. The Tory government in question was that of prime minister Kim Campbell and her Progressive Conservative Party (or PCs); the centre-left opposition was the Canadian Liberal Party; and the Reform insurgency belonged to Preston Manning, who went on to achieve his ambition of displacing the PCs as Canada’s Right-wing alternative.

The government was reduced from 156 seats to two (a “mating pair”), having been devoured on all sides. It is this aspect of the 1993 campaign, the spectacle of near-total annihilation for the Tory establishment, that so entices Farage and his supporters. 

Though the analogy is not exact by any means, Farage has repeatedly invoked the Canadian model of populist transformation in his campaign’s opening phase. As he told the Sunday Times: “Why do you think I called it Reform? Because of what happened in Canada — the 1992-93 precedent in Canada, where Reform comes from the outside, because the Canadian Conservatives had become social democrats like our mob here.”

But what exactly does following this model entail? The answer would depend on which standard of success Farage holds: if he wishes to influence political discourse by moving the Overton Window in the direction of certain ideas, such as dramatically curbing migration, then he could reprise the role he played as the leader of Ukip: as an ideological trendsetter rather than a wielder of power.

At the launch of yesterday’s Reform manifesto — or glibly labelled “contract with the people” — we saw glimpses of this. Pledging to “stop the boats” in 100 days is clearly not a political possibility, but suggesting you can will inevitably draw in voters’ attention. Similarly, Farage claimed his party would massively cut taxes for people on all incomes — a proposal which, when faced with the reality of public finances, is a fantasy. But for Farage and Reform who will never actually have their hands on the treasury pursestrings, it is an easy way to shift the conversation to the Right on taxes.

If he truly wishes to take the path to political hegemony laid out by Canadian Reform, then it will require considerably more work and perseverance on the part of Farage; and it will be far from certain whether he will be the one to reap the spoils of such a strategy, or whether he will end up like Manning, who paved the way for the populist Right only to be displaced by the younger and more astute Stephen Harper. In other words, the Canadian model has its pluses and pitfalls. 

Canada in the early Nineties was a country — not unlike Britain in the 2020s — reeling from a bout of political post-traumatic stress disorder, having just gone through a highly divisive and exhausting period of existential debate over the nature of Canadian federalism and sovereignty, and in particular, the question of Quebec’s status. Just as with the post-Brexit years in the UK, Canada’s leaders promised grand schemes of constitutional renewal only to fall short each time while practical economic issues, like spiralling debt and declining business confidence, seemed to go unaddressed. In addition, the Western Canadian provinces felt as if metropolitan elites in places like Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal held a vision of national unity that came at their expense. The fact that the country had been ruled by Brian Mulroney’s Tories since 1984 seemed to make little difference, for they had appeared to be just as out-of-touch as Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals had been: this was the Canadian equivalent of what is today called the “Uniparty”.

The perceived lack of attention to the concerns of ordinary voters, especially those in hinterland regions, opened up space for a new option in Canadian politics, one which could reset the terms of debate in favour of those who felt left behind. This was the gap that Preston Manning aimed to fill when he founded Reform in 1987, his goal being a “New Canada” grounded in the “the common sense of the common people”. Even as he worked to build grassroots networks out of scratch, he was for all intents and purposes the lone face of the party; the son of an evangelical former premier of Alberta, he brought a preacher’s zeal to his quest to rein in the size of government, decentralise the federation and, as he saw it, end the privileges of the Ontario and Quebec-centric metropolitan elite. Manning and Reform also raised stringent criticisms of bilingualism, multiculturalism and what it regarded as lax immigration policy. Though Manning aspired to a universalist populism, Reform was largely seen as the vehicle of Western Canadian alienation. 

And on election day, the West came out heavily for Manning’s message of revolt, trading in Tory seats for Reform en masse, just as Quebec voters lodged their protest vote with the new separatist Bloc QuĂ©becois, hollowing out the precarious Tory coalition and and handing power to the Liberals. From the opposition benches, Reform would galvanise Canadian politics Rightward, outshining the Tory rump and eventually mounting a reverse takeover of the Progressive Conservatives by merging with it a decade later in 2003.

This was the foundation of the reunified Conservative Party of Stephen Harper, a Manning lieutenant, who governed as prime minister from 2006 to 2015. Under Harper’s insistence, the new party dropped the “Progressive” moniker — and with good reason, for the post-2003 Tories are ideologically and temperamentally a different party: much more hard-edged, libertarian and rooted in prairie populism. (Its current leader and likely next Canadian prime minister, Pierre Poilievre, got his start as a young Reform activist in Calgary.)

In hindsight, it is easy to recount what happened with Canadian Reform, as Farage so often does, and imagine that its victory was preordained, with the implication being that Reform UK faces a comparably straightforward path to realigning the British Right. But Farage should take note: the opposition years were no cakewalk for either Reform or the old-line Tories.

As Canada’s Liberals governed for over a decade, it proved to be a gruelling stretch for the Canadian Right, wracked as it was by dissension, demoralisation and uncertainty. The tribal differences between the two parties were real enough that it prevented meaningful cooperation for years. Furthermore, as the Liberals won one majority after another, thanks in large part to conservative infighting, they appropriated parts of Manning’s agenda on fiscal retrenchment, debt reduction, and balanced budgets — and even dramatically tightened immigration requirements — taking the wind out of Reform’s sails and blunting its immediate appeal. It was not at all clear if Canadian conservatism would make it out of the Liberal epoch alive. Now faced with his own long odds, can Farage navigate his party through a similarly treacherous time in the wilderness? 

Much will depend on how the two camps of the British Right will regroup once the present general election campaign yields its expected result on 4 July: a Labour-majority government. Owing to the very different electoral and geographic dynamics in the UK, it is unlikely for Farage’s party to come close to anything like the clean sweep that Canadian Reform obtained when it stole the bulk of Tory seats west of Ontario. Yet it is also probable that defeat under Rishi Sunak will empower and elevate a new breed of hard-Right Tory leadership candidates who can potentially match Farage in their commitment to populist concerns around migration and law-and-order issues: the likes of Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch come to mind. In such a scenario, there is no guarantee that Farage will have a monopoly on populist energies and loyalties in the years of opposition that lie ahead.

“There is no guarantee that Farage will have a monopoly on populist energies and loyalties in the years of opposition that lie ahead.”

And just as Manning’s Reform opened the political space for Canada’s Liberals to move Right on fiscal policy, so too could a highly vocal Reform presence in Westminster do the same with respect to the next Labour government’s approach to migration. For all the talk of Labour’s metropolitan base as being intractably liberal and maximalist on immigration, a restrictionist strain has arguably flowed in the party’s veins for much of the last decade, going back to Ed Miliband’s 2015 promise to restore “controls on immigration” (famously plastered on a red mug) to Keir Starmer’s current pledge to outflank Sunak and cut “sky-high” net migration. Indeed, this is generally how populist revolts work, by exerting pressure rather than exercising power directly. This was, after all, how a previous incarnation of Faragist populism got the Cameron government to hold the 2016 Brexit referendum. 

So, where could it all end for Farage? By the 2000s, Manning was seen as tired and lost a leadership race, giving way to a generation of his protĂ©gĂ©s, including Harper, who went on to take the Conservatives to electoral victory. Manning was relegated to a respected but sidelined role as elder statesman. Perhaps Farage’s fate will play out in similar terms. The British Right is said to be undergoing a profound generational shift in ideas and outlook, which he helped to make happen: Farage’s contribution to history may well be in charting a course of political realignment that will ultimately be completed by someone younger, cleverer, and more disciplined than he could ever be. 


Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.
1TrueCuencoism

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David McKee
David McKee
1 month ago

Ah. Reform in Canada was a real political party. It was never a vehicle for Preston Manning’s ego.

It filled a political vacuum in Anglophone Western Canada, building up a solid power-base over 15 or so years. It matured as a political party. It was more akin to a SNP which aimed at revitalising Britain, rather than wanting independence.

A much closer parallel is the Reform Party in the United States, founded by Ross Perot. It never came close to breaking the party political duopoly in America.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 month ago
Reply to  David McKee

Although Farage is not a statesman like Preston Manning, Reform has the possibility of growing into a broad-based political party. Manning was a policy wonk. I don’t see that with Farage. He never had the charisma of Farage though, but earned credibility because he was genuinely the smartest guy in the room. However, the crisis facing Britain today is much more significant than circumstances in Canada circa the early ‘90s.

I don’t think the SNP is anything like Reform, which was a vehicle to blunt the separatist sentiment in western Canada at the time, and to channel western alienation into a positive movement that appealed to voters across the country.

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
1 month ago
Reply to  David McKee

The differences are due to having to address different problems.

With hindsight, we can see Reform in Canada was a ‘real political party’ but, as has been acknowledged, Reform UK is only just starting, and having an impact on national politics. It doesn’t have 15 years to prepare for the national battle, either, though many supporters have had experience with UKIP and the Brexit Party. Also, can the country survive another parliament with the ‘political maturity’ contained in the recent UK Parliament? It would, I suggest, be improved with more with seasoned Business Experience, along with Science, Engineering expertise, to create and implement some credible policies.

Canada already had sufficient independence, and while Britain has left the EU, NI hasn’t, and neither have Westminster or Whitehall. So, the topic is still active.

The SNP didn’t want to be an independent, sovereign nation: it wanted to transfer its allegiance from England to Brussels. And it appears that revitalising Scotland was furthest from their minds, unlike the other parties mentioned here. [added: for their own country]

The SNP did fall from it’s pinnacle because of a famous dysfunctional ego creating a dysfunctional structure, but it started like most political movements, by some enthusiasts with an idea. The test is whether the founders can hand over to the next wave of recruits, successfully. And for Reform UK, that will be in the future, or not.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 month ago

Excellent essay. I think the author captured the long process for the rise of Reform in Canada. It did start from a sense of alienation by people in the west, and took a long time to catch on in other regions of the country. I agree that if Reform ever does win an election, it’s unlikely Farage will be leader.

However, the crisis facing Britain today, and Canada as well, is much more significant. The sheer magnitude of the crisis today could accelerate the growth of Reform in Britain.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Agree. The environment is more febrile in 2024. Trends are a function of order and chaos and the tension between them. Accelerated instability is likely until we reach a new settlement between these two.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Expect 2 more elections after GE2024 by 2030 … financial crisis after financial crisis is going to skewer Labour.

Arthur King
Arthur King
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Canadian Reformers like myself currently support the Conservatives, but make no mistake, we will form a new party if Pollievre does not deliver. Minimum is abolishing the CBC, eliminating the carbon tax, returning immigration to the historical 250,000 a year, ending non-refugee illegal immigration, and arresting those engaged in open antisemitism.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 month ago

I wonder what the author was thinking by using the term “cleverer”. Possibly he meant someone more “duplicitous”.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

clever = quick to understand, learn, intelligent

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 month ago

Indeed – but that only gets you so far.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
1 month ago

This article is spot on, Farage will have his day in the sun at this election, but to resolve the current chaos in our politics is going to take 5 years to resolve, and possibly 2 more elections.
The new ‘Right’ will be aided greatly by a Labour Govt who will lurch from financial crisis to financial crisis.
Reform will have set the trend but it won’t be Farage and Tice at the head of the ‘New Right’ when they come to power in 2030

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 month ago

Preston Manning was 51 when he won significant representation in the Federal Parliament for Reform and it became the official opposition when he was 55. Nigel Ferage is 60 and has yet to win a single seat for Reform so barring extraordinary developments it is most unlikely Nigel Ferage will be the man to become Prime Minister of a conservative Party in any form in the UK – although, of course, we have seen the gerontocratic capture of the Republicans and Democrats in the US so who knows!

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
1 month ago

I do not think our ultimate fate rests in the now emasculated secondary tatty arena of party politics and our post Brex debased Parliament. The EU/Blair State is so deeply entrenched systemically it is like al 12 mile defensive line of the Great War, near impervious to attack. The Core Higher Laws of the Progressives – equality & human rights – are further protected by a line of crazed ‘international law’. And the new ideology of eco/climate zealotry is yet another and super powerful State credo which will pulse choas and blackouts into our already broken system of governance via permanent Quangocracy NM1s and judicial oversight. The fall of this near 30 Year Experiment is already upon us. Farage, Starmer, Sunak – all are utterly irrelevant. Greater deeper forces have lomg since been unleashed (the 2year Lockdown Catastrophe, Zero Interest Lalaland & 875bn QE, State magic money & indebtedness, 8m mass migrants, 11m on welfare and the sabotage of educational standards, the war on fossil fuels meritocracy and enterprise) .and all are hammer blows brought on by the entitled crass believers in the Progressive State. Our party politics is squashed and lifeless under their Hammer of misrule. We have a systemic crash.

James Kirk
James Kirk
1 month ago

Did I get bored and miss the disastrous progressive wet Trudeau which meant it was all for nothing? Everywhere the Left or the Liberals go life turns to a crock. Look at the decolonisation of Africa. They were rich and relatively unexploited when the white man ran those countries. Look at the EU southern countries, high youth unemployment and minimal industry. They’d go under if the sun didn’t shine, swamped with Third World refugees as they are.
Nigel doesn’t want the oily rag of the engine room, he has the less charismatic Tice, Bull and Habib for that. PMs like Sunak are micro managers. Boris fell because he appointed the wrong micro managers who had ambitions of their own. Starmer’s had to take his jacket off. Who among that menagerie, apart from Reeves maybe, knows where the torch and the fusebox are? Boris didn’t but Farage knows people who do. Once the woke Quislings are out the sensible may well venture forth. Matt Goodwin for one.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 month ago

UK public sector productivity is more than 7% lower than it was in 2018/9. That’s a cost of more than ÂŁ90bn per year. ÂŁ90bn less spending for the same level of services would allow for some large tax cuts.

How on earth can anyone insist that such a proposal “when faced with the reality of public finances, is a fantasy”?

Expecting the British state to achieve productivity levels already achieved 5 years ago is not a fantasy.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

The British State devoured itself in the Brexit Civil War. The property millionaire Partygate Civil Service leadership have torched the idea of neutrality in public adminstration and form with our ghastly judges the Praetorian of the EU Legacy Progressive State. Beneath this corrupted elite sits a vast neo Keynsian Leftist Super Blob, with the broken”1940 NHS monolith at its sick heart. The quality of the public sector has been utterly debased too by the end of meritocratic appointments. Equality hires, WFH lunacy and the failure to provide child care has seen unions term our 90% female Health Service ‘anti women’ it is so dysfunctional. It also appears the smartphoned 30s generation – victims of Blair’s cruel destruction of educational standards on the altar of social engineering – are, like the shrill zealot Young Doctors, so drunk on the prevailing culture of entitlement and rights that they lack all resilience, sense of duty to others and a basic capacity for work. This is the broken Progressive State and its shabby army worshipped blindly by the mendacious hollow property millionaire Labour leader.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 month ago

Just to echo this author’s basic point about how political pressure moves the window even without a sustained period of opposition rule, it has happened in the USA as well, though few casual observers recognize it thanks to the divisive tactics used by both sides and the establishment’s disconnect with the attitudes of nearly everyone outside the major urban hubs.
After four years of nonstop anti-Trump propaganda from their media attack dogs, after four years of digging under every rock trying to de-legitimize Trump’s administration, and after finally winning reelection amid the riot of Jan 6th, what did the newly elected and finally victorious establishment do with their victory? They doubled down on economic conflict with China, raised the bar on economic nationalist policy through the CHIPS Act and the ‘Inflation Reduction Act’ (which makes the short list for most inappropriately named laws ever passed), and quietly continued to push for NATO allies to increase their defense spending. In terms of rhetoric, Biden’s victory in 2020 was a return to normalcy and a return to the political overtones of 2016. In terms of actual policy results, the Biden administration may as well have been Trump 2.0. The only major policy reversals were on immigration and climate change, and the administration is paying a price as American consumers reject EVs and the border has become an albatross issue.
The establishment may have won the election in 2020 and they may win again in 2024, but for all they gained, they can’t move the political window back to where it was in 2015, and so far at least, they’re fearful enough not to make the attempt lest they provoke another sea changing defeat. When Hillary woke up on Nov. 3rd 2016 and knew she would never be President, populism had already won its existential victory. It was that reality that put the fear of populism and a political uprising we haven’t seen since the 1930’s into the minds of our elites, and they’re as human as the rest of us. I think we can all recognize that our fear of a thing is often more powerful than the thing we fear.

Steve Houseman
Steve Houseman
1 month ago

I have tremendous respect for Preston Manning. He was a rare breath of fresh air from wild rose country. The best Prime Minister who wasn’t
.unfortunately.
Reform for sure. Took quite awhile for Reform-Conservative to form a government, after being reduced to 2 seats, but they did and again soon will.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
28 days ago

This article seems to be missing the point as well as underestimating Nigel Farage to a spectacular degree. In that it’s a very establishment take. Farage is not a career politician or an ambitious demagogue desiring power for its own sake. He makes this point candidly enough. I’m sure he’d be very happy to go back to trying to make money. No, he actually believes the country has gone in a very wrong direction, as a certain amount of charisma and plain speaking that makes him effective – and he is supported by a large proportion of the British public.

Whether this can be for a second time – after Brexit – be engineered into an effective political programme time will tell. No doubt it will indeed be a long term programme. I am not particularly optimistic, believing that among other things that the country will be irrevocably changed by mass immigration as well as an ever increasing dependency culture and economic decline. However I hold my hat to Farage for actually trying to do his bit just prevent this from happening or at least mitigating the effects.