In his column on August 8, John Ivison likened Justin Trudeau’s style of politics to that of late-nineteenth century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. While he hit on some good points – the two have been accused of dandiness, opportunism, populism, vanity, and narcissism – an even earlier British leader could be more aptly associated with the young heir to the Canadian political throne: William Pitt the Younger.
As the name suggests, his father was an important man too. Pitt the Elder served as prime minister in the 1760s, led the nation through the Seven Year’s War with France, and was generally well liked. Much like Pierre Trudeau, Pitt was well known for his skills as an orator.
William Pitt the Younger followed his father into politics and joined Parliament as soon as he turned twenty-one in 1781, without having succeeded at any prior position. Parties at the time were fairly weak in British politics, but William managed to get a group of loyal followers around him and at the age of twenty-four, and King George III asked him to form an administration.
Eager to undermine him at every step of the way, the opposition had a field day with Pitt’s evident inexperience. Like Trudeau’s critics after the Liberal leadership race, the political opponents of Pitt the Younger tried to explain that the tide would pass, that people would eventually notice the destructive nature of such a personality in higher office. A ditty was devised to propagate this point: “A sight to make surrounding nations state; A Kingdom trusted to a school-boy’s care.”
Historian Eric J. Evans describes that Pitt had brought “the vigour of youth and the mind of a cautious reformer” to his new position. One might think of Trudeau the Younger in a similar manner. He has electrified a party, catering to new ideas such as legalizing marijuana to changing the way that people view politics. But Pitt ended his career as a defender of the status quo and skittishly afraid of change. Traces of that can already be seen with Trudeau, especially in his refusal to budge on Liberal legacies of his father’s era and on generally unpopular positions like maintaining the Senate in its current form.
Ultimately, undermining the young new PM came at the disadvantage for the Foxite opposition. While they bickered amongst themselves and underestimated him, Pitt sought more power. He came into office and raised taxes and cracked down on tax evasion. He was able to reduce the national debt quite successfully as a result. Among his other achievements was cleaning up the bureaucracy and reducing the royal patronage system.
But by 1794, his ideology took a turn. With the French Revolution well under way, Pitt was worried about the influence of French violence and grand reform making its way to Britain’s shores. Rebellion in Ireland increased the urgency for a draconian prescription. So began Pitt’s Reign of Terror. Habeas corpus was suspended, political enemies were tried for sedition, and Britain was sent into a deeply worrying state not unfamiliar to French counterrevolutionaries. He died in 1806, but the “terror” continued.
While no one expects a suspension of fundamental rights under Trudeau the Younger, I am not employing mere hyperbole with this comparison. Trudeau is a real force to be dealt with, and if the Conservatives and the New Democrats want a shot at winning the next election, they need to do more than sit around writing ditties on how he’s way in over his head. Polls clearly show this tread in favour of Trudeau and it stands to continue so long as he proceeds cautiously and the Conservatives remain in their rut.
The other point is that the Liberals and Trudeaumaniacs (if we must call them that) need to realize that Trudeau is not a godsend for Canadian politics. He won’t revolutionize the office. If he moves to 24 Sussex in 2015, the office will be invigorated for a short honeymoon period, but things will ultimately stay the same. The office always changes the candidate, not the other way around. This happened to Harper in 2006 and Barack Obama in 2008. Politicians always have an incentive to maintain the system that propelled them to office in the first place, much as Pitt did in 1794.
Trudeau may have the substance of Disraeli, but his future looks more Pittish.