Gerry Nicholls is the former vice-president of the National Citizens’ Coalition, a grassroots group whose unofficial motto is “more freedom through less government.” From 1998-2001, Stephen Harper was president of the NCC. Loyal to the Core is the story of the NCC, its various leaders and their styles and the organization’s foray into partisan politics when Harper ran for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance and Conservative parties.
There are a number of audiences who will enjoy this book. People interested in conservative politics in Canada will enjoy it because of its thorough history of one of Canada’s most important conservative activist groups and its insights into a man who would later become the Conservative prime minister of Canada. People interested in activism and issue campaigns can learn from some of the NCC’s extremely effective media campaigns; recall their memorable ads against government waste and gold-plated pensions, which featured pigs.
But there is another (unexpected) class of readers who will find Loyal to the Core important reading: anyone who gets involved in politics. Not so much to learn how to do politics, but a necessary lesson on what not to do: sell out.
In 1997, Harper resigned as Reform MP to join the NCC. A year later, he became president of the organization, but after Stockwell Day’s stumble as leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2001, Harper returned to elected politics. And with him, came many in the NCC, Nicholls included.
Nicholls reports on the efforts that the previously non-partisan NCC undertook to help their former leader get elected leader of the Canadian Alliance.
When Harper threw his hat into the ring, NCC staffers were called to help with his leadership campaign, effectively turning the organization into “an adjunct of the Harper leadership machine.” Nicholls says he personally did things that made him uncomfortable, but admits he did it because it was thrilling to be part of the political intrigue and, anyway, if elected, Harper could advance the cause.
But the sellout was only beginning. After Harper was elected prime minister, his Conservative government abandoned many of the principles on which he fought when he led the NCC. He raised some taxes and capped political contributions. If anyone else were the head of government, the NCC would have launched an attack ad, but it didn’t.
That changed in 2007 – sort of – when Nicholls had enough and criticized the Tories’ big-spending budget. The NCC fired Nicholls shortly thereafter, probably because he dared to criticize the prime minister – their former leader.
Nicholls laments he sacrificed his own principles when he got involved in partisan politics. But he later re-discovered his principles, whereas the NCC has not. It continues to turn a blind eye to the myriad ways the Harper Conservatives have abandoned the small government principles for which he and the NCC once fought.
Too many pro-life activists who get involved in politics are like Nicholls and the NCC, becoming blindly partisan, to the detriment of the causes for which they entered politics in the first place. There is nothing wrong with getting involved in party politics, but one must remember why one got involved: to advance a particular cause. For Nicholls (and, it seemed at one time, Harper), it was to advance liberty, lower taxes and reduce government spending. For pro-lifers in the political arena, the cause is the eventual elimination of abortion; for pro-family activists, it is the defence and privileging of traditional marriage.
It becomes very easy to put these issues on the backburner in the belief that they can be addressed later after some other political successes are attained. The problem is that once the compromise with “pragmatism” (going along within the party to get along), it becomes easier to make more compromises. Too often the reasons for initially getting involved get permanently consigned to the backseat and sometimes, they are completely forgotten.
Nicholls explains the success of the NCC: “We were non-partisan, independent of all the political parties. What mattered to us were ideas, not political labels.” The same is true of political organizations and the grassroots supporters who are their lifeblood; they must all remain true to immutable principles in order to make them an integral part of elected politics.
Loyal to the Core is about remaining true to one’s (core) principles; Harper and how he no longer seems to be the conservative he once was; Nicholls and how he began to compromise his principles and was later punished for staying true to them; and finally, the necessity of activists to remain true to the principles that brought them to politics in the first place. These are important lessons for everyone to learn, but pro-lifers especially.
Paul Tuns is editor of The Interim and author of Jean Chretien: A Legacy of Scandal which is published by Freedom Press Canada Inc., which also published Loyal to the Core.