Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, by Michael Ignatieff

The death of an academic-cum-Liberal’s parliamentary career was really not so strange, argues Lynn McDonald

December 12, 2013

Fire and Ashes is a frank, tell-all account of Michael Ignatieff’s brief career in Canadian national politics: from being elected MP in 2006, to becoming leader of the Liberal Party (on his second try) in 2009, to losing his seat in 2011 when his party fell to third place, its worst result in history.

He begins with an intriguing account of his recruitment by three “men in black” – senior Liberal figures – at Harvard University. They invited him to return to Canada with a view to becoming Liberal leader and prime minister (the party was then in power, as it often was). He and his wife, Zsuzsanna Zsohar, explored prospects in visits back to the country, agreed and the plan proceeded.

Chapter 2 continues cheerfully enough with snippets about Ignatieff’s illustrious family (Russian aristocracy, prominence in Canadian public service). He seems not to have realised that his diplomat father, George, was remembered with respect in the Canadian peace movement, which made Michael’s support for the Iraq War (which Canada stayed out of) seem even worse.

A safe Liberal seat in Toronto was duly found for him on the retirement of its MP, and a “homecoming” planned for nomination night. He arrived at the unluckily named Valhalla Inn, straight from the airport. Demonstrators waiting outside called him a warmonger, a supporter of torture (he contends he was misinterpreted) and anti-Ukrainian (for flippant comments about peasants). At this point he starts quoting “Fortuna” from Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Thanks to a stalwart team of supporters he met for the first time that evening, Ignatieff won his party’s nomination and then, in the 2006 federal election, his seat. But his party lost power, replaced by a minority Conservative government led by Stephen Harper, in the first of three Tory victories in a row. Ignatieff would underestimate Harper at every stage of this saga.

Paul Martin, the defeated Liberal prime minister, resigned. Eight weeks later, Ignatieff, a rookie MP, announced his bid to replace him. He clearly enjoyed the campaign, even church-basement meetings with the party faithful, and his wife proved an able political partner. He came second and then won at the next attempt after the man who beat him, Stéphane Dion, led the party to defeat in 2008. Ignatieff became leader of the official opposition in 2009.

His downfall came at the 2011 election, when Harper won a majority with just 39.6 per cent of the popular vote. Ignatieff lost his seat, resigned and was promptly found an academic appointment at the University of Toronto.

What went wrong? The Conservatives’ attack ads – “Just visiting” and “He didn’t come back for you” – began as soon as Ignatieff became party leader, and they hurt. Not least because he had been out of the country for 30 years; some of the time in the UK, in academic posts and in broadcasting, but mainly in the US. Indeed, in some of his publications, Americans were “we” and he talked of “our founding fathers”. In 2011’s televised electoral debates, Ignatieff was outsmarted by the leader of the left-leaning New Democrats. In places he reveals that he simply did not know how things were done in Canada. He was peeved that no women’s or environmental groups endorsed him; but they don’t endorse parties, nor did he ever give them reason to support his. He cynically states that party whips tell MPs how to vote (not in my caucus) and that no one was ever persuaded by a speech (it sometimes happens).

By the final chapter, one is sorry that such a decent, intelligent fellow has so little to show for the experience. He never learned how to take advantage of a minority government. He never made friends across party lines. He offered no leadership on big issues such as climate change. Like Harper, Ignatieff ignored the environmental threats from Canada’s tar sands – rising greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, the waste of natural gas in processing and the risk of spills in transit. Only the prospect of increased markets seemed to count. He suffered from months of attack ads, but never called for amendments to laws curbing advertising, which presently apply only during elections. Closing that gap was doable in a Parliament led by a minority government.

Fire and Ashes is stronger on its strictly academic side. Numerous references to classical authors add texture: Cicero, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ernest Renan, Leo Tolstoy and John Stuart Mill. His decision to quote only male authors may be common enough, but he misses better sources by women. He praises Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, but overlooks Harriet Martineau’s far more astute Society in America. He repeatedly quotes Max Weber on politics as a “calling”. Gratefully, perhaps, he notes Weber’s failure even to be nominated to run for the German Parliament, but ignores the fact that after his death, his wife Marianne Weber won a seat in a German state legislature. But she, as a women’s rights activist, really did have a calling.

The book ends with some rather banal advice to future politicians, which shows that Ignatieff never offered a compelling reason why he wanted to become prime minister. Early on, he candidly recounts the limp answer he gave to a Montreal businessman who had asked him exactly that question. To see if he could “handle the challenge”, Ignatieff replied.

Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics

By Michael Ignatieff
Harvard University Press, 224pp, £18.95
ISBN 9780674725997
Published 22 November 2013

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