In a pivotal moment of the 2011 election, Jack Layton assailed Michael Ignatieff for celebrating democracy while avoiding the House of Commons. If he was campaigning for promotion, sniffed Layton, at least Ignatieff could show up for work.
“He knew that I’d been doing open town-halls across the country, but the blow landed,” Ignatieff responds in his poignant political memoir, Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics. It was another of the indignities he suffered in his short, unhappy life in Parliament.
While he admits to hubris, naïveté and self-delusion in his meditation on his five-and-a-half years in public life, Ignatieff too easily sees himself as helpless before the existential forces ranged against him.
The outcome of that leaders’ debate, like his troubled tenure as Opposition leader, could have been different. Ignatieff had missed some 70 per cent of the votes. Assuming Ignatieff could easily explain his absenteeism, Layton’s advisers suggested he not raise it.
Sensing blood, Layton did. Ignatieff replied that he needed no lessons in democracy. He oozed arrogance and missed the obvious answer: “Why, Jack, I was out in the country, listening to Canadians!” That was the end of Ignatieff. Before the debate, the Liberals were behind but competitive. After, they were in free-fall.
The fault was Ignatieff’s. Same with the election. Yes, he inherited a weak, antiquated party with huge institutional, electoral and intellectual challenges. But it had 77 seats and a brand.
Here is a theory. Unlike Lester Pearson, who led a much smaller caucus facing a government with an unprecedented majority in 1958, Ignatieff wasn’t prepared to spend five, six or more years in this unglamorous enterprise.
Ignatieff became leader in January 2009, after he rejected the proposed coalition to oust the Conservatives and lost “my one chance to be the prime minister.”
In September, 11 months after Canadians had re-elected Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, he announced he would bring them down. “Mr. Harper, your time is up!” he roared.
Over the next 18 months, he retreated, retrenched and tried admirably to learn his job. By March 2011, Ignatieff says, there would be an election “whether or not the time was right for us,” as if he had nothing to do with it. “My apprenticeship was over,” he writes. “It was time to show what I was made of.”
Neither he nor his party was ready. But Ignatieff was tired of opposition. He wanted an election sooner rather than later. So he mustered his tired army and led it into the awful abyss from which it may never recover.
Fundamentally, Ignatieff did not understand himself. Here was a journalist, historian and intellectual of international stature. Here was a decent soul of great gentility, who had been an observer of politics but not a practitioner. When the “three men in black” asked him to be leader, their fantasy met his vanity.
Then it fell apart. “They framed me up,” he says of the Conservative attack ads. They denied him “standing.” He was “just visiting.” It was cruel, cheap and fatal.
Someone shrewder and meaner might have survived. Not Ignatieff. Instinct would have told him not to run for leader as he took a seat in Parliament. Instinct would have told him not to speak on election night in 2011, before he knew he’d lost his riding, and not to announce his new job teaching just days after his colleagues had lost theirs.
Fire and Ashes is the story of an innocent, surrounded by naifs, entrusted with a venerable national institution with the best of intentions and the worst of consequences.
It didn’t have to turn out this way.
Others of Ignatieff’s ilk have played the game and won. They knew themselves better and wanted the prize more.
Andrew Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.