Charge ‘Em And They Scatter: The Collapse of Stephen Harper’s Shield-Wall

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. —Percy Bysshe Shelley

There was a very short period in the life of J.R.R. Tolkien, from around 1932 to the beginning of the Second World War, in which the celebrated professor and perennial cyclist owned an automobile. In the years before he came to understand (in the 1940s!) the damage that cars and roads would soon do to his beloved environment, Tolkien owned a Morris Cowley, and drove it in a manner that was, by all accounts, positively Rohirric—that is, not without a share of daring, but also plagued by a tenth-century warrior’s understanding of the etiquette of traffic. Of Tolkien’s vehicular valour, biographer Humphrey Carpenter writes:
When accelerating headlong across a busy main street in Oxford in order to get into a side-street, he would ignore all other vehicles and cry ‘Charge ’em and they scatter!‘ — and scatter they did.

If you are at the Battle of Hastings, this is excellent advice. It is the advice, in fact, that won William the Conqueror his decisive victory over Harold Godwinson, and changed the course of English history. Harold’s classic Anglo-Saxon infantry-defense, a line of interlocked soldiers with spear and shield described in pre-Conquest poetry as a “shield-wall,” withstood attack after attack quite admirably, until William feigned a retreat and the normally disciplined warriors of the shield-wall broke formation to give chase—at which point the Norman army reeled and cut down the scattered individuals who had, just moments earlier, seemed so invincible in formation.

As a medievalist (now a desperately unemployed one, hence the lengthy delay between updates), this is one of the battles that comes to mind again and again in matters of strategy. It is an example of two excellent opposed strategies holding each other at a standstill—and also of what happens when one force executes according to its strategy, and one betrays its strategy in the name of baser instincts.

It was thus the image of Harold’s broken shield-wall (among others) that came to mind when I read Hayden Trenholm’s excellent political commentary on the decline of the Harper Conservatives, a piece simply titled “Strategy.” Here he voices some growing doubts over the strategic competence of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has been hailed as a “strategic genius” in the past (apparently), but now finds himself with a less wolfish reputation as a leader—a grandmother in wolf’s clothing perhaps, in a nice inversion of the fairy-tale: “But Mr. Wolf, what nice dentures you have!”

Trenholm identifies “an air of desperation” not just in Harper, but in those MPs closest to him—MPs who now include among their ranks the hilariously clumsy Wai Young, whose literally Messianic blazoning of the horrendously flawed and unconstitutional Bill C-51 breaks the all-important Conservative mandate to keep your overpoliticized Tea-Party-esque evangelism at least thinly veiled in public.

File photo: Last Supper or CPC rally? Wai Young can't tell the difference.
File photo: Last Supper or CPC rally? Wai Young can’t tell the difference.

These images combine to draw some powerful parallels between the increasingly desperate Harper and the Harold Godwinson who lost at Hastings, a man who contested two different claims for his throne in the same year before the collapse of his loyal supporters failed him. It’s a too-flattering comparison, I think—Harold led his troops into battle rather than hiding in a closet, for one—but it does help to articulate just why we are seeing the collapse in Harper’s leadership that we are, even though he himself has not visibly changed—indeed, he seems incapable of change at this point: tone-deaf to his supporters and his detractors alike, he’s like the Star Wars: Episode I-era George Lucas of Conservative politics.

Do I mean to suggest, by this comparison to Episode I Lucas specifically, that Harper’s attempts to recreate past greatness have likewise relied too heavily on silly made-up science, on racist characterization, on incomprehensible trade legislation, on choosing brute-force spending over ingenuity, on putting monumentally stupid dialogue in the mouths of his puppets, on deliberate and hubristic disdain for the will of the general public? Well, when you put it that way, yes. Bill C-51 will go down in history as the Jar Jar Binks of Canadian legislative folly, and Harper’s juvenile election-year mudslinging as the equivalent of Jar Jar’s poop jokes.

(Before you laugh too hard at the goofy comparison, remember that it was Jar Jar who cast the deciding vote to give the vilest dictator in the Galaxy unconstitutionally vast omnibus powers.)


Exhibit A.

So why, then, if this scenery-chewing rise to power is the backdrop for our national politics, do we see a decline? It’s not as if Harper has suddenly been figuratively chucked down a reactor core shaft by an unstoppable Justin Trudeau, as we were promised in 2012 was going to happen. On the contrary, If anything, Trudeau’s shocking support of C-51 has been an unfortunate sign that he failed to learn from his failure at the cave. In the words of a grief-stricken Yoda: “Unfortunate… that you rushed to face him… that incomplete was your training… that not ready for the burden were you.” This line of reasoning is coincidentally the same one that Harper’s smear-machine gleefully puts out in Trudeau’s direction.

Once, allies against the darkness together they stood. But by this change of heart, surprised and betrayed Mulcair was.
Once, allies against the darkness together they stood. But by this change of heart, surprised and betrayed Mulcair was.

All these things should point to Steve’s relative invulnerability going into this election year, particularly with support on the Left splintered in two. We saw, miraculously, the reverse of this effect in Alberta, where the NDP won because the Right was split between the Wild Rose and the Conservatives. So why, then, do we intuit that Trenholm is right? Why do we sense this desperation? Why can we feel Harper’s shield-wall on the verge of collapse, if it has not already been sundered?

In part, the first thing to do is acknowledge that Harper has a shield-wall, and it is they who have done all the work of his strategy while he hid in the closet of his own back ranks. His Question Period redirects are a manifestation of this same tendency. In this (though not in his loathing of an uncontrolled press, which is his own invention), Harper has brought one other thing from American politics that he’s not often given enough credit for: a figureheadism that has never been so prominent in the history of Canada’s Prime Ministers.

For good or for ill, Bush was a walking, talking symbol of “the Bush Administration,” and even Obama has some of the same figureheadism going on. The Presidency is probably about 40 people right now, and Barack Obama just happens to be the one of those 40 who’s the best public speaker, most handsome in a suit, and has the best personal life story to sell. But he’s really the sum total of a lot of people’s work in a way that many Prime Ministers just haven’t been—until Harper.

Saying that Harper has been a good campaign strategist is like saying George W. Bush was a good campaign strategist. He was at the front of good strategy, but that’s not the same thing. A monkey can be at the front of a good PR strategy. Consider that in this day and age, even Grumpy Cat has an agent.

I venture that Harper’s contribution to his entire campaign strategy mirrors Grumpy Cat’s: if he has any input at all in the past, it consisted mostly of him frowning and saying NO.

That’s all going to change now that Harper’s own personal Karl Rove, ex-Conservative Dimitri Soudas, is gone.

Soudas was the CPC’s executive director, and then the Director of Communications for the PMO itself. Maybe he’s more Harper’s Trotsky than Harper’s Karl Rove. When he jumped ship with his fiancée Eve Adams to join the Liberals, it was a particularly personal betrayal for Harper, and one for which no doubt Tin Pot Steve privately vowed revenge.

Fast-forward to that recent story about Mulcair’s “secret meeting” about joining the Tories, which was leaked by now-Liberal Soudas. You can see the Rove-like, vicious genius behind it: it makes both the Cons and the NDP look bad, and it’s the only smear attack so far that had any substantial chance of sticking to Mulcair. He could deny it, and did, but there was no way of knowing for sure—until, amazingly, the Conservatives themselves stepped up to air the truth and deny the story.

The Conservatives leaping to Mulcair’s defence?! This was not something anybody saw coming, least of all Soudas, who gambled on the seemingly safe bet that mutual antipathy would keep the far left and far right from agreeing on the truth. And by all accounts it should have: there was no political reason for the Conservative party to back up an uneasy, unconvincing-sounding Mulcair and confirm his honesty. The accusation was the sharpest PR blow struck against Mulcair yet, and they were sorely in need of one. But the information came from Dimitri Soudas, and exposing it as false was one of the surest ways to make Soudas look like a blithering idiot on the national stage, even if it meant pulling their underestimated opponent out of the fire. So here, no doubt, with Conservatives counselling Angry Steve to let the smear stand, he ignored them to do the vindictive thing, and ordered his Conservative pitchmen to torpedo the allegation anyway, just to get his revenge on Soudas for leaving the shield-wall.

Perhaps it was more a paranoid act than a vindictive one, less a calculated act of revenge than a calculated deterrent against anyone else who might get the bright idea to break formation. That kind of rule-by-fear is right out of the Harper playbook, after all. But entirely new here, something that rising-star Harper would never have done, is the scorched-earth leadership that prioritizes enemies within the Conservative Party to enemies without.

That infamous “enemies list” of Harper’s is proof enough that having enemies is nothing new for Harper. Even having Conservative enemies isn’t particularly new: there are plenty of Conservative appointees in the Senate and the courts who could conceivably make the list (and Budget Officer Kevin Page, for one). Pretty much any Conservative he appoints who gets it into their heads that they should do their job, rather than what the PMO tells them their job is, ends up in the Harper Government doghouse even when they hold true (as Kevin Page did) to inconveniently noble Conservative Party ideals. So Harper’s vilification of his ex-mouthpiece Dimitri Soudas should surprise no one. What does surprise, though, is just how single-mindedly Harper is now in punishing enemies like Soudas, irresepctive of the political cost of doing so. He’s always been politically cavalier, but this borders on politically suicidal. It is, yet again, a sign of desperation.

Nastiness with strategy has been the CPC’s modus all the way along. But now, without Soudas tweaking the message, with Dean Del Mastro in chains and unable to rig his elections, without Jim Prentice to hold up his image of competence in the West, without Jim Flaherty to shore up the illusory strength of the Conservative Party’s economic strategies, the team that turned Stephen Harper from a hot-tempered evangelical crackpot into a seemingly capable leader has all but fallen apart. It is this shield-wall, not Stephen Harper, that made the Harper Government, just as it is the people—well, the rich privileged important people—who make a king.

Let’s return for a moment to the Battle of Hastings, the Anglo-Saxons, and to Tolkien. The name of Tolkien’s Rohirric king, Theoden, is just the Old English word þēoden, which usually gets translated as “king.” But that doesn’t tell the history of the word: it derives from the Old English þēod, which means simply “the people, the tribe, the nation, the race, the country.” All of these things were more or less the same thing in the Anglo-Saxon tribal mindset. If you really want to indulge me, it’s cognate with the Old Irish túath, “the nation,” denoting both a geographical area and the people within it. It’s even cognate, I think, with the modern German “Deutsch” and “Deutschland,” which, etymologically, come from “Deut-ish,” i.e., the People of The Nation, and the Land of the People of our Nation. The compound in the second line of Beowulf, “þēodcyning,” is sometimes (i.e. by Gummere in 1910) translated as “people-kings,” an ungainly-looking but ultimately literal compound that reflects the one difference between the supposedly pre-Magna Carta Anglo-Saxon monarchists and the supposedly democratic Harper Government: the tenth-century warband was at least civilized enough to recognize that a ruler was inseparable from his people and somewhat beholden to them.

For all that we mockingly call Stephen Harper “King Steve,” he is nothing like the Anglo-Saxon þēodcyning; on the contrary, he is the cyning‘s antithesis: that saddest of Anglo-Saxon tropes, a solitary man. He is bereft of his kinsmen. He is cheerless and fearful. He hoards his gold in the dark, where it does not shine with splendour. His companions have deserted him: no half-promised treasure is worth enduring his rule any longer. His shield-wall has been sundered, and sundered not from without, but from within.

Where are the minions and ministers?
Where now the lackies and toadies?
Where is the piano that played “With A Little Help From My Friends?”
Where, now, his band and his roadies?
Alas, how that period has passed,
Fallen under night’s shadow, as if it had never been.

The last remnant of the shield-wall, Harper’s solitary shoulder-companion, is Jason Kenney, an interesting Wiglaf-figure in Canadian politics who reminds me (as Wiglaf should remind us of Beowulf) of nothing so much as a younger, more experienced Stephen Harper, a dangerously capable man whose personal xenophobia plays well with Harper’s affluent evangelical fan base. For now, he’s Harper’s only surviving friend of any real clout—but only for now. The minute he realizes what a fantastic heir apparent he’d make to Canada’s far right, particularly with his strong background in National Defence and in small-c conservative economics, if he’s smart–and Kenney is very smart—he’ll look for his exit window, bail on Harper at his most vulnerable, and let the used-up dictator hang himself while working behind the scenes to pick up the shattered pieces of the Harper Government, rebrand them his own, and prepare for a seriously competitive run at the Iron Throne in 2019.

Every sign points to 2015 being the year of Stephen Harper’s fall. If not 2015, it’ll be 2019. If not then, it’ll be 2023. By 2023, even Stephen Harper will be 64, and perhaps Time itself will have the courage to do what Canadians, thus far, have not. To anticipate and answer his ongoing butchering of Beatles songs, when he is 64, we will neither need him nor feed him. But these things remind us that grim truth of Anglo-Saxon poetry—one which, at the end of nine years under Stephen Harper, fills me for the first time with hope:

Oferhyda ne gym, mære cempa!      Nū is þīnes mægnes blæd āne hwīle…

Heed not your pride, illustrious warrior! The glorious flower of your strength blooms only for a while.

Harold lost at Hastings not because he was a poor strategist, but because he lacked the resolve and the leadership to see that strategy through. The strength of his army, particularly his ferocious Hūscarls, was never in doubt: in the most literal sense possible, they fell victim to his inability to keep them in line.

Perhaps that is why, until now, unquestioning party unity has been the absolute priority of Stephen Harper, and disloyalty the one sin for which his wrath has proven most severe. He has brooked corruption, withstood embarrassment, tolerated incompetence, forgiven greed in his ranks. But disloyalty is the unpardonable crime among his House-carls, and the cracks in the shield-wall are beginning to show us why.

This election, like Hastings, will be a daunting uphill battle. It has the makings of a long, thankless slog. It will be muddy, and bloody, and cruel, and more than a little dirty. It already has been: we’ve been fighting it these last four years against a foe who seemed, at times during the full vernal bloom of his majority government, utterly unassailable. But at the top of the Hill, among the rank-and-file of his spearmen, gaps are starting to appear. The strength of that hard line is beginning to fail.

“Charge ’em and they scatter!

Bad advice to follow in traffic, maybe. But perhaps Tolkien’s advice is not universally without merit.

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