Sir John A. Macdonald, the first prime minister of Canada, was a Conservative. He is remembered chiefly for his love of alcohol and his hatred of free trade. Brian Mulroney, the last elected Conservative prime minister, foreswore alcohol when he reckoned (correctly) that he could surmount the greasy pole (just like George W. Bush) and embraced free trade when he reckoned (again, correctly) that this tactic would split the opposition and ensure his re-election. Mulroney was the only Conservative to win two consecutive majorities in the 20th century, but in so doing, he transformed his party into a mirror image of its great rival, the Liberals—and thereby shattered it. And after a decade-long false start, the Conservative base has found a new home—in the Canadian Alliance.

The virtual collapse of the Conservatives in 1993 ensured consecutive majority governments for Jean Chrétien’s Liberal Party. Chrétien—like Mulroney and Chrétien’s mentor, Pierre Trudeau—is committed to the New Canada myth of the “proposition nation”: Canada as a wholly materialist entity, with no unique culture nor any traditions worth preserving, its value based entirely on the judgment of foreigners.

For the seventh year in a row, Canada has ranked first in the U.N. Development Program’s quality-of-life index. It is amusing to think of Canadians responding with shouts of “We’re No. 1! In your face, USA!”—and depressing to admit this is precisely what has happened. Although there is not a person alive who can explain the U.N.’s methodology, this has not stopped Prime Minister Chrétien from boasting at every conceivable opportunity that Canada is “the best country in the world.” (That is, when he is not regaling us with accounts of his imaginary conversations with the homeless or with “ordinary Canadians” in pubs and donut shops he has never visited.)

Canadians are divided linguistically, ethnically, and geographically, but the most important distinction is between those who believe Canada is the best country in the world because the United Nations says so and those who do not. T’hose in the first group are the natural, perhaps only, supporters of the Liberal Party (which is not so much a political party as a governing institution, like Mexico’s PRI). Those in the second group are the natural supporters of Stockwell Day’s Canadian Alliance.

Day, until recently Alberta’s finance minister, is the first avowedly conservative leader of a major national Canadian party in living memory. He is not only a “fiscal” conservative—we are all fiscal conservatives now—but a “social” conservative as well: pro-life and anti-gay rights. He has made a direct appeal to what might be called (after Sam Francis) “Middle Canadians,” promising them that if elected, he will put a stop to the unconstitutional aggrandizement of the welfare state, pursued aggressively by every Canadian government since Trudeau came to power in 1968. He has also promised to end social engineering by the courts, which began when Trudeau imposed a written bill of rights in 1982. To the horror of the elites, Day insists that Canada is more than a U.N. ranking, more than the sum of its “sacred” (Mulroney’s word) social-safety net. Day offers a choice, not an echo. In response, the national newsweekly Maclean’s, in best “threat or menace?” style, headlined its first cover story on Day, “How scary?”

The same claims were made about another Canadian political leader, Preston Manning. But to understand why Manning was never a threat to the establishment, we need to consider his Reform Party (the Alliance’s predecessor) and why it failed.

Reform was founded in 1987, mostly by disgruntled Conservatives and Western separatists willing to give Canada another chance, and as a solution to the alienation of the West, whose wealth is confiscated for the benefit of the more populous East. (Note the striking similarity to Umberto Bossi’s Lega Nord.) Its first slogan was “The West Wants In.” What Manning wanted, however, was something else. The party originally represented only the Western provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba; but in 1991 Manning persuaded party members to take it national. This eliminated its raison d’être but allowed Manning the possibility of becoming prime minister. He continued to campaign for structural reform, specifically an American-style Senate and direct democracy in the form of referenda and citizen initiatives.

Despite Reform’s successes in the elections of 1993 and 1997 (when it became the official opposition), it won only one seat in Eastern Canada in 1993 (when the ruling Conservatives were reduced to two seats) and none in 1997. Reform twice managed no better than 19 percent of the vote in Ontario, equal with the Conservatives. This vote-splitting allowed the Liberals in both elections to capture almost every Ontario seat; in 1997, they took 101 of 103 seats there and thus won a parliamentary majority with only 38 percent of the national vote. (Quebec continues to be dominated by the separatist Bloc Quebecois. Yet with the passage of the Clarity Act, which dictates secession conditions, the Liberals have removed fear of separation—what Peter Brimelow named “the Patriot game”—from the political agenda. The moribund Conservatives hold 15 seats, the socialist New Democrats 19.)

Manning never understood that his triumphs in the West, where Reform became the leading party, were due to regional alienation, not to any great fondness for systemic restructuring. It never made sense that Eastern Canadians would vote Reform: Ontario and Quebec together command an absolute majority in the House of Commons, and they like the system the way it is. Other parties would have dealt with this problem by selecting a new leader, but Manning persuaded party members that the fault was not with him but with Reform’s regional “image.” The result was the Canadian Alliance: a merger between Reform and disaffected federal and provincial Conservatives that was Manning’s attempt to reconstruct the very national coalition he had deconstructed in 1987.

Received wisdom is that Manning failed in Ontario because his “scary” social conservatism frightened the supposedly liberal Ontario electorate, but this profoundly misjudges the man. Despite his personal beliefs, which are almost identical to Day’s, Manning refused to appeal to natural Reform supporters—blue-collar workers, European immigrants. Catholics—because he refused to admit that politics is a zero-sum game.

Described routinely by the Canadian and foreign media as a “conservative,” Manning was nothing of the sort, as he was the first to point out. He was a “populist,” and he liked to compare Reform to a hockey team, which has a left wing, a right wing, and a center. He was described as a “policy wonk,” but his real obsession was process. Always becoming and never being. Manning was, in the words of former advisor Thomas Flanagan, “waiting for the wave”: the tide of national alienation he would ride to power. “Everywhere that rises must converge,” as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, and it is strange that no one has ever noted the parallels between Manning’s thought and that of the heretical French Jesuit: Like Teilhard, Manning believed that greater complexity would lead to higher consciousness and that man (or, at least, Canadian man) was evolving to an omega point. And at the end, presiding over the great reconciliation would be . . . Preston Manning.

Thus, Manning’s concerns were more sacred than profane, and Reform was not so much a political party as a cult. My colleague Colby Cosh dubbed Manning’s shock troops the “Presuits,” and they rooted out heresy assiduously. Purges came as naturally to Reform as they do to the Randians. Anyone who threatened to create a rival power base, doubted Manning’s leadership, or stood firm on matters of principle was frozen out or expelled.

The most egregious example of Manning’s tyrannical leadership was his temporary expulsion from the caucus in 1996 of two MPs who had spoken out against the legal recognition of homosexual equality—which was Reform’s own position. Accused of “homophobia,” Manning panicked. He later justified his action in a bizarre article in which he declared that discrimination—anywhere, under any circumstances—would not be tolerated by the Reform Party.

Much as Reformers chafed under Presuitical rule, it was accepted that, so long as the party existed. Manning would lead it. Unfortunately for him, however. Reform had a sunset clause in its constitution: Unless it formed a government by the end of 1999, the party would dissolve. Goodbye Reform Party, hello Canadian Alliance. The Alliance, however, was mocked as a mere makeover: as Mulroney put it, “the Reform Party in pantyhose.” Manning understood that, if the Alliance was to have any credibility, he must allow a leadership contest. Manning did not help his own cause by waging a particularly insouciant campaign, acting as if he were running for president of the Elks Club or student council. He advanced no policies and appealed exclusively to residual party loyalty. After the first ballot, in which he trailed Stockwell Day 36 percent to 44 percent (there were three other candidates), he sealed his doom by permitting (or encouraging) his supporters to defame Day as a dangerous “extremist.” (His campaign manager actually compared Day to Jim Jones of Jonestown infamy,) On the second ballot, Day humiliated Manning, winning 64 percent to 36 percent.

Manning was shocked by the result. So were the media, which had come to love Manning as the “conservative” who plays by his enemies’ rules and loses graciously. Manning’s new elite friends lamented that an ungrateful party had dumped him for cosmetic reasons: It had replaced a 57-year-old evangelical Protestant from Alberta with a 50-year-old evangelical Protestant from Alberta solely because Day is younger, better looking, and does not speak in a grating parsonical whine. They never understood that Manning was fundamentally at odds with the aspirations of most Reform supporters.

Stockwell Day frightens the governing Liberals. He plays to win. In response to charges of “extremism,” he declares, “The era of political correctness is over.” Jason Kenney, his American-educated campaign manager, told me that, under Day, the Canadian Alliance will imitate Ronald Reagan’s strategy in 1980 and 1984: Day will seek to persuade Middle Canadian voters that the Liberals are their enemies, not their friends. Day is well suited to play the role of Reagan. He is cool, confident, and optimistic, although he has indulged occasionally in foolish and sometimes repellent demagoguery. It will be difficult for the Liberals to make him a bogeyman, although they are doing their worst. Day has already been accused of neo-Nazi sympathies and of being responsible for the recent stabbing of a Vancouver abortionist.

Kenney is the former head of the Canadian Taxpayers Association, and tax relief will probably be the major issue in the next election campaign, which is expected to be called this year or next. The Alliance is committed to a single federal income tax rate of 17 percent. Canada’s current rates are 17 percent up to $29,590, 26 percent up to $59,180, and 29 percent above that, hi comparison, Americans pay only 15 percent on income up to $63,486 (in Canadian dollars), and the 28 percent rate doesn’t kick in until $153,443 (in Canadian dollars). Americans may also deduct mortgage-interest payments; Canadians cannot, hi addition, Canadians pay a seven-percent consumer tax on all goods and services.

Steve Forbes peddled the flat-tax idea in two primary campaigns, with little success. Until recently, I would have predicted that the Liberals could attack the Alliance plan to devastating effect. Now, I am not so sure. Prime Minister Chrétien has repeatedly castigated those who want to keep more of their earnings as “greedy,” inviting them to leave the country. Tens of thousands of skilled professionals leave every year, and more would if they could. It is part of the New Canada myth that exorbitant taxation is the price we pay for living in “the best country in the world”; yet, as even a shocked New York Times has reported, Canada’s social-safety net is unraveling. Canadians who do not want to die on our notorious Medicare waiting lists are heading south for treatment in droves. Now that Canadians earning as little as $30,000 pay an effective marginal tax rate of 50 percent, the U.N.’s endorsement does not quite warm the heart the way it used to.

Historians will judge Brian Mulroney as the man who singlehandedly razed a great national institution. Canadians, however, have reason to be grateful, for the unintended consequence of Mulroney’s hubris is that we now have, in the Canadian Alliance, a viable alternative to Liberal (and liberal) hegemony.