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Greg Locke/Redux

Michael Ignatieff, then leader of the Liberal Party, campaigning in the Canadian federal election, St. John’s, Newfoundland, April 2011

Michael Ignatieff’s eighteenth book sets out to tell a tale that, in its outlines, is almost mythic. A writer and intellectual at the pinnacle of his powers is approached by a trio of shadowy envoys from a former life. These “men in black,” as he somewhat ominously calls them, invite him to return home to a country he has not lived in for most of his adult life. The reward they hold out, for which he must give up his present career, is the prospect of becoming the most powerful man in the land. He is flattered, but he also knows these men can’t simply hand him the prize; he will have to win it for himself. He also knows the idea is preposterous; after all, he has spent his adult life studying power but has never once exercised it. Yet the offer stirs ancestral memories, and he finds it too tantalizing to refuse. He returns home, confident that his country, with its well-known civility, will give him a friendly reception.

Instead, he’s met with a groundswell of hostility: rivals challenge his right to be there; opponents try to undermine his reputation. The more he tries to adapt, the emptier he feels. Within arm’s reach of his goal, he flings down the gauntlet and marches into battle for the crown. We know how it ends. In the classical mold in which this story is cast, actions born in hubris always lead to defeat.

The story, of course, is Ignatieff’s own. He left his post at Harvard and entered Canadian politics on a wave of high hopes in 2005, won a seat in Parliament in 2006, rose to become leader of the Liberal Party, and thus of the official opposition, in 2009, and then, in the federal election of 2011, which he had helped precipitate, he led his party to the greatest defeat in its history and left the field badly beaten.

In Fire and Ashes he tries to understand the debacle and explain what drew him into politics in the first place, why he failed, and what deeper knowledge, both of himself and of the game that defeated him, he might reclaim from the ashes. And although he wants us to read the book as an “analytical memoir” rather than as a standard political autobiography, it is really a cautionary tale about the perils awaiting thoughtful men who are moved to act out the ancient dream of bringing bright ideas into the fog of political life.

The story begins at a dinner in the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in late 2004, hosted by three mysterious “men in black.” At the time Ignatieff was fifty-seven and had, for the past four years, been head of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Ignatieff had an impressive background for the job, including years spent reporting from many of the world’s worst war zones. In a short time, according to an article in World Affairs Journal, he made the Harvard center into “an institution renowned for its policy-relevant scholarship.”1 But he’d also stirred controversy because of his support for the invasion of Iraq and his belief that American military power should be used as a tool for “nation-building” and protecting victims of human rights abuses and war crimes in failed states.

The men in black were emissaries from the Liberal Party of Canada, a party suffering from its own brand of hubris. Because of its long record in government (it had been in power for 84 of 146 years since the country’s founding in 1867), it liked to refer to itself as “Canada’s natural governing party.” For much of that time, its reputation had been deserved. The Liberal’s chief founding father, Wilfrid Laurier (1841–1919), had put together a party that had strong roots in both French- and English-speaking Canada despite the profound differences in the legal, political, and religious traditions of each region. Laurier’s vision of Canada as a civic nation whose citizens shared a secular identity that transcended, but did not negate, their ethnic and religious identities is an idea that forms the bedrock of much of Ignatieff’s political thinking, and was no doubt one of the reasons why the men in black thought he would be a good fit as a potential party leader.

By 2004, however, the “natural governing party” label had worn dangerously thin. The Liberals were battered by financial scandal and torn apart by a vicious internal power struggle that had caused its membership to plummet and many of its most seasoned veterans to withdraw from politics. Moreover, in the elections of 2004, it had been reduced to minority-government status by an alliance of right-wing forces that had recently coalesced under the banner of the Conservative Party.

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This new party (Ignatieff calls its members, not quite accurately, “our own republicans”) was nominally the inheritor of the old center-right Progressive Conservative Party,2 which had jockeyed for power with the Liberals for over a century until it was virtually wiped out in the watershed election of 1993. The new Conservative Party, however, was a tougher entity led by Stephen Harper, an evangelical Christian and the former head of a right-wing lobby group called the National Citizens’ Coalition, whose highly ideological neoconservative agenda still informs the party’s policies.

The new Conservatives had solid roots in the wealthy western provinces but they were also making serious inroads in the sprawling suburbs of the Golden Horseshoe area of southern Ontario that had traditionally been a Liberal stronghold. At the same time, the new Conservatives were ceding ground to the separatist Bloc Québécois in francophone Quebec. It was this radical, polarized realignment of Canadian politics, and the dangers it posed to the foundering Liberal Party, that had brought the recruiters to Cambridge in search of a savior.

Part of Ignatieff’s allure was his impressive output as a public intellectual. He was the author of a number of books, including The Needs of Strangers (1984), on the dilemmas of altruism, which remains a minor classic in the annals of liberalism; The Russian Album (1987), about his father’s family roots in the tsarist civil service and their escape from the Russian Revolution and ultimately to Canada; and a biography of his former teacher at Oxford, Isaiah Berlin, a book that contains some of Ignatieff’s finest writing.

He’s also well known for a series of journalistic reports from what he came to see as a modern, Conradian “heart of darkness,” a bleak, fragile post-1989 world seething with long-suppressed national conflicts and plagued by apparently intractable ethnic wars, genocide, and social and political collapse. The best known of these is Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism (1993), based on a series of documentaries Ignatieff did for BBC television about nationalist conflicts in Croatia and Serbia, Ukraine, Germany, Northern Ireland, Quebec, and Kurdistan. The book—and especially his prescient chapter on the deep historic, ethnic, and political divisions in Ukraine—is still fresh today. It concludes with a stark summary of Ignatieff’s core beliefs:

If I had supposed, as the Cold War came to an end, that the new world might be ruled by philosophers and poets, it was because I believed, foolishly, that the precarious civility and order of the states in which I live must be what all people rationally desire…. I began the journey as a liberal, and I end as one, but I cannot help thinking that liberal civilization—the rule of laws, not men, of argument in place of force, of compromise in place of violence—runs deeply against the human grain and is achieved and sustained only by the most unremitting struggle against human nature. The liberal virtues—tolerance, compromise, reason—remain as valuable as ever, but they cannot be preached to those who are mad with fear or mad with vengeance. In any case, preaching always rings hollow. We must be prepared to defend them by force, and the failure of the sated, cosmopolitan nations to do so has left the hungry nations sick with contempt for us.

From there, it was only a short step to the hawkish views he came to espouse after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Yet there is no evidence in Fire and Ashes that his recruiters ever worried that Ignatieff’s support for the invasion of Iraq might complicate his entry into Canadian politics. After all, it put him at odds both with Canadian foreign policy (Canada had declined to join George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” in 2003) and with the opinions of most Canadian liberals. The recruiters even seem to have believed that Ignatieff’s three-decades-long absence from the country would work to his advantage, since it meant he had no association with the scandals and the rivalries that were tearing the Liberal Party apart.

Not surprisingly, Ignatieff at first found their overtures astonishing. “Why did anyone think my political writings qualified me to be a politician?” he writes. “What didn’t well up inside me was laughter. It should have. The idea was preposterous. Who did I think I was?”

And yet, he soon enough found reasons to take their suggestion seriously. He was nudged toward his decision by his admiration for other writers who had gone into politics, like Mario Vargas Llosa and Václav Havel, and he was drawn by “the chance to stop being a spectator.” (He was living in the United States, but remained a Canadian citizen and says he had little prospect of ever becoming actively involved in US public life.) “I’d been in the stands all my life, watching the game. Now, I thought, it was time to step into the arena.”

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But the most powerful motivation, at least as he describes it in Fire and Ashes, came from what he calls “the family imperatives.” Ignatieff writes at some length here, as he has elsewhere, about both sides of his family, whose lives were entwined with Canadian politics by marriage, friendship, and career. Perhaps most significantly, his father was a senior diplomat and civil servant to several prime ministers, and family lore seems to have imbued him with his primary sense of what politics was. “As soon as I was old enough to join the conversation around the family dinner table,” he says, “I shared in the idea—or the illusion—that good government—run by people like my dad—was the ultimate solution to any national problem.”

But his father, he goes on, “steered clear of party politics, and the stories he told laid bare the difference between the instincts of politicians and of civil servants like himself.” The self-promoting instincts of politicians and the self-effacing nature of civil servants are both essential to good governance, yet the possibility that his family background might have better prepared him for the latter than the former does not seem to have entered into Ignatieff’s calculations as he tried to decide what to do. He writes about the intoxicating experience, as a young man, of working on Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s successful 1968 campaign for the Liberal Party leadership, but he deliberately walked away from that life, not wanting, as he said, to “become a staffer in some minister’s office.” Now, almost four decades later, whatever unfulfilled ambition was still slumbering within him seems to have been aroused by that visitation in Cambridge. “When the three strangers invited me to go into politics,” he says, “it was as if I had been waiting my whole life for them to show up.”

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Zhang Dacheng/Xinhua Press/Corbis

Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper, the late New Democratic leader Jack Layton, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, and Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe just before a federal election debate, Ottawa, Ontario, April 2011

Ignatieff says it took almost a year to “engineer” his return. His handlers frequently brought him back to Canada to meet Liberal Party power brokers and to position him to run for a seat in Parliament, the unavoidable first step in any climb to the top in Canadian politics. He was, he says, “grilled by tough political professionals who wanted to figure out whether, as they said, I had ‘legs.’” He was given stacks of briefing books on Liberal policy to read and though he quickly absorbed their contents, he realized only later that he hadn’t really understood them in his “guts.” In March 2005, he gave the keynote address at the party’s biannual policy convention, an event that alerted the media to his intentions and guaranteed that everything he did from then on would be closely scrutinized. That summer, he resigned from his position at the Kennedy School and accepted the offer of a visiting professorship at the University of Toronto. He was now positioned to launch his assault on the summit.

In November, the Liberal minority government lost a non-confidence vote, an election was called for January 2006, and Ignatieff was thrust into the game sooner than expected. The party arranged for him to run in a safe Toronto suburban constituency, but he was dogged by demonstrators intent on bringing up his past: Ukrainian-Canadians accusing him of having slandered Ukrainian nationalists in Blood and Belonging; people in George W. Bush masks and Guantánamo-style jumpsuits condemning his support for the invasion of Iraq, and accusing him of advocating torture, which Ignatieff says was based on “a drastic misreading of a book of mine called The Lesser Evil.” It was a moment of truth for Ignatieff.

This aspect of politics—tendentious political misreading of something you had said years before—was new to me…. I wanted to say: “If you’d actually read The Lesser Evil, you would know I despise torture as much as you do.”…I had yet to grasp that in politics, explanation always comes too late. You never explain, you never complain. If you’re lucky, you just get your revenge.

In the end, he won his seat, but overall the Liberals were reduced to opposition status, giving the new Conservative Party its first taste of power, albeit as a minority government. The Liberal leader, Paul Martin, resigned, and Ignatieff, with virtually no parliamentary experience, found himself the front-runner in what would become a protracted battle to replace Martin and renew the party’s fortunes.

Historians will no doubt give us fuller, more objective accounts of Ignatieff’s Sisyphean rise to the top of his party: how he lost his bid for the leadership at the 2006 convention, then won it by acclamation in 2009 after a botched attempt (which he opposed) to unseat Harper by cobbling together a coalition with Canada’s traditional third party, the socialist New Democratic Party, and finally, his precipitous fall.3 What makes Ignatieff’s version of it persuasive, and sometimes even alarming, is its rawness, the traces of residual bitterness that still cling to it. “Those who have failed in politics,” he writes, “have paid for what they know, and those who pay for knowledge in the real currency of life are entitled to a hearing.”

Electoral politics clearly took an enormous toll on his sense of who he was. “Without realizing it at the time,” he writes of his first election campaign,

I had passed through the looking glass into the unique psychic world of anyone seeking public office. I was about to spend the next five years of my life in a state of constant dependence on the opinion of others…. I had no idea how completely this…would take me over and begin to shape my sense of my own worth.

Despite the strain, he found his first electoral victory strangely “ennobling.” “Up to that moment, I had spoken only on behalf of myself…. Now I had to speak for strangers, and be responsible to them.” This conflict—between politics as a noble calling and politics as existential struggle—becomes one of the book’s underlying, and unresolved, motifs. Ignatieff found it easier to embrace, and even enjoy, the more traditional elements of electoral politics. The stump-speaking, the door-knocking, the barnstorming, the summer barbeque and lobster-fest circuits—these seemed to him more genuine than the Machiavellian side of politics, particularly the effort to master “Fortuna,” the fickle goddess of circumstance (or “timing,” in modern terms) that Ignatieff says often confounded him. Perhaps had he spent more time as a simple member of Parliament he might eventually have found his feet. But time was short, his ultimate aim was far more ambitious, and it soon began to take its toll:

Within a year of entering politics, I had the disorienting feeling of having been taken over by a doppelgänger, a strange new persona I could barely recognize when I looked at myself in the mirror. I wore Harry Rosen suits…and my ties were carefully matched to my shirts. I had never been so well-dressed in my life and had never felt so hollow…. I had made myself into a politician, and I didn’t much like what I was becoming.

Ignatieff’s struggle to master electoral politics has yielded some astute observations about what he calls the “degraded” state of Canadian politics, and in particular about the decline of civility in Parliament, and the surprising cunning and even ruthlessness that lie behind the anodyne exterior of the new Conservative Party. Particularly galling for Ignatieff were the Conservative Party’s relentless attempts to thwart his efforts to establish what he calls “standing,” or legitimacy, both as a member of Parliament and as party leader. Prime Minister Harper was quick to recognize that the weakest part of Ignatieff’s “narrative” about his long-delayed return to Canada was the fact that he had not come back entirely of his own volition: he’d been recruited and then inserted into the upper echelons of the party without having paid his dues. The Conservatives’ attack ads, which were run, at great expense, outside the election season (thereby avoiding election spending limits) hammered away at a single theme: Ignatieff “didn’t come back for you,” he was “just visiting.” Had he decided to come home on his own, perhaps earlier in life, taking the time to build alliances and find a niche more in line with his temperament and experience, the suspicions the ads were meant to arouse would have had no basis. As it was, there were even people in his own party who held his belated return against him.

Ignatieff compares the attack ads against him to the “swiftboating” of John Kerry during the 2004 election campaign in the United States, but the ads deployed against Ignatieff and other opposition leaders were—and are—more pernicious. In their constant attempts to undermine the integrity of duly elected members of Parliament, the governing Conservatives were in fact deliberately undermining the integrity of Parliament itself, holding in contempt two of the pillars of parliamentary democracy: the notion that the members of the “loyal opposition,” as we still somewhat quaintly refer to it, are meant to be partners in the business of governance, not mortal enemies; and the notion that the verdict of the voters who sent them to Parliament is unimpeachable.

It was those same voters who, in May 2011, ended Ignatieff’s short career in politics. There have been many explanations for his failure, but the one that emerges most clearly, though perhaps unintentionally, from his book is that he was never quite able to make the part of him that felt alienated by politics mesh convincingly with the part of himself that reveled in it. He never found a way to bring the passion and conviction that shine from his books to life in electoral politics. Voters—especially the undecided—are quick to detect and reject candidates who aren’t comfortable in their own skins, and of the four major party leaders, Ignatieff came across as the least at ease with himself. In the end, he lacked what the German sociologist Max Weber said was the most important quality in establishing a modern political leader’s legitimacy: charisma.

Ignatieff accepted the voter’s verdict, first with a sense of dejection (“Defeat,” he writes, “invalidated me as a politician but also as a writer and thinker”) but finally, with relief. When he stepped back out through the looking glass into his old world, he felt “the first stirrings of the intellectual curiosity, the avidity for ideas that the routines of political life can slowly drive out of your system.”

Fire and Ashes leaves one with a sense of loss and regret, not so much at Ignatieff’s failure at an enterprise that, by all accounts, including his own, was doomed from the outset. No, the regret one feels is for the gradual death of civility in politics that his book so vividly chronicles. Ignatieff was right, back in 1993, when he called that civility “fragile.” Of all political systems, democracy is the easiest to pervert, because it depends far less on rules than on mutual respect among the players. When that breaks down, as we have seen in the United States, good governance itself breaks down, and no amount of reform measures can easily bring it back. George Orwell, in holding up “common decency” as a bulwark against “smelly little orthodoxies,” understood that. Ignatieff came to understand it too, and it is unfortunate that his voice is no longer there in the political sphere to remind us.

  1. 1

    Jordan Michael Smith, “Iggy Pops: The Michael Ignatieff Experiment,” World Affairs Journal, July/August, 2011.  

  2. 2

    The old Conservative Party changed its name to the Progressive Conservative Party in 1942. 

  3. 3

    The best account so far is in Peter C. Newman’s When the Gods Changed: The Death of Liberal Canada (Vintage Canada, 2012). Newman, a veteran Canadian historian and biographer, followed Ignatieff’s return to Canada from the beginning and had close access to Ignatieff for the whole period.