Michael Ignatieff in North Vancouver, April 2011
Michael Ignatieff on the campaign trail in North Vancouver, April 2011 © Reuters

Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, by Michael Ignatieff, Harvard University Press, RRP£18.95/$24.95, 224 pages

James Joyce, it was said, would do anything for his country except live there. Michael Ignatieff, himself a good writer in a different genre, stayed away from his native Canada for 30 years, making a successful career in the academic and media fields. And then he went home and tried to become prime minister.

What? Just like that? His own account in Fire and Ashes is engagingly frank in confessing that “I had to decide, first of all, why I wanted to be prime minister. Let there be no mistake: that was the proposition on offer.” The story begins in late 2004. This professor of political science at Harvard, then in his late fifties, was sought out by three well-connected visiting Canadians: Alfred Apps, Dan Brock and Ian Davey. They are dubbed “the men in black” by Ignatieff, who listened to a proposal that he initially found “incredible”.

They were in despair at the prospects of their beloved Liberal party. It had dominated Canadian politics during the 20th century, with long-serving prime ministers such as Wilfrid Laurier, Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson and Pierre Elliott Trudeau. But Paul Martin, rather like Gordon Brown in Britain, did not make a happy transition from running the Treasury when he took over as prime minister in 2003. His minority Liberal government was bleeding support on the left and right alike, with the newly constituted Conservative party, led by Stephen Harper, now a real threat to Liberal ascendancy. Hence the mission of the men in black.

Ignatieff has written an elegant, thoughtful, candid book explaining why he tried, and how he failed, to get to the top of the greasy pole. There is mention of Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote The Prince “only after he had been turfed out of office in 1512”, and citation of other political failures whose works stud the canon of political theory – Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill and, above all, Max Weber. The professor has “taught” all these great predecessors; in another sense, they have taught him. But, perhaps, as the saying goes, you can always tell a Harvard man but you can’t tell him much.

The tragedy is that nobody was intellectually better prepared than Ignatieff to understand the challenge; but it didn’t do him a scrap of good. Practical politics, as he acknowledges with a nod towards Machiavelli, requires basic skills, especially timing, that “can be learned but they cannot be taught”. Fire and Ashes feelingly returns to this point. It concludes by commending Weber’s maxims about politics as a calling or vocation that is dependent on charismatic arts, “all of which can be learned in life but none of which can be taught in a classroom or a consultant’s office”.

Lessons worth learning? Almost certainly. But this professor had to learn them the hard way, and too late in life to benefit himself. He was pitched into a situation where Paul Martin’s Liberal party, as one of the men in black put it, was “heading for a train wreck”. As it turned out, Ignatieff’s role was to take the driving seat, with all too cursory instruction, when the locomotive was already headed for a disaster that he had no means of averting. His own life story made him ready to take on this task and also ensured that he would fail.

He was born into the heart of the Ontario political establishment. The Ignatieffs may have been émigré Russian nobility, down on their luck, but the Grants, on his mother’s side, had been nation-builders who knew everybody. “Theirs was the world I believed in, the example I grew up wanting to emulate,” Ignatieff admits. And with this came a certain cast of mind – “I must have assumed we were ‘the natural governing party’” – that made a train wreck seem unthinkable.

He was not alone in believing this, of course. The Liberals are still the only truly national party in this extraordinarily diverse country. But once the depth of Liberal support declined, its width ceased to be a virtue in a first-past-the-post electoral system. The political genius of Harper, prime minister since 2006, has been to build a virtually new party, nominally Conservative but founded on populist rightwing support, while displaying a Machiavellian pragmatism in office that at times earns Ignatieff’s reluctant appreciation.

By Christmas 2008, the men in black had sold their candidate to the Liberal party, which had briefly replaced Martin with Stéphane Dion, a professor from Montreal. Now the party was so desperate that it elected as leader another professor, and one who had only been back in the country for three years after decades away. Ignatieff’s “homecoming” was a story that he knew he had to tell but it failed to persuade his fellow Canadians. The attack ads on television – “Michael Ignatieff. Just Visiting” – were Harper’s predictable response. “He denied me standing in my own country,” is how Ignatieff puts it, with some sense of hurt and dismay. But, as anyone who was in the country at the time could report, it was only what ordinary Canadians, in different words, were saying to each other.

For what he was asking was simply too much. As Liberal leader he made mistakes, as he acknowledges, but he showed himself ready to meet charges of “entitlement” with sheer hard work. He decided to criss-cross this vast country by plane, bus and car, in a punishing schedule, month by month, seeking to show ordinary voters the real Canadian he had always been. “I loved every minute of it,” he claims. Hmm. And when the campaign duly ran into the buffers, and Harper was returned to power in March 2011 after the Liberals’ worst showing in their history, it was a mercy that Ignatieff lost his own seat too. Harvard again beckoned. A friend told him, “at least I’d get a good book out of it”. And, like it or not, he has.

Peter Clarke is author of ‘Mr Churchill’s Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer’ (Bloomsbury)

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