A sixty-year-old smiling public man

For the last two weeks Canada has mourned the death of one of its most charismatic old-style politicians, Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP). After a remarkable campaign for the last general election, Layton looked set to crown his long career with the pivotal role of leader of Canada’s official opposition. Not only had he taken his party to unforeseen electoral success —- almost tripling their previous number of seats, from 37 to 103 —- but he had beaten the Liberal party into third place for the first time in more than a century, and become the first anglophone to win Quebec. Instead, at the relatively young age of 61, he quickly succumbed to an aggressive form of cancer.

Layton was known for his unflagging optimism, which earned him the nickname ‘Smilin’ Jack.‘ Even as he took a leave of absence in late July, to begin treatment for his illness, he spoke hopefully of a return to national politics. When it was clear that he had only days to live, Layton composed a moving letter, thanking the public for its support, dispensing deathbed counsel to his various constituencies, and signing off with the memorable lines “[L]ove is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

After a high-school flirtation with politics, Layton studied under the political philosopher Charles Taylor at McGill University. Much later he attributed his remarkable tenacity, especially when fighting for minority rights, to Taylor’s theory of dialectics, especially the insight that “it’s good to create debate because then you can create space within which new ideas can happen.” This gadfly approach to political life served Layton extremely well, and allowed his natural sympathy for the underdog to assume a respectable intellectual pedigree. After teaching urban politics at Ryerson University, he ran successfully for the Toronto city council where he espoused a long series of progressive issues such as smoking bans in public places, the promotion of alternative energy and the creation of bike lanes in downtown Toronto. Perhaps the high point of his political career prior to the last elections came in 2000 when, as president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities he managed to persuade the federal government to commit more than $1 billion to affordable housing for poor Canadians.

The heartfelt public sympathy which has followed Layton’s death is surprising in a country better known for its reserve. Whatever his politics, Layton’s personal warmth clearly struck a chord with millions of Canadians who are usually rather sceptical about elected officials. Like the even more successful community organiser who now runs the United States, Layton had mastered a certain kind of public rhetoric, one that made the poor and the powerless sense that his sympathy was real while simultaneously conveying the impression that he was astute enough to also find workable political solutions. With hindsight, Obama’s all-purpose talk of “hope and change” may seem fanciful given his failure to create jobs and stimulate a stagnant economy, but it is important to remember the context in which his promises were made. Politics is not simply the “art of the possible” it is also, occasionally, about inspiration.

That few if any contemporary politicians, West Indian or otherwise, could evoke the national sense of loss which has followed Layton’s passing, is a sign of the times. In our cynical age, the lines between corporate and political life are too often blurred. Political platforms are built around polls, high-priced consultants and shrewdly calculated “triangulations.” Politicians who confront vested interests directly and endorse marginal constituencies simply because it seems the right thing to do are practically extinct. During his career Jack Layton showed a peculiar ability to shift between idealism and street-level pragmatism, claiming the high moral ground but always voting against opponents when it served party interests. Nevertheless, he will be remembered as a man who fought tirelessly for people who often get lost in the shuffle of modern politics, not just the permanent underclass whose existence has troubled a generation of armchair commentators, but also those with progressive views on gay rights, the environment and social justice. Layton left the ivory tower for the rough-and-tumble of politics when he was still young enough to make a tactical retreat. But despite the inevitable disappointments of political life, he never returned. For the last fortnight the Canadian public has mourned the passing of this type of idiosyncratic public-spirited individual as much as it has mourned the passing of an individual political leader.

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