Let me tell you a story, 'bout man named Conrad...
In the lead up to Conrad Black’s 2007 criminal trial, a Toronto designer created some t-shirts with the slogan “Conrad will win” printed under a cartoon of Black’s face. As a backer of Black’s from the beginning, I arranged to get myself one. The shirt symbolized what Conrad’s friends and supporters thought was destiny at the time.
But despite being cleared of the majority of criminal charges against him, its wasn’t to be — and Black has been in jail for more than two years. Like many of his “foul-weather friends,” to borrow George Jonas’ term, I held out hope for as long as I could, but I packed away my t-shirt when George W. Bush left the White House. When Bush declined to give Black a pardon, it appeared the war was lost and no plausible battlefields remained. Others I spoke to privately felt the same way.
If his bail conditions permit him to leave the United States, we should all welcome Conrad Black home. Other exploits notwithstanding, his accomplishments as a newspaperman and writer are prodigious and unusual. And, if he sometimes got profligately confused about what he was entitled to, that is an understandable by-product of being a very prodigious, and ridiculously talented, individual. As long as he doesn’t insist on being addressed as “Lord”, I’ll be happy to buy him a welcome-back beer at any time. Bring him home now.
I am fine with referring to Mr Black as His Lordship. But I'm a Whig Monarchist Reactionary, so my position may not be reflective of prevailing trends. The motto of my life. Still Conrad Black has had a kind of cult following for years, especially among conservatives.
They are not quite fans, by their nature they are a reticent lot, but certainly admirers. Black is scarcely the Horatio Alger type of figure the free market minded tend to admire. A scion of a wealthy WASP Montreal family (originally from Winnipeg), Black was famously kicked out of Upper Canada College for selling test answers. His first major success was a corporate coup, seizing control of the legendary Argus holding company in the late 1970s, with a measure of personal charm and strategic acuity that would have impressed Talleyrand.
A documentary on Black's takeover, based on Peter C Newman's book, transformed the thirty-something into a national celebrity. Brilliant, erudite and conservative, Black exuded a charm that was perfectly in step with the age of Reagan, Thatcher and Alex P Keaton, who might have been a younger American cousin. He was not, despite the haranguing of the Canadian Left, a hard-core free marketer. An admirer of Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon (both grand villains in libertarian cosmology), Black is really a sort of moderate British Tory, somewhere to the right of Harold Macmillan and the left of Geoffrey Howe.
To the Canadian media of the era, he was a gift. Canadian businessmen, by instinct and training, are a grey lot who shun public attention. They seek to blend effortless into the soft leather cushions of their limos, being driven at moderate speeds down Bay and King. Black was nothing of the sort. He was flamboyant, albeit by conservative Canadian standards, and like Pierre Trudeau in politics he was accorded points for style. Being so, by the meek standards of the day, militant in his defense of capitalism, he was immediately branded a modern day robber baron. A slag that became more plausible when he became an actual baron in 2001, and was convicted in 2007.
Despite the steady stream of sneers, Black spent the 1980s and 1990s acquiring a reputation as a formidable reorganizer of ailing corporate giants. His passion for newsprint lead him to revitalize Canadian journalism, an effort which met with the typical ingratitude of the hacking class. When he was offered a peerage, a traditional prerogative of owners of the Telegraph, he accepted.
To the fur traders back in Toronto and Montreal, it was further proof that the boy-wonder had delusions of grander. For an anglophile history-nut, the temptation of sitting in the house of Beaconsfield and Liverpool was too much. Jean Chretien, annoyed by the Post's dogged tracking of his Prime Ministerial excesses, decided to block the peerage. He was on the shakiest of constitutional ground, citing the Nickel Resolution of 1919 which allegedly barred Canadians from accepting honours from the Crown.
Yet it was simply a resolution passed by the House of Commons, it was never agreed to by the Senate and no formal request was ever made to the sovereign. The successor government of R.B. Bennett ignored the resolution, and Bennett himself accepted the title of Viscount after leaving office (a step above baron). Frederick Banting and William Stephenson were both made Knights after the passage of the Nickel Resolution. Chretien was playing the vindictive ward heeler.
In his rapid ascent, wide learning and powerful style, Black accumulated a small but dedicated following. Few of these people had ever met Black. They were not friends or allies, but ordinary Canadians, professionals, small business people and conservative fellow travellers. He was a larger than life character, born in a country that in a deep and powerful way was still essentially provincial. The old Canadian joke about the lobsters applies to Lord Black.
How can you tell a pot is full of Canadian lobsters?
When one tries to escape the others hold him down.
He was too bright, too interesting, too grand a figure for the people who believed in Little Canada, a smug colonial outpost that alternately hated and envied its mother and older brother. To those whose vision of Canada is wide and free, who imagine it capable of great things, if only its talents were unleashed, to many of those Lord Black was a prophet in pinstripes. For all his faults he remains prophet. From his ordeal at the hands of a vindictive American government, he has acquired a sort of strange martyrdom, endured with the stoicism of his class and generation. He is a powerful reproach to the worst of modern Canada, especially the cults of envy and greyness. For this alone he deserves to be welcomed back to the land of his birth.