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In the Fire and Ashes, Michael Ignatieff chronicles his own rise and fall in Canadian politics. The book describes Ignatieff’s failed transition from academics to politics. The author writes that his disastrous political career began when three “men in black” approached him with an interesting political proposition.
Ian Davey, Alf Apps, and Keith Davey convinced Ignatieff to leave his job as the head of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and run for a leadership position in Canada through the Liberal Party (Ignatieff, 2013).
Against his family and friend’s advice, Ignatieff “pursued the flame of power and saw hope dwindle to ashes” (Ignatieff, 2013, p. 16). In the book, the author details how the political uncertainties and his skewed perspective led to his eventual downfall.
In the first chapter of the book, Ignatieff reveals that he had a deep interest in public service. He admits that since childhood, he harbored the ambitions of becoming a prime minister. His political interests coupled with a strong belief in good governance motivated him to run for a public office.
Although the “men in black” warned Ignatieff about “the Liberal party’s limited chances of winning the election as it was nearing “the end of the road” (2013, p. 80), he saw their proposition as an opportunity to reposition himself for his “homecoming” mission. The author delves into the campaign strategies for his 2006 début.
He describes his campaign for Etobicoke’s parliamentary seat in 2006 as one that “broke down the barriers of race, ethnicity, and class that keeps us separate” (p. 56). During this campaign, Ignatieff discovered that Canada has deep-rooted divisions and diversity, but notes that the “spine of citizenship” (2013, p. 114) is what keeps the Canadian society united.
In the following sections of the book, the author describes the uncertainties and conflicts in the Canadian politics. Ignatieff decries the way Parliament conducts its business and advocates for better political debates. He advises budding politicians to be candid individuals who “look people directly in the eye” when addressing them (Ignatieff, 2013, p. 91).
The author tells of his populist campaign slogans, “tous ensemble”, and “rise up”, which, however, turned out to be ‘meaningless’ because people were disillusioned with the administration. Ignatieff, at first, thought that his political slogans “had caught a wave”, but later admits that his campaign speeches were like “talking to ourselves” (p. 72).
He compares himself to Trudeau, a renowned lawyer who brought significant social changes in the Quebec society. However, unlike Ignatieff, Trudeau was an intellectual and activist who brought about social change through direct political involvement.
At the 2011 general election, the Liberal candidate lost by a big margin partly because of his skewed perspective on politics (Ignatieff, 2003). The party also lost the majority of its parliamentary seats to its rivals, the Conservatives.
The author reflects over his political strategies and acknowledges that his campaign approach had many shortcomings. He admits that during the campaigns he made a mistake of being indifferent to the changing needs of his audience.
Big crowds attended his political rallies, which made him believe that his messages had “caught a wave” (p. 67). During the campaign period, the Conservatives set the agenda in Canada and criticized the Liberal government for providing poor quality public services.
Ignatieff states that, in order for Liberals to counter this trend, they need experienced politicians to articulate their public agenda. He further notes that his failure does not mean others cannot succeed in changing this trend.
He writes that politics is like “the long and slow boring of hard boards” (p. 113) implying that, though politics can be a tough business to some intellectuals, there are others who can succeed in the practice.
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Ignatieff’s failure to address issues of public interest during the campaigns coupled with inadequate party structures contributed to his defeat. He compares his defeat to that of renowned politicians like Edmund Burke and Machiavelli, whose faulty political strategies led to their downfall.
Based on his experience as a politician, Ignatieff outlines the qualities of winning leaders as adaptability and inventiveness, which, he says, determine one’s success in politics. However, for Ignatieff, campaign problems and his high-handed attitude led to his downfall. After his defeat, he immediately returned to his teaching career.
Analysis of the Book
Although the idea of leaving his job (an academic at Harvard) and joining politics appeared incredible, Ignatieff admits that he found the prospect of joining politics charming.
For a long time, Ignatieff had “admired the intellectuals who had made the transition into politics, including Maria Vargas Llosa, Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic, and Carlos Fuentes in Mexico” (p. 18). These academicians made unsuccessful attempts at politics, which forced them to go back to their professions.
However, Ignatieff believed that he “wasn’t exactly in their league” and therefore, his foray into Canadian politics would be successful (p. 71). Moreover, the three “men in black” clearly stated that they wanted him to run for Prime Ministerial post in Canada, a position Ignatieff found too irresistible to refuse.
In the book, Ignatieff regrets having joined politics in the first place. He tells how he was happy as an intellectual at Harvard and how the decision to join politics went “against the better judgment of some good friends” (p. 87). Nevertheless, Ignatieff does not explain why he considered the idea of joining politics absurd.
Moreover, the author seems reluctant to admit the factors that led to his downfall. Ignatieff had spent many years outside Canada, first as a tutorial fellow at Cambridge (King’s College) and as an intellectual at Harvard.
His long stay outside Canada depicted him as one who had no interest in the sociopolitical development of his country. His rivals accused him of “just visiting” to pursue his political interests and not the needs of the Canadians.
Ignatieff’s stand on foreign policy issues, particularly the Iraq invasion, also contributed to his rejection. Moreover, his campaigns failed to resonate well with the electorate, as many voters disliked his stand on various political issues. It is clear that the electoral defeat left Ignatieff exasperated about modern politics.
He writes that politics is “a charismatic art” and likens it to a “reality performance” that today’s politicians must perfect (p. 62). He concludes that politics is “a calling that inspires us on, ever on, like a guiding star” (p. 182). Furthermore, he advises the citizens to perceive politics as a noble trade that seeks solutions to societal problems, not as a treacherous business.
Important Lessons from the Book
Despite his disappointing foray into politics, Ignatieff still supports politics as a means of bringing about social change. He dispels the common belief that politicians are dishonest people by characterizing politics as a noble trade. Many lessons can be learnt from Ignatieff’s experience in politics.
One important lesson from the book relates to the practice of politics. Ignatieff notes that politics is “a supreme encounter between skill and willpower and the forces of fortune and chance”, which, however, has “no rule, only strategies” (p. 64). He warns budding politicians that politics is a risky affair in which only a shrewd politician can succeed.
Another important lesson relates to political strategies and personality. In the book, Ignatieff comes out as a high-handed person whose political ambitions seem unrealistic. Ignatieff’s long stay outside Canada meant that his chances of winning an elective post were extremely low.
However, he falsely believed that he could easily triumph over his rivals and lead a country he barely understood. Moreover, he believed that his intellect and clean record could help him win the elections. However, his attitude and the failure to implement winning strategies led to his defeat.
Interestingly, in the book, Ignatieff, despite his loss, vehemently supports politics as a way of bringing about social change. Instead of criticizing politicians, he advises aspiring leaders not to be overambitious as politics has many disappointments and challenges.
Ignatieff believed that his background (a distinguished academic) could enable him to connect easily with the people. However, as it turned out, he was “framed and denied standing” by being branded a “just visiting” politician (p. 29).
Moreover, the popularity of his competitor, Jack Layton, in Quebec thwarted Ignatieff’s ambitions of becoming a prime minister. This shows that the transition from teaching to politics is not always smooth.
Ignatieff, M. (2013). Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics. Toronto: Random House.