Unhappy return of the prodigal

Observations on Ignatieff

As Barbara Bush found out in her Marie Antoinette moment after the New Orleans floods, people can be terribly ungrateful. Just ask the glamour-puss human rights academic Michael Ignatieff, 58, who, after nearly 30 years of self-imposed exile, has accepted a safe parliamentary seat in Canada.

"The old country needs you," whispered the Liberal Party cabalists who ventured down to Harvard to invite the prodigal to return. "Before long, the premiership itself could be yours."

According to Ignatieff, the decision was anguished, but quick. "I have spent my life worrying about other countries' problems," he told a reporter from the Toronto Star. "Now it's time for me to worry about my own country's problems. I do not want to be 65, sitting around saying, 'I bitched about Canadian politics and never did anything about it.'"

For the grandson of Count Paul Ignatieff, Tsar Nicholas II's education minister, and great-grandson of Alexander III's interior minister, Count Nikolay Pavlovich Ignatyev, who banished the Jews, the promise of such a political homecoming must have stirred the ancestral juices.

Ignatieff made his arrangements. But instead of arriving at the Finland Station, he tipped up at the, in his words, "wonderfully diverse, multicultural constituency" of Etobicoke-Lakeshore in Toronto, where he was promptly harangued by a band of bawling Ukrainian Canadians, all local Liberals.

There is plenty a good liberal might find to bawl about to Ignatieff, whose views verge on the neoconservative. He is in favour of latter-day imperialism disguised as benign intervention, just as long as democratic Anglo-Saxons are running things, and he is a supporter of President Bush's war in Iraq.

While he insists he is opposed to torture, the outgoing director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard, is willing to turn a blind eye to "forms of sleep deprivation that do not result in lasting harm to mental or physical health, together with disinformation and disorientation, like keeping prisoners in hoods, that would produce stress".

But Ignatieff's views on war and torture mattered less to the good people of Etobicoke-Lakeshore than his views on Ukraine. As it happens, when Ignatieff's family was run out of Russia for abetting a murderous tyrant, it washed up in Ukraine. Indeed, many aristocratic Ignatieffs are buried in Ukraine.

Yet in his 1993 book Blood and Belonging Ignatieff wrote: "I have reasons to take the Ukraine seriously indeed. But, to be honest, I'm having trouble. Ukrainian independence conjures up images of peasant embroidered shirts, the nasal whine of ethnic instruments, phony Cossacks in cloaks and boots."

To many Liberal Ukrainian Canadians, this stank of ethnic stereotyping. They further accused Liberal Party bosses - at maximum volume - of illegally shoehorning Ignatieff into the seat. "You must understand," he lectured the dissenters in his best Barbara Bush accent, the party has always lived by inside fixes. Is that, you have to wonder, the sort of politics he teaches at the high-minded Carr Centre?

He was approved as candidate in the end, but only after the Canadian press had had plenty of fun with the Battle of Etobicoke-Lakeshore. It cannot have been the triumphal return, or the auspicious new beginning, that he had contemplated, and it raises another question: Ignatieff has the unbridled egotism essential for doing well in politics, but does he really have the stomach for it?