Leading article: A swing to the right

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Considering its size, wealth and distinguished history, Canada has always had a puzzlingly low international profile. Yesterday's general election result is unlikely to reverse that long-term trend. But - for now at least - Canada has caught the world's attention.

The country's emphatic swing to the right is not as disastrous as has been portrayed by some liberals. The Conservative Party has certainly performed an impressive comeback after defeat only two years ago. But it is still short of an outright majority. A coalition with the leftist New Democratic Party is likely, which will ensure the new government cannot become too reactionary. And some of the Conservative Party's plans are not especially controversial. There is no reason why the new regime should not spend more on the Canadian military and give more autonomy to the provinces. That seems to be what most Canadians voted for.

But there are, nevertheless, causes for concern, particularly regarding the outlook of the young leader of the Conservatives, Stephen Harper. Unlike recent Canadian prime ministers, Mr Harper does not place a high premium on safeguarding the global environment. He rejects the Kyoto Protocol approach of emission capping as a response to global warming. Mr Harper also seems to be something of a social reactionary, judging by his stance on gay marriage and abortion. This is an unfortunate image for an enlightened nation like Canada to project to the rest of the world.

But perhaps the biggest change, and one with the most profound implications, is that Mr Harper is keen on forging a closer relationship with the President of the United States. Mr Harper, who supported the invasion of Iraq, now suggests he will review Canada's decision not to rejoin the US anti-ballistic missile shield. This election result is clearly important in symbolic terms. Canada has been something of a liberal bulwark against the Bush administration in recent years. Sadly, we must assume that this is about to change.

There are also powerful symbolic implications for British politics. In Canada, a centre-left party won power in 1993 after years in the electoral wilderness. The Conservatives were almost wiped out in a humiliating result. Two years ago - after a decade of power - the prime minister handed over to his ambitious and impatient finance minister. Despite that finance minister's outstanding economic record, he proved to be a poor prime minister. He has now been swept away by a fresh-faced Conservative challenger who was able to shed his party's wretched public image. The parallels are remarkable. Gordon Brown will no doubt be fervently hoping that history does not repeat itself. As for the rest of us, perhaps we should simply savour this rare moment when everyone seems to agree that Canadian politics have come alive.

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