Michael Ignatieff reflects on his time with the Liberal Party


Former Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff is shown addressing supporters in May 2011 in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

First aired on Q (24/09/13)

For decades Michael Ignatieff was a prominent intellectual, a television commentator so popular in the U.K. he once made the cover of British GQ. He's also the author of many acclaimed books including Blood and Belonging, The Rights Revolution and The Russian Album, which won the Governor General's Award for non-fiction. Then in 2005 he was lured from his job teaching at Harvard to return to his homeland of Canada to join the world of politics. He became leader of the Liberal Party in 2008 and led the party through the 2011 general election. Now Ignatieff has written a candid, defiant and deeply self-critical account of his rise and fall called Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics. Ignatieff joined Q host Jian Ghomeshi in studio to discuss his new book and his defeat with the Liberal Party.


Fire and Ashes takes a look at the past 10 years of Ignatieff's life and his career move to politics. "I didn't want to settle scores. Despite the fact that it ended the way it did, it was an incredible experience and I wanted to capture that in my book," he told Ghomeshi. Ignatieff's foray into politics began in 2004, when he was recruited by three prominent liberals, who he called in his book "the men in black." They were interested in him as an internationally known Canadian, and Ignatieff said he saw a chance he had been dreaming of for a long time. "I always wanted it, I wanted to succeed," he said. "When I got really full of myself I thought, 'this is the culmination of everything in my life.'"

He may have dreamed of entering politics, but Ignatieff admitted he also had a gut instinct that something wasn't right about it. When asked why he didn't follow this instinct, Ignatieff replied, "I think if you don't occasionally think it's nuts to be doing what you're doing, you haven't thought about what you are doing."

Ignatieff faced many challenges as leader of the Liberal Party. "Politics is a high risk business. You put your reputation and your whole past on the line. You are subject to constant scrutiny. I'm not asking you to feel my pain, I'm in fact saying the reverse," he said. "If you go into this business this is what you have to accept."

Ignatieff was frank about some of the challenges he had to face as leader. One of the challenges was mastering retail politics. "It took me the damnedest time to learn to look people in the eye. Seems like a ridiculous thing. I mean I'm a mature adult, I actually like the human race. I'm interested in them and curious." But Ignatieff said his wife noticed that when he was in rooms waiting to meet people he would look down at the ground. It may seem minor, but Ignatieff explains that politics is very physical. "It's about grip and grab, it's about whacking someone on the shoulder, it's crucially about listening," he said. "I thought I was a pretty good communicator but I had to learn all over again."

Ignatieff was criticized by political commentators and the opposition for his lack of empathy. When Ghomeshi asked if he was self-conscious about the criticism he faced, he said: "You gotta be who you are and I think and hope I was the guy I was all the way through."

Eventually the opposition hit Ignatieff where it really hurt -- his Canadian status. Ignatieff acknowledged that the Conservative attack ads did affect him. "The thing I still care about is this: I meet Canadians all over the world who are sometimes out of the country for five to ten years. We're one of the most global bunch of citizens in the world. I don't want anybody to come back and run for office and be put through that because I just think it's so stupid, we need all hands on deck here."

Since his time in politics ended, Ignatieff has been able to reflect on his journey. He said a lot of intellectuals are drawn to politics, but he learned it's not all about putting public policy ideas into action. Politics is actually a lot like sports.

"It's like playing hockey," he said. "It's physical, it's team stuff, it's keeping an eye in the back of your head for the next check that's going to ram you into the boards. It's being strategic all the time, it's played out in front of the media all the time. You don't have time to think deep thoughts about your country."

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