Book of the Month Club: English-Speaking Justice by George Grant

While the term “Red Tory” might be lost in the political spectrum these days, George Grant was the classic definition of one: a conservative who espoused certain programmes that would traditionally be associated with his more left-wing colleagues. His story is an interesting one: raised in what he would recall as a woman-dominated household in a family born and benefitting from the British Empire and its imperialism and colonialism, Grant was initially supposed to be destined for a career in the civil service straight out of a Bachelor’s Degree in History from Queen’s. His path changed after he earned a scholarship to attend Oxford University to do graduate work. The Second World War, however, would interrupt these studies aboard. Grant initially declined service in the Second World War due to his strong belief in pacifism, but it was only when his family coerced him into joining the navy that he discovered that he had tuberculosis and went on a retreat to get back to normal health where he would find solace and purpose in Christianity and Christian-based thought that would become the underpinnings of his political and philosophical thought.

Grant’s English-Speaking Justice is the collected thoughts on the legal system as it stood in 1974, though its dissemination would occur ten years later. Known better in political science circles as the man who predicted Canada’s assimilation into America and the loss of a distinctly Canadian identity in his seminal work, Lament for a Nation, Grant was also an accomplished philosopher, and to top all of that, for the most part self-taught. Unlike philosophers who are more inclined to write books (or a series of books), English-Speaking Justice is a lightly-edited version of a series of lectures delivered at Mount Allison University. Grant delves into meditations on liberalism, not, as he is quick to remind the audience, is not in terms of political spectrum but the more general political theory advocating the supremacy of equality and liberty. Different conceptions of liberalism would take equality and liberty and spin it a certain way that might contradict another mode of thought that holds the same values sacred, but the foundation would be the same.

Unsure of the emerging technologies of the day, the theme of Grant’s lectures is the uneasy balance of mastering these technologies and incorporating them with the current conception of liberalism as political thought. Along the way, he stops by to give a pointed critique on John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice and launches into a deeper analysis of Rawls’ work in comparison to that of John Locke and Immanuel Kant. Grant gives an extended analysis of Roe v. Wade, asking how liberalism, that advocates equality of treatment among human beings, could possibly advocate the fact that a foetus is not a human being.

As one might be able to deduce from Grant’s conservative analysis of the American piece of jurisprudence, this book might not be suitable for some people. Less than 150 pages, this book is still tedious to read for those who would not have a prior background in philosophy and political science. Despite having some very clear passages, much of the book is marred by the fact that his thoughts are not elaborated enough. Present editions in print are helpful by adding footnotes explaining various references Grant makes through his text and other helpful notes helping to understand the foundations from which Grant builds his treatise. For the most part of interest to political and legal philosophers, with a bit of work on the reader’s part, this is an interesting piece of Canadian political thought from someone with a different point of view.

Watch an interview with George Grant in the 1970s about Canada and its identity here, complete with period-accurate smoking.