We are not the first free society to face this challenge. In the 1890s, American capitalism had fallen into the hands of a gang of oligarchs, the so-called robber barons, abetted by a corrupt class of political bosses. They conspired to oppress the legitimate interests of people running small businesses and farms, and to deny decent working conditions to the ordinary working man. Their greed fuelled a political reaction in the form of populism. Its most effective champion was William Jennings Bryan who captured the presidential nomination of both the Democratic Party and the Populist Party in 1896. He promptly launched a crusade against banks, insurance companies, railroad companies and the East Coast capitalists who controlled them.
American capitalism needed to be saved from itself. Unless it could be tamed, and its worst excesses checked, there was a risk that it would be overwhelmed by a political revolution from the populist left. This was the key insight that drove the career of one of the United States’ greatest leaders, and my own political hero, Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt’s career nearly didn’t happen. He became President by accident. Reactionary opponents of his policies as New York State’s Governor wanted to get him out of the way and successfully manoeuvred to have him adopted as sitting President Mackinley’s candidate for Vice President in the 1900 election. But on 6th September 1901, President Mackinley was assassinated, and Theodore Roosevelt, aged only 42, became President of the United States.
Roosevelt was no socialist. He was a Republican, who believed in the importance of dynamic privately-owned businesses to a thriving economy and a free society. But he saw that the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few unscrupulous men was undermining the moral standing, and political sustainability, of capitalism itself. Accused of populism by his Republican opponents, Roosevelt said “I do not believe it is wise or safe for us as a party to take refuge in mere negation and to say that there are no evils to be corrected. It seems to me that our attitude should be one of correcting the evils, and thereby showing that whereas the populists, socialists and others really do not correct the evils at all…that we Republicans hold the just balance and set our faces as resolutely against improper corporate influence on the one hand as against demagogy and mob rule on the other.” (2)
Under the popular slogan ‘a Square Deal’, Roosevelt launched one of the most significant programmes of economic reform that any President has ever overseen. Using the Sherman Anti-Trust Law, he stopped some of the most rapacious anti-competitive practices of large railroad companies, oil companies and banks. He also introduced legislation to protect consumers from unsafe food products and set up the Departments for Commerce and Labour.
Protecting the natural world against the depredations of unbridled capitalism was central to his vision. As president, he established one hundred and fifty national forests, fifty one federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, and five national parks – and protected approximately 230 million acres of public land.
In his second term as President, Roosevelt advocated the introduction of a federal income tax and a federal inheritance tax, an employer liability law for industrial injuries affecting employees, and a limitation of the working day to eight hours for federal employees. None of these measures made it onto the statute book while he was President but he started the ball rolling. Versions of them would go on to be enacted by his successors, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
For me, Teddy Roosevelt is the ideal leader. An irrepressible optimist, he was convinced that most people would work hard and make the most of the opportunities put in front of them if they were given a fair crack at the whip. His restless energy and enthusiasm powered the progressive causes that defined his presidency. But they also fuelled a brusque impatience with those in his own party, whose instinct was to defend the status quo and protect the interests of privilege, whatever the cost to others, or to society’s overall wellbeing. We could do with a few more like him in Britain today.
We need a Square Deal
In 2017, Britain’s free society faces a similar threat. If we want to save it from pull-up-the-drawbridge populists on the right and magic-money-tree socialists on the left, we need to show that it will deliver for the British people a Square Deal worthy of the 21st century. The Square Deal should set out what every British citizen can expect from government, and from others in society, and what contributions and commitments will be asked of them in turn. It should give us all the feeling that we are being given a fair crack at the whip, that nobody is being excluded from opportunities from the outset. It should reassure people that the egregious egotists who have abused our tax system, our pension protection arrangements and our minimum wage laws, will face sanctions. It should insist that the natural world is our most precious asset and ensure that we pass it on to future generations in a better state than we inherited it.
The Square Deal needs to grapple openly with the most difficult issues. It needs to show how we can preserve the wonders of the British countryside while building enough houses so owning your own home is once again affordable for anyone in work. It needs to be honest about the cost of offering people in our ageing society decent pensions and high-quality care. It needs to present them with realistic choices about the different ways society might decide to pay for it. It should explain how the government plans to strike a balance between the interests of businesses and universities, who would like to be able to recruit as many international workers and students as possible, with the views of millions of people, especially the older and less qualified, who worry about the effects of high immigration on public services and our indigenous culture. It should acknowledge the threat posed by artificial intelligence to many people’s jobs and show how a major investment in technical education and training at all ages is the best way to ensure that people are always able to find rewarding work.
The Square Deal will not solve all Britain’s problems – no political programme can. But by being ambitious in our goals for our country, disciplined in our focus on the things that matter most to the British people, and frank in our description of the challenges and what will be required to surmount them, we can restore the reputation of our free society and see off those, on both left and right, who would do it down.
(1) Theodore Roosevelt, speech delivered at the dedication of the John Brown Memorial Park in Osawatomie, Kansas, August 30 1910
(2) Letter from New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt to Senator Platt, spring 1899