Theodore Roosevelt and the Square Deal

By admin, October 19, 2017

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


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  1. john czarnota says:

    Hmmm , have always been very wary of the concept of “fairness” , in my experience its the great get out of jail free card and people only ever seem to focus on equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity. I would struggle to accept that in the main people have lost equality of opportunity over the last 30 years. I would argue that it is the inflationary nature of expectation that is as much the problem. For a child of the Thatcher era aspirations were from a lower base and largely focused on the British obsession with home ownership. The reality is that AI and automation will remove the need for many of the jobs that are low paid / low skill. 8,7 million Americans work with HGVs alone, these are jobs that could conceivably cease to exist completely in 25 years how many delivery drivers could lose jobs in the UK in next 20 years? is a population of 70m sustainable in the long term in the UK? Is work as we currently understand it a realistic expectation for people being born in 2017? Who are you being fair to the person who was born in the UK in the 1950s or the immigrant from sub Saharan Africa who arrived in the 2000s? I am not sure Roosevelt’s New Deal coming out of the Great Depression is necessarily relevant to the UK today, would probably be closer to Corbynism or at best Blairism, I think you need to go back a stage and establish what we expect Britain to be as a country as its far from homogeneous and does not resemble the society that I would have expected leaving school in 1983. I think another problem is that ultimately politics is about the the exercise of power and in our system that means you need a majority of people to vote for you / your ideas. Sometimes the “right” thing to do is not supported by the majority, would you vote to make yourself poorer to make someone elses grandchildren richer? Do you work for a living or vote for a living.?
    lots of words to basically say that “fair” is an exceptionally loaded word. Is it fair that I work til the end of June before I earn a penny for myself whilst someone else can sit at home and have children that I and other taxpayers pay for? Probably not “fair” but the price you pay to sleep in your bed at night without the mob raging in the street. There is nothing fair in the world, why does one person have great DNA and another an inherited disease , we have all already won the lottery of life by being born in the Uk in the late 20th century / 21st century, follow the fairness rabbit down the rabbit hole and we will end up with the ultimate fairness of the communist system , was fair for the vast majority of people……my advice would be life isnt fair , get over it and get on with it….. The “unfairness” you refer to is also now Global in nature, these are in the main not domestic oligarchs but faceless multinationals and robber barons of the emerging world.

  2. George Caneron says:

    I can only agree with the comment that to-day people’s expectations can be too great and unrealistic in their circumstances. I’m not stated that people should not have expectations but they must be in line with their ability to obtain these expectations through there own endeavours or from unexpected help from others, not from an opinion that I want so someone else should deliver. The greatest thing this Country does delivery is lack of armed conflict and this should be highlighted and cherished. We who live in Britain should embrace the fact we are British and endeavour to recognise how lucky we are,

  3. Jon Lloyd says:

    I feel there is too much talked about as “politics” and too little talked about as “outcomes”. This coupled what appears to be a complete lack of common sense has taken us to where we now are.

    What does any sensible person expect to happen when you decide to apply a large tax to “moving house”. Will I downsize? Will my daughter move nearer to her workplace?

    What is expected to happen when you decide to increase immigration and decrease house building?

    What do you think my view becomes when you close my A&E at night and send £400 million to Pakistan, which as a nation can clearly afford nuclear weapons.

  4. Martin Hill says:

    I have just had an interesting morning with a genuine self made successful businessman who started with £20k & left a comfortable job to risk all and now is employing many highly skilled staff.
    His comments very much reflect the previous comment about ” fairness ” which is a socialist mantra to bring everyone down to the lowest common level as opposed to equality of opportunity and encouragement of enterprise.
    Although capitalism has many faults and can be abused by big business,dodgy individuals and sharp practices ( e.gholding company debt transfer) it is as Churchill said better than other systems it has resulted in massive weath creation globally and reduction in poverty etc.
    As the energy sector proves, government intervention often makes matters worse and there is a danger that becoming apologists for a successful system which does have peaks and troughs, is retreating from the battle with the left which we all complacently thought had been won.
    There obviously needs to be checks and controls on bad and exploitive behaviour but within an otherwise positive climate.
    Governments could do more to support small businesses who are the wealth creators of the future and be sceptical of big business who naturally want to squeeze out opposition often encouraging policies which suit them.
    Having an overcentralised political system also feeds people’s disillusionment makes it more difficult to come up with sensitive local solutions as well as being very inefficient.

  5. Janina Kufluk-Thackery says:

    It would be helpful to evolve a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. There is currently too much focus on “rights” and none at all on “responsibilities”. This leads to the unrealistic expectations memtioned by others and a very inward-looking, self-centred society. All policies should flow directly from the values agreed to be the bedrock of our society.

  6. Simon says:

    The problem is that the Conservative Party might well be incapable of acknowledging the scale of the problem. Although things like IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice seems like a start, albeit perhaps not radical enough.

  7. Gary Rudd says:

    I think that you – and many of your commentators- have a tenuous grip on what fairness an wealth creation comprises. How fair has your government been to the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire? Was it equal opportunity that placed them in their gentrified death trap? How fair was your leader’s response to them?
    Britain’s wealth was created by exploitative colonialism; the theft of land and natural resources; the slave trade and control of a drug empire of opium. Hardly a level playing field and there is no acknowledgement of the racist, sexist agenda which underpins government, institutions and society. One would have thought as a gay man that you might acknowledge how some of your colleagues, past and present, still insist on maintaining their ‘right’ to bigotries for which your party is infamous – clause 28 for example.
    The unintended comedy continues. I hope they invite you onto HIGNFY on the strength of it as it will be a very niche market otherwise. How large a print run have you ordered. May I suggest a conservative estimate might be best.

  8. Will says:

    The dangers faced in early 20th USA stemmed largely from the capture of the political institutions by the very wealthy.
    We face similar problems today as politics become more and more a contest between different factions of Big Money.

    It no wonder a large chunk of the electorate are seduced by Populist candidates proffering simple solutions ( usually another faction of “Big Money”.

    I don’t know where any latter day Theodore Roosevelt will emerge from but probably not from the modern Conservative party.

  9. Daran says:

    @ Gary Rudd.

    You sir are a prize prat. If you have nothing constructive to add (and two chapters in you do not appear to), then don’t bother yourself. Clearly you are a ‘lefty’, and that is ok except when the chip on your shoulder weighs you down to the point that you can no longer walk straight never mind think straight.

    Re: Grenfell

    Nobody yet knows the final outcome on which people / organisations made that disaster a reality, so don’t start blaming the Tories just yet. But suffice to say that many in that tower block lived a life far better than they did than in the countries they left to come to the UK, and whilst nobody deserved that night of terror, and whilst no amount of money will bring back the dead or take away the survivors trauma the idea that they have not been taken care of since is absurd.

    To date over £19 million pounds in charity funds have been raised alone, much of will have been donated by… yes you got it those damn racist Tory voters! This figure does not even take into account the doubtless huge amounts of compensation that they will receive from local and central government to try and passify the left wing lunatics like you sir. Oh, one moment; sorry forgot about the new social housing that they will all be moved into shortly. How nice for them all! Jump the queue in front of all those other homeless that have been waiting for years.

    Just a thought here to end with Gary….house and flat fires occur almost on a daily basis. They do. If the victims of a tower block disaster would have been white middle class you sir would not have given a flying f*cking damn about it, in fact knowing the more rabid tendancies of the Corbyn / Momentum brigade (of which I am guessing you are one) you probably would have laughed about it and said something along the lines of ‘serve ’em right’!

    But make the victims your blessed ethnic minorities, immigrants, black, low skilled and low income and then it’s woe, woe and thrice woe….

    Fairness works both ways Gary, and you should try applying it to all those in society who have worked hard to achieve something that you blame for the circumstnces of others, and very clearly hate.

  10. Andy Leighton says:

    The one thing you fail to address in relation to bad business practices is moral hazard.
    I think no one would argue that we are not still experiencing a backwash from the Crash, where those at the wheel when it happened walked away virtually censure free, and the man in the street picked up the bill to rescue “too big to fail” entities.
    That rich and powerful bankers and financiers, apparently, take reckless decisions – with the non-executive directors dismally failing in their well remunerated duties – in the certain knowledge that if they hit the jackpot the spoils will be theirs – and if not the State will have to bail them out quite rightly offends basic values of fairness. It’s no wonder that wage slaves on stagnant wages consider the system rigged.
    Others, Philip Green for example, have behaved abhorrently and should be called to account much more swiftly; here however I only consider “too big to fail”.
    Had “Fred the Shred” and others behaved in the cavalier manner they did in public service they would undoubtedly have fallen within the scope of misconduct in public office.
    As the controlling mind of a “too big to fail” entity, a systemic threat to the economy, the State has a legitimate interest in their behaviour, but at present they are apparently answerable to no one.
    One assumes there is within Government a risk register of these entities, and if not why not. It would not be without the wit of man to draft legislation to bring the CEO of such an entity within the reach of criminal sanction for gross misconduct/negligence resulting in a moral hazard situation. Whether individuals wished to retain or take up such a post would be entirely up to them.
    The Crash of 2007/8 is history, those that got off lightly have indeed got off, but concentrating minds on PERSONAL consequences may help to stave off another.
    Even if not, a clear subsequent reckoning would show that there is not, after all, one law for them and one for the rest of us.

  11. Chubby says:

    If we are to reach a situation where those at the top voluntarily give a share of their wealth to those at the bottom then, historically, this will be a new paradigm indeed. Any improvement in the lot of Ordinary Working People normally comes about because somebody has fought for it. The Government could show willing by repealing some of the draconian ant#union legislation and encouraging people to fight back.

    I am fascinated by the idea of equality of opportunity. Are we to see a brave new world with no dustmen, bus drivers or care workers because everyone has the opportunity to do something more rewarding or is the best we can offer Ordinary Working People the chance for a few of them to stop being Ordinary Working People?

  12. Raymond says:

    I was interested to read your views and those of others. It was a disappointment to see the forum degenerate into a ‘blaming’ match. In 2017 we are in the realm of not taking the blame for our actions; it’s always someone else’s fault and compensation is top of the agenda.Clearly the draconian union legislation is not popular with those it is trying to curb after all there was a time when unions ran the government through the MPs who are sponsored by said unions. It seems to me that the RMT are intent on bringing the government down so that under Momentum and Corbyn we can go back to those halcyon days of kowtowing to the unions.

  13. Graham Jenkins says:

    Drop the silly political slogan “magic money tree” it demeans the purpose of the book. We have a fiat currency, discuss its benefits, risks and utility.

    Your most interesting point, I feel, is that of continuity: Republican President Roosevelt’s program being continued by Democrats Wilson and FDR.
    With our current electoral system, that encourages a two party system with clear blue water between them, we will not get this. A fairer, functioning, democratic electoral system is the key to continuity politics, and we wont get it until a party that can gain power with the present system is brave, long sighted and selfless enough to change from the system that got them power.

  14. B Smith says:

    I believe most humans can benefit from social intercourse with others and each individual has to be their own role model. Abilities will be primarily influenced at conception and thereafter by safety, self-motivation and good lifelong education, training, relations with other people and on the job experience – and a bit of luck!

    Even if I believed in a role model, I would not go for someone from the USA. Much aa I admire the incredible added value they have brought to us as a Nation and as Europeans, the British just don’t like them and always find them a good basis for cynical humour.

    For this exercise, my role model is Sir Winston Churchill, We all make mistakes and he made many and sacrificed many lives. Related to my career, his decision to move vehicle taxes into general taxation is the major reason for our unacceptable road network today. His supreme leadership, motivational skills and political achievements are unsurpassable. He assisted the introduction of the minimum wage, modernised our Navy and Airforce, lead a coalition of our own Political Parties and our Allies to win WW2 against Germany. Here at home, he taxed the wealthy and introduced the shoots of health and safety at work. A prolific adventurer, writer, artist, lover and drunkard who was always decisive, forthright and an excellent example of a human who used social intelligence in power.

    As a Conservative I like this quote attributed to him -‘ Socialism is the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance and the gospel of envy, it’s inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery’. Just observe our media today?

    World renowned and revered, his legacy remains one of the UK’ major USP’s (unique selling points) in constant need of renewal, much like Government. Why we have a large minority in favour of Government outside of our control I know not. We British are unbeatable when we are united, our civilised society is a prime attraction to all but the terrorists, and here is the danger. Our hard won culture is under threat, not least from peace. As mobility increases, we are the favourite first port of call for a new life.

    I would prefer to hear about the benefits of a ‘real deal’, which reflects our history as big advocates of free trade, our sovereignty, democracy and responsibility for our own economic fortunes.

    I hope to find that I find the remaining chapters interesting?

What do you think?

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