A New Deal of the mind

The government's job creation plans are inspired by FDR's New Deal. But ministers have ignored its m

Just before the Second World War, the Works Progress Administration, one of Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal programmes, published a series of statistics about what it had done to get America back to work. In the previous three years the WPA had built 17,562 public buildings, 279,804 miles of roads, 29,084 bridges, 357 airports, more than 30,000 dams and 15,000 parks.

Although nothing on this scale has been considered for Britain as we head towards the second decade of the 21st century, the rhetoric of Lab our's interventionist approach to the crisis is pure FDR. Ministers seem to be wavering between calling it a "Green" New Deal or a "Hi-Tech" New Deal, but the centrally funded work-creation schemes take their inspiration from Depression-era America. That much is certain.

The verdict of history on the New Deal is often harsh. Right-wing commentators in the United States are already warning President Obama that FDR's approach made the Depression worse. There is certainly a case to be made that the war was a more effective work-creation scheme than the New Deal. Even those sympathetic to the fiscal stimulus approach of Obama and Brown are sceptical of the New Deal's immediate impact on the US economy.

Out of this far-sighted programme emerged a whole generation of talent

Writing in the New York Times, the economist Paul Krugman said: "Barack Obama should learn from FDR's failures as well as from his achievements: the truth is that the New Deal wasn't as successful in the short run as it was in the long run." Krugman goes so far as to argue that New Deal decisions to insure bank deposits and maintain social security have helped cushion Americans from today's economic collapse. His advice to the incoming president should also be taken to heart by those working with Gordon Brown today: "The reason for FDR's limited short-run success, which almost undid his whole programme, was the fact that his economic policies were too cautious."

Thus far, ministers have been surprisingly unimaginative in their approach to work creation. While the government is mining the New Deal for ideas for credit-crunch Britain, it should take a look at the less cautious elements of the programmes. Take, for example, the answer in the 1939 WPA pamphlet to the question: "What has the WPA done in the fields of education, the arts, and public recreation service?" The answers are impressive (even making allowances for the propaganda purposes of the document): library workers established more than 3,500 branch libraries and 1,100 travelling libraries, catalogued more than 27 million books and repaired more than 56 million; recreational workers operated nearly 15,000 community centres; educational workers conducted 100,000 classes a month, including those in US citizenship for recently arrived immigrants.

Meanwhile, the Federal Art Project conducted classes attended by 60,000 people a week and produced 234,000 works of art; the Federal Music Project gave 4,400 musical performances a month, with an average monthly attendance of three million people, and the Federal Theatre put on 1,813 plays. The Federal Writers' Project produced guidebooks to the American states and nearly 200 books and pamphlets. It also collated a collection of oral histories including the narratives of the last living slaves. Britain's leading expert on the New Deal, Professor Anthony Badger of Cambridge University, said: "The WPA was based on the principle that there was no point in putting unemployed writers to work digging roads. They were ridiculed at the time, and there were some ludicrous projects, but there were also some remarkable achievements."

The Prime Minister recommended Badger's most recent work, FDR: the First Hundred Days, as one of his books of the year, but there is a section in the professor's previous work, The New Deal: the Depression Years (1933-40), that should be required reading in Downing Street. The results of the various projects were inevitably mixed. Many on the right in the US also suspected the WPA of subsidising political radicals, and Robert Reynolds, a senator from North Carolina, denounced the "putrid plays" of the Federal Theatre that "spewed from the gutters of the Kremlin". Yet, out of this far-sighted programme emerged a generation of American artistic talent, including the painters Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock and writers such as Saul Bellow, John Cheever and Ralph Ellison.

There is no sign, as yet, that the government is prepared to launch a New Deal for intellectuals and artists who find themselves on the dole. It could also be argued that Britain has a long tradition of state subsidy in the arts. But there is just a whiff of complacency about the feeling within the government that the arts will survive a recession, and possibly even thrive on it.

At a Whitehall reception over Christmas, I bumped into a cabinet minister closely involved with the government's plans to buck the economic downturn. I asked him what would be done for middle-class people who found themselves out of work. What would happen, for example, to the first graduates in a generation who were leaving university with no jobs to go to? I suggested that the legions of unemployed IT workers, media workers and bankers were unlikely to apply for work-creation schemes already announced by the government, such as lagging roofs or laying broadband (or be very good at it). He answered with a shrug: "Well, they can always become teachers or go back to college."

The announcement by John Denham, the Universities and Skills Secretary, of a programme of internships for recent graduates with companies such as Microsoft and Barclays shows that at least one person in government is thinking about the potential loss of intellectual capital which the recession could entail. But if this turns out to be as deep and long as some now suspect it will be, there will need to be some seriously creative thinking, a "New Deal of the Mind" to equip people who work with their brains or in the creative industries for the challenges ahead. Clearly, this would not be cost-free, but if ministers have decided to go down the route of work creation backed by borrowing, they should at least do it with some imagination and flair.

In the spirit of national solidarity as the storm clouds gather, I list my suggestions for the New Deal of the Mind in the panel on the right, borrowing from the best of FDR and adapting this for the new era. Politicians need to begin thinking now about the world after the downturn, and whether we can put some institutional structures in place that will have the historical longevity of the Works Progress Administration. Oh, and if there's a minister out there prepared to take up some of these ideas, do bear me in mind. There are some hard times ahead, not least for those in my own profession.

Bright’s five-point plan

Brains Trust

FDR surrounded himself with academics, initially a group of Columbia law professors but later a wider group of thinkers. There is a growing fear that Gordon Brown's approach to the crisis is too narrowly focused on hard economics through the National Economic Council. He should set up a Brains Trust for the 21st century, a more or less formal group of the country's best intellectuals, to give him a broader cultural and historical perspective.

National Oral History Task Force

Borrowing from the Federal Writers' Project, young graduates should be employed to collate the oral history of Britain's recent past. This would include narratives with a direct relationship to the current crisis, including stories from previous economic crises. But it could also include narratives of recent conflicts such as the Falklands War and the first Iraq War and a comprehensive oral history of the Northern Ireland Troubles.

National Family History Project

The government should restore funding for the National Archive's online censuses to take advantage of the boom in interest in family history. This would have the advantage of "pump-priming" a growing industry. A parallel Local History Project would feed into a similar growth in interest in local and regional history.

New Deal for Music and Drama

An expansion of the teaching of singing, music and drama in schools, including the restoration of the right in primary schools to subsidised lessons. This would create work for musicians, but also transform access to music for children from ordinary backgrounds. The composer Howard Goodall is already doing great work in this area and should be appointed to oversee the project.

A geeks and Hobbyists Charter

Britain is a nation of garden-shed inventors and special-interest obsessives. Their energy should be harnessed during the downturn. The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts is already helping transform the ideas of the country's amateur innovators into businesses. The New Deal of the Mind could turn the private obsessions of the nation's amateur archaeologists and birdwatchers to the advantage of the country. A start could be made by commissioning a national audit of the effects of global warming on Britain's natural environment.

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