The Tories can learn from Teddy Roosevelt's "popular conservatism"

By confronting corporate monopolies and vested interests, the Tories can win over ordinary voters.

It's election season in the States. British politicians, often keen students of US politics, are likely to be looking west for inspiration. If it isn’t US politicians, such as Bill Clinton, that are inspiring British politicians, it’s American academics, such as Michael Sandel.

The Tories remain keen to look for inspiration across the pond, but they may not find much in their once "sister party". The Republicans have, in the words of the Prime Minister, "drifted apart" from the Conservatives in recent years. With the influence of the Tea Party increasingly obvious and a right-wing platform, which opposes same-sex marriage and abortion in all circumstances, the modern-day GOP may not be the place for UK Conservatives keen to moderate their image and broaden their appeal to look.

Instead of looking to modern-day Republicans in search of political clues, the Tories would do better to consider the inspiration of a remarkable GOP President from over a century ago.

Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, the all-action trust buster and war hero was every inch both a progressive and a conservative, appealing to all sections of society, emphasising what would now be called social mobility and staunchly defending private enterprise, while opposing corporate monopolies and vested interests. Roosevelt successfully broadened the base of the Republican Party (before taking many of these new voters with him to Bull Moose in 1912 when his Progressive Party pushed the Republicans into third place), being seen to stand for the interests of the working man and woman, rather than governing in the interests of the rich and powerful. Much of his time in office was spent working to improve conditions for ordinary Americans, with measures such as the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Tories have much to learn from this. Some 64 per cent of voters still think they are the party of the rich and powerful, rather than ordinary people. Blue collar workers remain highly reluctant to vote Conservative.

Learning from Roosevelt's "square deal" and conservatism for the "little guy" might help modern-day conservatives – emphasising the importance of showing that everything the government does is to help people who are struggling to keep their heads above water. At the moment, that means that Tories need to do something to help blue collar voters struggling with declining living standards and a rising cost of living. Measures to keep down energy prices by abandoning expensive energy targets and ensure an adequate supply of new housing would  help to make clear that the Tories understand that people are struggling.

Roosevelt was a great advocate of equality of opportunity and the idea came to dominate his speeches and his actions. In his 1910 "new nationalism" speech, he said:

At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalise opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth... Practical equality of opportunity... will have two great results. First, every man will have a fair chance to make of himself all that in him lies; to reach the highest point to which his capabilities, unassisted by special privilege of his own and unhampered by the special privilege of others, can carry him, and to get for himself and his family substantially what he has earned. Second, equality of opportunity means that the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable.

Social mobility can be the second element of a popular conservatism that Tories learn from Teddy Roosevelt.  Indeed, a popular Toryism should have equality of opportunity at its very heart. Adapting Roosevelt’s message that education and welfare reform should be designed to ensure that every man can make the most of his potential, regardless of accident of birth, could be a powerful way of selling a Tory message of "opportunity" to younger voters and some of those who backed away from voting Tory in 2010.

The third element of Roosevelt’s offer is probably the most controversial amongst Conservatives, but it is also probably the most powerful.  That is his opposition to vested interests in the public and private sector and his stand against the creation of monopolies. In his famous "New Nationalism" speech, Roosevelt argued that:

Every special interest is entitled to justice, but not one is entitled to a vote in Congress, to a voice on the bench, or to representation in any public office. The constitution guarantees protection to property, and we must make that promise good.  But it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation.

His argument was simple - capitalism is a good thing, it creates wealth, spreads opportunity and benefits all citizens, but capitalism cannot achieve its true potential if it is dominated by monopolies, who can distort markets and limit choice. He argued, rightly, that it was competitive pressures and consumer choice that drive the most innovation from capitalism and most benefit the citizen and the consumer. This belief was a core part of his "trust busting" of vested interests, who he saw as trying to guard against competitive pressures. Capitalism, as Roosevelt saw it, should benefit the mass of the population, rather than a few vested interests. This led him to break up the monopolies on the railroads and stand against the likes of the Standard Oil Company, as well as introducing legislation to protect the consumer against monopoly power.

Such an idea could have a profound impact on British politics in today’s economic climate. Political parties should be concerned that the public are concerned about the incomes of a few vested interests at the top growing, often through rewards for failure, as real incomes are squeezed. In both the public and private sectors, limited competition has meant that citizens rarely receive maximum benefit.

Our recent report on the procurement of tagging technologies showed that government procurement has resulted in monopolies being created that don’t have competitive pressures to innovate or deliver taxpayer value for money. A lack of competition on some train lines means that passengers are often faced with extortionate fees for indifferent service. And the effect of lack of competition in the banking system has been clear for all to see.

Conservatives could derive real benefits if they followed Roosevelt’s lead and argued for the benefits of local competition against vested interests and big business. They would be seen as standing up for the interests of the citizen and small businessman against the powerful big business lobby – standing up for the interests of the many would be a powerful addition to the Tory canon.

Teddy Roosevelt’s conservatism was based on the belief that the interests of the "little man" should always be protected and that public or private sector interests shouldn’t be able to grow too dominant or too powerful. It was a creed based on removing barriers to opportunity, both in education and the economy.  As British Conservatives look to redefine themselves as the party of the many, not the few, they would be wise to consider the ideas of one of the United States’ finest presidents.

David Skelton is deputy director of Policy Exchange. You can follow him on Twitter @djskelton

Theodore Roosevelt, US president from 1901-09, "every inch both a progressive and a conservative". Photograph: Getty Images.

David Skelton is the director of Renewal, a new campaign group aiming to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party to working class and ethnic minority voters. @djskelton

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.