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: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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