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

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.