A recurring feature of politics is that of politicians and parties claiming to be acting as the heirs of a famous figure from the past. This is a convenient way of identifying the kind of argument and philosophy you are espousing – so long as the history you are appealing to is known and understood correctly. This manoeuvre can thus be useful for the politician, but also unintentionally revealing of deeper trends in political attitudes and arguments. This is particularly true when you have the intriguing spectacle of rival parties having a fight over who can best claim the legacy of the famous figure. In that case what is usually going on is a tussle to see who can best claim to represent a set of ideas and attitudes that are becoming increasingly widespread, and therefore win both a policy argument and votes.
Something like this is going on right now in UK politics, with the famous figure in question being not a person from British history but the 26th President of the United States, Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt. Recently Ed Miliband claimed to be acting as the heir of Teddy in an interview on the Andrew Marr Show and this was followed up with a piece on the Spectator’s Coffee House blog by his close advisor Lord Wood asserting Labour’s better claim to ownership of his legacy. However this claim is contested with many Conservatives keen to claim Teddy for their party and urging David Cameron to take a few leaves out of the TR book of conservatism. Iain Martin in the Telegraph has been particularly vociferous, as these pieces show but he is not alone in this as we can see from this article in the New Statesman in 2012 by David Skelton .
The sudden interest in an early-twentieth-century American President is both interesting and revealing. Three main questions come to mind when looking at all of this.
In the first place, what exactly is the policy package that is being claimed and advocated by people from both left and right? The key elements are environmentalism, the use of government power to address inequality of wealth and income, and in particular, the forceful use of government power to promote competition by ‘trust busting’ and attacking the position of large and successful private firms (Standard Oil in Roosevelt’s case, energy companies and banks in contemporary Britain). More generally the package is one of an active and expansive role for government that is however broadly pro-business (supposedly), and conservative in its goals.
There are several things we can say about this, both historically and as a guide to current policy. The idea of government promoting competition is deeply problematic once it goes beyond the removal of barriers to entry and comes to include action to break up firms and challenge the outcomes of free choices made by consumers and investors. Moreover many of these policies have proved to be counter-productive; the creation of national parks and forests in the United States for example (one of TR’s main policies), has actually had harmful effects on the environment with systematic mismanagement of major parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite.
The second question that arises is that of how accurate this is as a portrayal of Theodore Roosevelt’s politics and policy and of whether he is in fact a model that contemporary politicians in the UK should try to emulate. Certainly he was associated with the three broad policies set out above. However, there is much else to add. He was also an aggressive imperialist (particularly but not exclusively in Latin America), a militarist who saw war as a character building exercise, a vehement nationalist who saw life and international relations as a struggle between nations and races in which the strong would triumph and the weak be destroyed. As one might suspect from that, even by the standards of his time he was both racist and misogynist (he should be compared to classical liberal contemporaries such as Mark Twain, William Graham Sumner and Moorfield Storey). In economics, he was also a strong protectionist and advocate of the longstanding American tradition of economic nationalism and a central role for government as the instrument of development and ‘national greatness’.
In view of this, and given that TR’s views and policies were a generally consistent whole, it is surprising that a Labour politician should espouse him as a model. For one thing there are surely figures in Labour’s own history, or that of British radicalism more generally, that one might appeal to instead. These points are well made by Tim Stanley.
This is obviously the third question: why is there such interest in Theodore Roosevelt and his legacy, on both left and right? The immediate cause is clearly short-term political tactics. The competitors for Teddy’s mantle are trying to come up with a policy package that will address the concerns of many voters while Ed Miliband in particular is trying to find a way of presenting his policies in a way that will appeal to conservative leaning voters in the South and Midlands. However, to be fair to him, there is something more going on, inasmuch as this reflects a genuine intellectual movement and exploration on his part and a response to a real but as yet largely subterranean shift in attitudes among large parts of the public.
This is the emergence among a very large part of the public of a set of ideas and attitudes that we may call ‘right wing collectivism’. Broadly this combines the following elements; egalitarianism, support for an active and interventionist role for government in the economy, nationalism and hostility to globalisation and cosmopolitanism, support for the welfare state but on a nationalist rather than a universalist basis, an assertion of a particular vision of national identity, social and cultural conservatism, and authoritarianism. Owen Jones recently pointed out the strongly collectivist and interventionist attitudes of the majority of UKIP voters which are another indicator of the rise of this set of attitudes (while glossing over their opinions that he does not share). As this way of thinking becomes more widespread politicians respond by trying to appeal to it and by looking for political figures whose policies embodied that kind of world view and claiming their legacy. (If anybody wants a British as opposed to American candidate for this role then Joseph Chamberlain is the obvious candidate).
For anyone who favours free markets and individual liberty the policy positions that TR advocated and embodied are the worst possible combination. To put it very simply, this is not the way to go. Let us hope that the interest in the man and his legacy proves to be a passing fad and that people will not be mad about Teddy.