“I wish to preach … the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labour and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes … to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.” That was how Theodore Roosevelt, never one for understatement, but arguably America’s greatest president, summed up his creed. And his was a life that was never boring – a war hero during the Spanish-American war, a perpetual man of action – he shook up the then-stuffy business of American politics with his relentless spirit. And politicians in 2014 should consider the powerful message that was at the heart of his politics.
Conservatives, in particular, should learn from a man who was able to show that conservatism could broaden its appeal and not be seen as the plaything of the rich. As British Tories consider how to break beyond their heartland they should look to Teddy Roosevelt, a conservative who claimed the progressive mantle as his own.
His message was one that successfully broadened the appeal of the Republican party, exiling the Democrats to their then “solid south” and winning more electoral college votes than any president before him. His was a conservatism that unapologetically represented enterprise, small business owners and workers. It was a conservatism that took on vested interests and legislated in the interests of ordinary voters, with measures such as the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.
This was a man who believed instinctively that prosperity came from “thrift, business energy and enterprise”, but didn’t believe that being conservative should mean unthinkingly defending big business or monopolies. In his words: “We wish to shape conditions so that a greater number of the small men who are decent, industrious and energetic shall be able to succeed, and so that the big man who is dishonest should not be allowed to succeed at all.” He argued that monopolies meant higher prices for consumers, lower wages for workers and shut out the small businessmen and innovation that create prosperity.
Roosevelt was right that Conservatives should be prepared to act where market failure occurs and stand up against vested interests in both the private and public sector. Those who argue such an approach is unconservative would also find disagreement from other conservative icons. Adam Smith argued: “The monopolists … sell their commodities much above the natural price … and raise their emoluments … greatly above their natural rate.” Edmund Burke stood strongly against the monopoly power of the East India Company. Little wonder that Roosevelt described himself as “the true friend of property, the true conservative”.
Conservatives should be strong defenders of the power of capitalism to create prosperity and social progress, but they should remember that the free market and big business aren’t the same thing. Conservatives should create the right environment for start-ups and entrepreneurs. But supporting free enterprise isn’t the same as supporting the water monopolies, who, as Rob Halfon has pointed out, saw director’s salaries increase by between 37% and 171% over the past five years, while bills increased by up to 37%. They should be prepared to speak up about anti-consumer behaviour, whether it be over food packaging, bank charges or excessive utility prices.
It’s important that a regulatory environment is created in which encouraging competition, rather than concentration of power, is taken seriously, and monopolies aren’t allowed to abuse their dominant market position. The creation of a powerful, cross-departmental secretary of state for consumer protection would also help tackle rip-off practices. Polling last year also showed that a Conservative party that clamped down on big business that ripped off its customers would be an important way of showing that Conservatives weren’t just for the rich and powerful.
Roosevelt was a strong believer in capitalism as an engine for growth and a capitalism that works for everybody in society. His was “an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best there is in him”. For him, “the essence of the struggle is to equalise opportunity, destroy privilege and give to the life and citizenship of every possible individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth”. Conservatives should firmly position themselves as the party that is the relentless champion of opportunity and the enemy of the closed shop, with education reform, improved childcare in the poorest areas and a strong vocational offer at its heart.
It’s pretty clear that the low paid and many parts in the north and Scotland didn’t benefit from the economic growth under Tony Blair. Between 2003 and 2008, GDP increased by over 11%, but real wages stagnated at best and wages have failed to keep up with prices for more than a decade. Roosevelt argued that “no man can be a good citizen unless he has a wage more than sufficient to cover the bare cost of living”. He was an early advocate of a minimum wage – understanding that such an idea was entirely consistent with conservatism and making the free market work for everyone. Conservatives shouldn’t be afraid of looking at ways of increasing the minimum wage, which has failed to keep up with prices in recent years, whilst reforming employers’ taxes to minimise the impact on job creation.
Teddy Roosevelt stood for the “square deal” and so should today’s Conservatives. A square deal for the small businessman and the entrepreneur, for the young person who deserves to make the most of their potential, for the consumer and the low paid. Modern conservatism must be compassionate and should be about removing barriers to opportunity, tackling vested interests in both the public and private sectors and promoting a free market that creates prosperity for all. Today’s Tories should hold up Teddy Roosevelt as a guiding light.
This article was first published in The Guardian on 2nd January 2014.