On November 8, 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president of the United States. He promised a radical departure from the way his predecessor had dealt with the Great Depression in the form of a ‘New Deal’ – a series of public works, reforms, and financial regulations.
On June 30, 2020, Boris Johnson, the leader of the Conservative Party which has been in power for the last ten years similarly announced a ‘New Deal’ for Britain in the wake of the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus.
In a speech given in Dudley, Boris Johnson seemed keen to hammer home this government’s new ‘Rooseveltian’ approach, in a clear attempt to relaunch his government after a significant dip in the polls. And similar overtures were made by Michael Gove in the Ditchley Annual Lecture. However, this talk of a ‘New Deal’ is nothing more than historically illiterate rhetoric, doomed to fail for that very reason.
The comparison between the two New Deals is night and day. The most obvious difference being the political circumstances surrounding them. The Democrat FDR implemented his New Deal after taking power from republican Herbert Hoover. This meant that the New Deal encapsulated an entirely different way of thinking to the poor handling of the Great Depression under Hoover, as there was an obvious ideological gap between the two men.
Johnson’s New Deal, though, has no such radical differences. It is being implemented by the same party which has been in power for the last ten years. Supporters may say this government represents a significant shift even from the Tory governments of the 2010s. Yet, this fails to hold up when Gove talks about their desire to fix how ‘faith in conventional political parties, their leadership and their allies in business has been broken’, considering he has been in the Cabinet for the vast majority of the last decade.
Not to mention Johnson’s praise of the ‘prudent management of the economy in the last ten years’ is hardly inspiring for those who hoped lessons had been learnt from the harsh realities of austerity. It is difficult to have faith these politicians can fix the problems of the past when they refuse to take any responsibility for them.
Johnson’s New Deal is also dreadfully uninspiring. It has been estimated by economists that FDR’s New Deal economic stimulus equated to 40% of the US’ 1929 GDP. In comparison, Johnson’s equates to about 0.2%.
Borrowing is remarkably cheap for the government right now, so it is puzzling as to why they would be so conservative if they truly wanted to emulate the wide reforms which FDR oversaw. Perhaps they want the good publicity that the term ‘New Deal’ brings (possibly having seen the popularity of the Green New Deal) without any of the legwork which made it successful.
In his speech, Gove talks of how ‘Roosevelt empowered reformers’, indicating the government should follow suit and recruit from ‘different traditions, backgrounds, and disciplines’. Whilst this may not seem like a bad idea, Anand Menon of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank points out that ‘FDR surrounded himself with experts, and drew on what they had to say, in a way that Boris Johnson so far has not’.
Gove’s rhetoric does have the stench of Dominic Cumming’s blog post calling for ‘an unusual set of people with different skills and backgrounds to work at Downing Street’ including the infamous ‘weirdos and misfits’, which led to Andrew Sabinsky’s hiring, a man with horrific sexist, racist, and eugenicist views. Hardly the kind of experts which FDR surrounded himself with.
An integral part of FDR’s New Deal was the measures put in place to support the labour movement. For example the Wagner Act of 1935 which strengthened the organising power of labour unions, and the copious amounts of social security legislation put in place.
There is nothing in either Johnson’s or Gove’s speeches about empowering and securing workers’ rights. This should not come as a surprise given that Johnson took out the commitment to a level playing field on worker’s rights with the EU from his Withdrawal Agreement after winning his 80-seat majority.
Some may say that these rights are secured and so need not make up a necessary part of Johnson’s New Deal. However, when Johnson has the time in his speech to say we should also be applauding ‘our capitalists and financiers’, it is hard to explain why there is no mention of those that make it possible for capitalists to grow their vast wealth.
Fundamentally, FDR’s New Deal was a radical reform programme fit for the issues of the 1930s. So radical and successful that it reshaped American politics, leading Democrats to victory in seven out of the nine presidential elections from 1932-1968.
It worked because it addressed the specific problems which had led to the Great Depression, through banking reforms and regulation. The current crisis’ main cause was the coronavirus, and the only mention of health reform in Johnson’s speech is a recommitment to 40 new hospitals, and the vague promises to give the NHS its ‘biggest ever programme of funding’ and ‘fix the problem of social care’.
Even if we were to put aside coronavirus, it is astonishing that this New Deal fails to deal with climate change beyond a mention to ‘plant 30,000 hectares every year’, obviously welcome but not nearly far enough or radical enough to compare with 1930s reform to deal with the banking crisis. By failing to understand how our predicament differs from the past, we are doomed to repeat it.
There are some good ideas in the two men’s speeches. Moving some of the machinery of government out of London is a good start for representation to give an example. But as Boris Johnson desperately tries to emulate his heroes of the political past, it is clear that all the public stand to gain from this obsession is watered-down versions of their now out-dated programmes.