Among Boris Johnson’s numerous passing passions there seemed to be one love affair that was not fickle – his worship of Winston Churchill. As a lover of history and English exceptionalism, there seemed no chance that his eye would ever be caught straying from his hero. Even though the great historian JH Plumb once described Churchill’s historical output as “old whig claptrap echoing from chapter to chapter”, nothing seemed to dislodge Johnson’s loyalty.
But suddenly he has been smitten by someone who was seven years Churchill’s junior: Franklin D Roosevelt.
In his speech on Tuesday, Johnson offers himself as the architect of a modern day British New Deal.
It is not clear his new hero would approve. Churchill and Roosevelt struck up a wartime friendship credited with saving the world, but Churchill’s views of the New Deal itself were scathing. At the end of 1937 in a message entitled “What we ask of the United States” he called on president Roosevelt in the interest of the common anti-Hitlerite cause to abandon “this war on Wealth and Business, this ruthless war on private enterprise”.
Johnson may not find the self-regarding narrative of the New Deal so attractive if he looks at its details. Yes, there was an element that was experimental and pragmatic to Roosevelt. He did not think government power lay just in spending, but in helping businesses overcome risk-aversion and finance new opportunities for growth. Nor was he just preaching optimism and can-do. He knew capitalism had to change, and as a result came to be a man idolised by the union movement and American liberals.
In 1936, seeking a second term, he was clear there was an enemy. “The forces of ‘organized money’ are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.”
He went on: “I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match, [and] I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces have met their master.”
He determined to remake capitalism for the poor and unemployed. The first New Deal brought in unprecedented government regulation of American banks and the stock markets, to avoid a repeat of the Depression. This included clamping down on speculative activities in commercial banks (including the Glass-Steagall Act). He also attacked corporate abuses rife on Wall Street.
Throughout he was a great champion of the union movement through the National Industrial Recovery Act. This spawned the National Recovery Administration, which created corporatist collaboration between industry, unions and government that set minimum wages and maximum working hours, to set prices, and to write codes of fair competition. Nothing like that has existed in the UK since the sixties Wilson government.
The second New Deal in 1935 went further. He created the Works Progress Administration, focused on providing directly subsidised jobs building public works like post offices, bridges, schools, highways and parks. The WPA also gave work to artists, writers, theatre directors and musicians.
In 1935 he also passed what is known as the Wagner Act, and created the National Labor Relations Board to supervise union elections and prevent businesses from treating their workers unfairly. By 1937, 8 million people had joined trade unions.
In total, his system of loans and subsidies created 20m jobs. Faced by persistent court obstructionism in 1937, Roosevelt threatened to pack the Supreme Court. He asked Congress to empower him to appoint an additional justice for any member of the court over age 70 who did not retire. He sought to name as many as six additional Supreme Court justices, as well as up to 44 judges to the lower federal court.
In the end he backed down, but his determination made the judges temper their creativity in intepreting the law.
Johnson may on reflection decide it is safer to return to his first love.