IT IS strange that Abraham Lincoln should be the former US president with the greatest claim on our attention today. The 21st century cult of Lincoln, including recent Hollywood blockbuster, is odd given we face no crisis comparable to the American Civil War and no moral wrong on a par with slavery.
It is true that next year part of the UK might choose to secede, but Alistair Darling – fighting for “the Union” – has not yet donned a stove-pipe hat in his effort to persuade us that we are “better together”.
If we want to learn lessons from American presidents past, it makes more sense now, in fact, to turn to Franklin D Roosevelt. Eighty years ago, on 4 March, 1933, Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural address, telling a vast crowd, and a radio audience of millions, that they had “nothing to fear but fear itself”.
He did so in the midst of a grave economic crisis, knowing that across the world confidence in democratic government was ebbing. One quarter of working-age Americans were unemployed, GNP had fallen by half since the Wall Street Crash, and 5,000 banks had failed.
Eighty years on, a group of leading historians of the New Deal will gather at the University of Glasgow to debate in public what we might learn from the Roosevelt administration’s response to the Great Depression.
Should the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which separated retail from investment banking, be adopted in Britain as Vince Cable and others have suggested? Policies effective in one set of historical conditions might be ineffective – or impossible to implement – in others. After all, the New Deal, which experienced its own double-dip in 1937-8, enjoyed only limited success as a programme of economic recovery. But we can surely learn from the New Deal if we focus on its indisputable political achievements.
It transformed the political landscape for more than a generation. It showed us that even in desperate economic conditions, democratic states can implement ambitious programmes of reform while drawing on widespread popular support. That is a useable lesson for aspiring politicians – and for active citizens – today.
• Dr Daniel Scroop is a senior lecturer in contemporary citizenship at the University of Glasgow