The status of social rights from FDR to David Cameron

I know: The title of this post may suggest that I am committed to analyse the evolution of the meaning of social rights in the US and the UK since the Great Depression. I´m afraid this is not the case, although the topic deserves a comprehensive study. My intention, instead, is to share with you some reflections about the missed opportunities for social rights in ‘America’ after Roosevelt’s New Deal, about the the dark prospects in Cameron’s Britain from now on, and about the possible links between the two.

On the State of the Union Address of 11 January 1944, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) presented what he called ‘a second bill of rights‘. Roosevelt’s speech was delivered via radio, due to his delicate health condition at the time. However, given the importance of the message, the President requested media cameras to begin filming from the Oval Office during the presentation of the ‘second bill or rights’. I could hereby transcript his words. But I prefer to let President Roosevelt speak for himself:

(You can also find the whole Address online)

The American legal scholar Cass Sunstein reminds us in The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More than Ever (2004) that FDR’s aim was not to enlarge the constitutional bill or rights, but rather to set social and economic rights in the agenda of American politics. The point was formulated in political and not legal terms, if only because of the very complicated procedure to reform the American Constitution.

Roosevelt’s initiative did not convince Congress and his idea of a ‘second bill of rights’ sank into oblivion. However, Roosevelt’s initiative trespassed American borders and less than five years later the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted on 10 December 1948, endorsed both civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights. The American representative in the working party that drafted the Declaration was highly influential: Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR’s widow.

Since FDR passed away, Americans opted for individualism, with a clear scepticism towards social rights and welfare state and, overall, towards anything that may imply ‘more government’. David Forsythe (2007) claims that, even though the US has been reluctant to support economic and social rights in the international arena, there is no empirical evidence to conclude that European ‘social market economies’ have achieved a better record in social terms. In any case, the long debate about health care reform since Obama’s presidential appointment in January 2009 clearly shows that basic social rights (such as the right to health) are not respected in the US. A recent report by Amnesty International, for instance, denounces that maternal mortality rate in the US reached 13.3 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2006, an extremely high ratio for any developed country, and even more so for the economically most powerful one. Furthermore, during Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council this month itself, in response to the recommendation to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the ‘American’ delegation explained that the US has the policy of not ratifying any treaty unless it’s already in compliance with its provisions. This official statement tacitly acknowledges that the US is in violation of the economic and social rights recognised in international law.

The evolution has been slightly different in the UK. It is often believed that Margaret Thatcher established a major backlash at all levels in British welfare state. However, as Pontusson points out in Inequality and Prosperity (2005), “the enduring legacy of Thatcherite social policy reforms is not so much that benefits to the poor were cut in the 1980s, though that clearly did happen, but rather that the terms on which benefits were disbursed were changed” (p. 193). Thatcher radically shifted social policy towards a means-tested approach, focused on assitentialism and compassion towards the poorest and not on the idea that all citizens deserve social rights. The problem is that “over the long run and in a broader, political sense, targeting benefits on the poor is likely to weaken middle-class support for the welfare state and reduce the generosity of the welfare state” (Pontusson 2005, 194).

Over the long run, indeed, that’s what has happened in Britain. During 13 years of 3rd Way New Labourism, Tony Blair and his acolytes did their best to bury ideology and convince Brits that politics is only about management; period. New Labourism went on with the reforms of Thatcherism. When Conservatives were brought back to power in 2010, in an unprecedented coalition with Liberal Democrats, they added a third touch to the process. Thatcher changed the meaning of social policy; Blair ‘managed’ it; Cameron is trying to ideologise it. In a recent article in London Review of Books, Ross McKibbin writes that the spending cuts announced and applied by the British Coalition Government have “nothing to do with the economy“. The most radical cuts in welfare policy in Britain since WWII respond to Cameron’s perceived need to restore a “specifically Conservative and politically useful identity of the Conservative Party”, transforming by the way “a crisis of the banks into a crisis of the welfare state”. And Clegg’s LibDems seem happy to help.

Time will tell about the effects of the Thatcher-Blair-Cameron continuum. Yet, if Brits themselves don´t step in, Britain may soon become a ‘little America’ in Europe, at least as far as the status of social rights is concerned. In the current crisis, some don´t lose hope of getting social rights back into the agenda. The international coalition of civil society organisations Social Watch suggestively entitles its 2010 report “Time for a new deal after the fall“. In Sunstein’s words, we truly need FDR’s revolution now more than ever.

Koldo Casla


7 thoughts on “The status of social rights from FDR to David Cameron

  1. Useful information. Lucky me I found your sit unintentionally,
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  2. A few days ago, when I published this post in ‘Rights in Context’, in an attempt to summarise the progressive dwindling of British welfare state, I asserted that ‘Thatcher changed the meaning of social policy; Blair ‘managed’ it; Cameron is trying to ideologise it’. I must admit that I let myself be carried along by the sound of an apparently definitive phrase. I feel that I must clarify my point.

    Some would say that the Cameron-Clegg partnership is presenting their extraordinary spending cuts in line with the most basic Thatcherite motto: ‘There is no alternative’. Clegg himself confirms this yesterday, 5 December, in an interview in The Independent (‘No apologies. No regrets. No shame’; ). In this regard, the decision would not really be a decision, but rather an obvious and unavoidable managerial step. It would go without saying. Nothing to do with ideology.

    However, even if the Con-Dem Coalition is presenting its social policy as inevitable and deideologised, it actually responds to a certain normative understanding of what a State is meant to provide and guarantee. In this sense I claim that Cameron’s Government is quietly (?) trying to transform Britain in the light of conservative ideas and values.

    Koldo Casla

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