ENNIS CARTER

London

While leaders on both sides of the Atlantic do their best to channel the spirit of Franklin Delano Roosevelt–bailing out banks, proposing massive public works projects, even promising mortgage relief for financially troubled homeowners–a March 24 gathering at 11 Downing Street brought together Britain’s political and cultural establishments to learn about the legacy of a lesser-known figure of the New Deal: Harry Hopkins. An Iowa-born social worker, Hopkins headed FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). “Give a man a dole, and you save his body and destroy his spirit,” he famously observed. “Give him a job…and you save both the body and the spirit.”

Beginning in April 1935, long after FDR’s first hundred days had run their course without putting much of a dent in unemployment levels, the WPA lifted more than 8 million Americans off the relief rolls and into work. WPA workers built schools, parks, post offices, zoos, even golf courses, as well as airports, highways and dams. Tucked away in Roosevelt’s executive order establishing the agency was a provision for “small useful projects designed to assure a maximum of employment.” From such modest beginnings was born Federal One, the WPA arts program comprising the Federal Writers’ Project as well as projects in music, theater and the visual arts. A tiny fraction of WPA spending, at any one time the arts program never employed more than 45,000 people, of whom fewer than 7,000 worked on the Writers’ Project. With alumni who include Nelson Algren, Arna Bontemps, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Martha Gellhorn, Zora Neale Hurston, Kenneth Rexroth, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel and an unknown, unpublished, out-of-work Chicagoan named Saul Bellow, it is hard to argue that the money wasn’t well spent.

Still, the WPA might seem like an unlikely source of inspiration for Britain, which after all boasts not only a welfare state that puts America’s social safety net to shame but a thriving and long-established government-funded arts sector that includes the National Theatre, the BBC, the British Museum and a superb network of regional museums, opera companies, galleries and theaters. With annual government support of nearly £600 million (about $878 million), the British could be forgiven for thinking they had nothing to learn from America, where funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) peaked at just $176 million in 1992 and has been in decline ever since and where every dollar of federal support for the arts prompts bitter opposition.

The Downing Street meeting marked the launch of the New Deal of the Mind, the brainchild of journalist Martin Bright, who in a January 15 article in New Statesman argued that by putting all their emphasis on rescuing banks and big, long-term infrastructure projects, the British were missing out on one of the few undisputed successes of the New Deal, the arts programs. “If ministers have decided to go down the route of work creation backed by borrowing,” urged Bright, “they should at least do it with some imagination and flair.”

I was there in my capacity as the biographer of I.F. Stone, who was described by the conference organizers, oddly if accurately, as “a prominent evangelist for the New Deal”–and because I’ve been a fan of the Federal Writers’ Project since stumbling upon the astonishing The WPA Guide to New York City deep in the Random House basement more than twenty-five years ago. The keynote speaker was Alan Brinkley, author of Voices of Protest and Liberalism and Its Discontents and the provost of Columbia University, who gave an eloquent résumé of the New Deal’s cultural ambitions and limitations. Then your correspondent followed up with a few points aimed at translating the language of 1930s America for contemporary Britain. I also reminded the audience that the original WPA’s considerable British fan base included Alistair Cooke, who collected every state guidebook, and W.H. Auden, who wrote that “the Arts Project of the WPA was perhaps one of the noblest…undertakings ever attempted by a state.”

But far more striking than anything Brinkley or I said was the sheer cultural leverage of the assembled audience, who included the chief executives of the BBC, the Royal Opera House, the British Council, the Arts Council, the Southbank Centre and the Heritage Lottery Fund, as well as the ministers of Culture and Work and Pensions, MPs from the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, not to mention Alistair Darling, the chancellor of the exchequer, who with his wife, Maggie, acted as our hosts. That these people, many of whom control budgets larger than the entire NEA, were prepared to spend a big chunk of time listening to a history lesson–an American history lesson at that–was evidence of just how seriously Britain takes its culture industries. (Anyone tempted to denigrate culture’s contribution to Britain’s balance of payments would have quickly been set straight by Tessa Ross, who as head of Channel 4’s film division greenlighted Slumdog Millionaire.)

Projects like the New Deal of the Mind have been floated in the United States–recently by Charles Peters, intellectual godfather to a generation of policy wonks, and Timothy Noah. Writing in Slate, they argued that in modeling his stimulus bill on the New Deal’s Public Works Administration (PWA), led by FDR’s secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, Obama chose “the wrong Harry.” Ickes, they write, “was so fearful that the PWA would appropriate funds to an unworthy or scandalous project that he dotted every I and crossed every T before spending a nickel”–a fair description not just of the current US administration’s cautious approach but of that of many ministers in Gordon Brown’s government. Indeed, we had barely left Downing Street when the Bank of England warned against new spending initiatives, and although Brown joined Obama’s call for stimulus spending at the London G-20, the idea is controversial here.

So it has been striking to see how, in little more than a month, a lone journalist’s trial balloon has commandeered not just a respectful hearing but office space and a web presence (courtesy of London’s University of the Arts), a start-up budget (thanks to Counterpoint, the think tank of the British Council) and the promise of real money from Trevor Phillips, the Equality and Human Rights Commission chair. Oral histories of Britain’s new migrant communities, a service matching empty buildings with aspiring artists and inventors, and a scheme to help unemployed journalists from Britain’s dying regional newspapers use their expertise and local knowledge to build strong community-reporting websites were just a few of the ideas proposed.

What, you may well ask, does the WPA have to do with equality and human rights? Well, for one thing, 40 percent of the workers on the Writers’ Project were women. And that was back when Betty Friedan was writing editorials for the Smith College newspaper. Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden were alumni of the visual arts project–as were Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. In an era when virtually all US government institutions, from the armed forces to the blood banks, were segregated by race, the WPA arts projects were unique in the degree of integration and the opportunities they offered African-American professionals. It was the WPA that taught a generation of Americans that culture is not something that you go out and buy, or passively consume, but something that is made by and belongs to people like themselves. It would be ironic if this lesson, which still seems capable of stirring such avid interest in Britain, remains neglected in the country that gave it birth.