ONE of the most remarkable women I have ever met was my postgraduate tutor Dr Lorraine Brown. We first met in the early 1980s when she had just completed one of the most audacious heists in the history of American academia.

In the fading days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, when Ronald Reagan was yet to take office, she took advantage of an interregnum at the Library of Congress, and drove with a group of students to an airplane hangar near Baltimore, Maryland, and rescued crates of historical documents that had been hidden away since the red-baiting days of McCarthyism.

The materials she liberated were the records of the Federal Theatre Project, a long-abandoned initiative from Roosevelt’s New Deal era.

Last week, her boldness and my own youthful passion for the Roosevelt era came rushing back to mind, as the untrustworthy Boris Johnson cynically used the term New Deal to camouflage his woeful and inadequate response to the coronavirus crisis.

The New Deal was a series of public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations enacted by President Franklin D Roosevelt between 1933 and 1939 in response to the great depression.

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It was an all-encompassing form of civic socialism offering relief, unemployment benefits and emergency measures to bolster a wrecked economy. Capitalism had failed and failed spectacularly and so public spending on an unprecedented scale was introduced to shore up the edifice of a broken system that had come to define America.

Most Scots already know that Boris Johnson is hopelessly out of his depth, a lazy and superficial man who grasps at any passing concept to busk his way to the next stage of his lamentable period in office. This week he tried it on with the New Deal – so let me dismantle that fantasy in no uncertain terms.

Firstly, the scale of Roosevelt’s investment in the US makes Johnson’s interventions seem timid. Johnson has committed to bring forward infrastructure spending of £5 billion, which amounts to just 0.2% of current UK GDP. By comparison, the New Deal was estimated to be worth about 40% of the US national income of 1929.

Nor was it simply a reallocation of already promised projects. It was new money funded from the public purse, from debt and from a wholesale reimagining of the economy.

Secondly, the word infrastructure has been bandied about. Yes, Roosevelt invested in roads, bridges, dams and hydropower complexes, but the New Deal was more than infrastructure, it was public stimulus across all sectors of the economy.

Thirdly, the New Deal also had substantial geographical reach, funding the overseas highways connecting the Florida Keys, the Bourne Bridge to Cape Cod, the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River and hundreds of regional airports from Maine to Missouri.

Johnson’s commitment to the nations and regions on the UK has been lamentable – Wales overlooked, Scotland patronised and Northern Ireland left looking south to Dublin for leadership.

One of the most successful dimensions of Roosevelt’s New Deal was the work of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) set up to target rural poverty and encourage land collectivisation and shared food production.

Ironically, the FSA is has found lasting fame due to its small but highly influential photography programme, which hired photographers and writers to report and document the plight of poor farmers. Dorothea Lange’s portraits of migrants from Oklahoma dustbowls are to this day towering proof of the importance of social photography.

If Boris Johnson’s ambitions came anywhere close to Roosevelt’s achievements, he would fund a programme of social photography across the UK. Imagine a unit of photographers paid a salary or a weekly wage to document the experiences of the asylum community during lockdown. That would not just be an act of redeployment but a huge public statement of historical importance.

When I first met Dr Lorraine Brown she was in the first days of building a new research centre for the cultural artefacts of the New Deal at George Mason University. I was her first overseas student and, as we greeted each other warmly, she handed me the most unlikely research tool – a crowbar. One of my first tasks as a PhD student was to prize open a row of old wooden crates emblazoned with the logo of the Federal Theatre Project. Inside the second crate I made my first real discovery, a small piece of theatre history ... a bundle of scripts by Arthur Miller, containing his then unknown play They Too Arise, a play Miller had written in 1938 years before his more famous works Death Of Salesman and The Crucible. Miller was not a commissioned playwright. He was a Federal Theatre employee who was paid a weekly wage to write plays courtesy of the New Deal.

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Did you hear about Boris Johnson announcing a scheme for putting playwrights on a weekly wage? No – nor did I. The government’s serial failure to support the arts across the pandemic have been a national disgrace. Far from offering a New Deal, Johnson’s administration has turned a deaf ear to the desperate crisis within our cultural communities.

ON the day of Johnson’s so-called New Deal announcements, the Scottish comedy writer Armando Iannucci tweeted: “Nothing yesterday about any support for one of the UK’s biggest industries, the creative arts. Pumps more revenue into UK economy than oil and cars together, yet no mention of support. 400,000 jobs on the line.”

He was right. In my own hometown, the local arts organisation Horsecross, which runs Perth Theatre and the concert hall, opened redundancy talks that could result in 120 job losses.

On Friday, the Scottish Government announced the Performing Arts Venues Relief Fund, targeting £10 million to support Scotland’s performing arts venues. It was unanimously welcome, but not enough to repair the breach.

Perth’s is not an isolated story; it is, bleakly, the “new normal”. Across the UK, creative professionals are either already unemployed or staring at a bleak future, with concert halls closed, theatres mothballed and live shows cancelled for the foreseeable future. Already several venues have become insolvent, including Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre and Leicester’s Haymarket, and closer to home the newly renovated Leith Theatre and Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre have been mothballed.

Theatre has been brutalised by the current pandemic and quite the opposite happened during the New Deal. The Federal Theatre Project, established by Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration in 1935, employed 15,000 theatre workers within its first year of operation.

It was driven by the president’s visionary wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, and by a dynamic theatre graduate Hallie Flanagan, still arguably the most important woman in the history of theatre in the USA.

Flanagan was the brains and driving force for a generation of talent spread across the USA, including Burt Lancaster, who came of age as a trapeze artist in the touring Federal Circus, and Orson Wells who was the director of a “Negro Unit” in Harlem, a theatre company famous for their ground breaking all-black interpretation of the Scottish play Macbeth.

My own doctoral focus was on the Living Newspaper Unit, a New York-based radical group which dramatised the news from a popular ant-fascist perspective. Among the group’s leaders were Joe Losey and Elia Kazan, who both fell foul of the McCarthy tribunals and the infamous Hollywood blacklist.

Roosevelt’s New Deal was generated by the needs of mass redeployment rather than rewards for capital. The opposite is the case with Johnson.

You sense he is playing to a well-heeled gallery of fund managers, construction company bosses, Brexit ideologues, and Conservative party donors. They are the focus, not the unemployed or those living a perilous life facing a broken future.

History is breathing down Scotland’s neck. As of this week, there can be no more extensions, and so technically we are no longer members of the European Union, whilst being fobbed off with fantasies like a New Deal by a Westminster-led Tory administration that taunts our elected representatives and denies the very existence of our national borders.

When the virus is suppressed within our midst, it is abundantly clear that we will have to rebuild, and that we should simply tolerate recovery being shaped by a party we didn’t vote for, constrained by their legacy of lies and exaggeration.

A genuine New Deal awaits Scotland, one that is long overdue.