The figure of Noel Skelton (1880-1935) must accurately be discussed when analysing Scottish Unionist intellectual culture. Skelton first developed the popular phrase ‘property-owning democracy’ which became utilized by successive Conservative Prime Ministers during the Twentieth century.
Skelton was born into a prominent Edinburgh Conservative family and received his education at Glenalmond College. His father, John Skelton KCB LLD (1835-1897) can accurately be described as a Tory Democrat and believed in cultivating proletarian support for the Conservative Party. Beyond his legal practice and public service, he also wrote regularly for Blackwood’s Magazine and frequently expressed support for the Stuart cause in such works as The Impeachment of Mary Stuart (1870) and The Royal House of Stuart (1890). Following his public school education, Noel Skelton matriculated at Edinburgh University and then Christ Church. While at Oxford, he read Modern History and obtained a Second Class degree. He qualified for the bar in 1906 and later served with the Black Watch during the First World War. After a failed 1910 election candidacy for the East Perthshire division, he subsequently won the 1922 election for Perth as a Unionist. Subsequently retaining his parliamentary seat in 1924 and 1929 greatly assisted in solidifying his position within Scottish Unionist politics and Westminster political discourse. Almost immediately after gaining his position in the House of Commons, he began writing policy articles for The Spectator, which outlined and explicated his grand vision of a Conservative ‘property-owning democracy’ in opposition to both Liberal and Labour programmes. This phrase passed into a common lexicon of Conservative statements during the Twentieth century and prominent prime ministers including Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher all utilised its seeming appeal.
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Skelton firstly began his political theory in his Spectator essays by counterpoising liberalism and socialism’s respective qualities against conservative and unionist ideology. He dismissed liberalism as belonging to the Nineteenth century and noted the Liberal Party’s anemic electoral results and dwindling countryside strength. He then contrasted liberalism’s weaknesses with the rising fortitude of socialism. However, Skelton augured national decline for Great Britain if Labour governments introduced nationalisation and centralised bureaucratic control. He prophesied a decline in personal responsibility and initiative along with the squandering of wealth in high taxation rates and expensive public programs. Skelton then contrasted this dismal potential future with an alternative vision in which Conservative and Unionist government encouraged economic growth and individual initiative. Using a metaphorical example of caretakers versus architects, Skelton believed that Labour’s policies would only foster economic stagnation and stifle constructive development. Instead, he believed that British Conservatism existed as a subconscious tendency within the British public and that the party’s defence of private property appealed to their inner instincts. For Skelton, on private ownership ‘rested the character and the economic freedom of the individual citizen’. As such, the extension of property ownership would enfranchise ordinary Britishers and endow them with joint responsibility for the nation’s economic and social well-being. They would be liberated from both poverty and state dependency through home ownership, saving accounts and investments. Desiring to mold the British public into successful bourgeois households, Skelton proffered his vision of a shining commercial polity bustling with economic activity and filled with self-sufficient, responsible burghers. His political economy combined laissez-faire economic theory within notional values of self-help. Such a revivified state would only amplify Great Britain’s strength in a new era characterised by mass democratic suffrage.
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Skelton wished to remake working-class voters into stolid bourgeoisie and argued that transformations were newly visible within public life. In his third Spectator essay, Problem and Principle, he observed that the working classes already demonstrated a keen desire to bequeath patrimonies to their families. Such institutions as Friendly Societies, credit unions and even trade unions all demonstrated foresight, self-sacrifice and serious planning. Such impetuses must be channeled into active support for the party is order to develop enduring popular appeal among broad swaths of voters. Additionally, Skelton believed firmly that conservatism must cultivate individual character in order to best elicit greater effort and initiative. Molding an educated population who accept values of self-help and self-reliance will only advance the nation and foster greater achievement. Property ownership will elicit beneficial effects on individual character and thereby foster thrift, self-restraint and a sense of responsibility. This belief proved the sine qua non of Skelton’s political economy. The axial connection of private property ownership with cultivated individual character undergirded his political philosophy and represented a stadialist development for Skelton. As the defender of private property in the Nineteenth century, it logically followed that the Conservatives would expand their membership to enfranchised voters. By enshrining property ownership as a vital goal for British society, democracy would be stabilised and political equilibrium established. By bringing workers into greater economic involvement via shareholding, they would also recognise the results of their labours. Skelton believed that profit-sharing and shareholding would inculcate an increasing sense of participation and wealth creations by workers. Instead of subscribing to antagonistic manager-labourer relations characterised by trades union disputes and resultant slowed productivity, industrial workers would take an active concern in the nation’s economic affairs. Such incorporation of all sectors of British society through inclusion and education would create a core of vital Conservative voters and thus an impregnable citadel against socialism.
Approvingly referencing Lord Balfour’s comment that ‘Democracy consists of government by explanation’, Skelton urged that conservatism successfully articulate its views to the British public. By doing so, he believed that it would appeal to their deepest instincts and thus preserve both political and economic freedom in a postwar nation riven by economic and class strife. Skelton’s fourth and final essay in his Spectator series Democracy Stabilised stressed the necessity of industrial and agricultural co-partnership in order to remove worker alienation and preserve private property. These four essays were successfully published as a single pamphlet and distributed among young Conservative MPs. In particular, they exerted a great influence on a group dubbed the YMCA, which included Harold Macmillan, Robert Boothby and John Loder. The term ‘YMCA’ was partly mocking and intended to demarcate clear differences between young progressive MPs and older Diehards concerned for the interests of established business and mine owners. Being older at forty-four than Macmillan and Boothby, Skelton became a mature leader among these reforming parliamentarians. Both men wrote fondly of Skelton within their memoirs and complimented his intellect and political vision for the nation’s future. Particularly, Boothby remarked that the small band of Scottish conservatives provided intellectual counter-arguments against socialism and commented that this was partly attributed to the Scottish Unionist Party’s intellectual inheritance from liberalism. Rather than promulgating Diehard views deeply alienating to newly enfranchised voters, they provided a plastic, mutable political economy amenable to moderation and compromise. Boothby believed that Skelton bequeathed a greater political legacy to conservatism than any of his contemporaries.
In many respects, Boothby’s conclusion proved accurate. Skelton’s legacy influence both the Scottish Unionist Party and Conservative politics for decades following his death. He articulated a political statecraft of home ownership and increased prosperity that proves ultimately progressive rather than reactionary. It became a counterpoint to centralised socialism and offered the Conservative Party an alternative stratagem during the postwar period. If Lady Thatcher’s electoral success during the 1987 General Election partly emerged from new property owners, then this success may be owed to Skelton’s prescient political economy.
James Kellas. The Party in Scotland in Anthony Seldon and Stuart Ball. Conservative Century: The Conservative Party Since 1900. Oxford [England]: Oxford University Press, 1994
Noel Skelton. Constructive Conservatism. Edinburgh: W. Blackwood, 1924.
David Torrance. Noel Skelton and the Property-Owning Democracy. London: Biteback, 2010.