Constructive Conservatism, #6

For what are the principles of Conservatism, these leading ideas and ideals which are the essence of its view of life?

The first of these is the stability of the social structure. A stable condition of society is the main preoccupation of Conservatism. This is the real clue to its whole political philosophy. If change has been resisted, it has been because the Conservative has feared that it would produce confusion and instability. When it has been clear that only by change can stability be re-established, no party has been more fearless in making the most drastic changes. And similarly, the situations which have given to Conservatism its moments of intense anxiety have been those when “marginal cases” have arisen in which the problem has been whether stability is best secured by the existing conditions or by the proposed change.

And this insistence upon stability is no fad or catchword, for as the generations come and go, the opportunity offered for full enjoyment and full development to each individual during his little span of consciousness depends upon the society and community which surrounds and contains him being stable—at peace with itself, not at war.

But stability is not stagnation. Stability is as much the condition of steady progress for a society as it is for a ship. Stagnation, since life is movement, means necessarily that atrophy is at work; that tissues are dying which should be living; that dead matter is accumulating which must, by more or less violent means, be cast out. To confuse stability with stagnation is, however, from the nature of things, a special danger for Conservatism, for it is the natural defect of its virtue. And just because Conservatism is the real guardian of stability in the community—the school of thought which alone gives stable conditions their just valuation—it has a special duty constantly to search out the means by which stability threatened can be saved, stability lost can be recovered.

The second fundamental Conservative principle is that the character of the individual citizen being the greatest asset of the State, the primary object and the best test of all legislation which deals with the individual is its influence upon his character.

Everything that weakens individual character and lessens individual effort and initiative is anathema to the Conservative. Everything that strengthens and increases these is very near to his heart. The consequences flowing from this principle are so manifold that they cannot be elaborated here. The main and most essential one is the insistence by Conservatism on the necessity of limiting the action of the State as far as possible to “helping the individual to help himself.” Further, it follows that the best kind of social legislation is that which gives to the citizens a better chance of helping themselves during their working lives, and that only second best (though admittedly essential in many cases) is direct State intervention to sustain, shelter, and support those who have failed in health or occupation. For these failures only touch the fringe of the life of the nation. It is improvement in conditions during the working life which marks the real advance.

Constructive Conservatism, #5

III — Problem and Principle

And the fundamental problem of this new era—what of it? Beneath the tangle of immediate anxieties—unemployment, the housing of the people, the agricultural emergency, the financial burdens of the State—is it possible to detect a master-problem which, while it remains unsolved, exercises a profound and malign influence upon the mental outlook and the material condition of the people?

If the analysis of the new era which has been attempted is in any degree correct, such a master-problem is not far to seek. For the mass of the people—those who mainly live by the wages of industry—political status and educational status have outstripped economic status.

The structure has become lop-sided. It is therefore unstable.

Until our educated and politically minded democracy has become predominantly a property-owning democracy, neither the national equilibrium nor the balance of the life of the individual will be restored.

To restore than balance is the master-problem of the new era.

The wage-earner has for long been attempting to solve the problem for himself. In the Co-operative movement, the Friendly Societies, the Savings Banks, and on their benefits side the Trade Unions, he has made a most determined effort to build up for himself (either by way of income to meet illness, unemployment, old age, or by way of capital) “something of his own” behind hum, and the large amounts of wealth thus accumulated show how strong and persistent the impulse has been. These organizations are, indeed, the outstanding economic and social achievement of the wage-earner; they have at once exhibited developed and tested his business capacity and his social sense, and in the steady devotion, hard work and unostentatious self-sacrifice shown in their management they have made a splendid contribution to the public life of the community. But the most remarkable proof of the wage-earner’s determination to become a property-owner is to be found in the success of the War Savings Certificates scheme. Despite the fact that unemployment insurance, health insurance, and old-age pensions were in either partial or full operation when it was introduced, the steady flow of his savings, in good times and bad, into War Savings Certificates shows how fully the wage-earner appreciates the security and economic freedom which the possession of private property gives.

Yet the effort, large and fruitful as it has been, has not in itself solved the problem. And it is not difficult to see why. In the first place, it has been made by the wage-earners as a separate, isolated class. Its national importance has been overlooked. The Liberal, concentrating his attention on political rights, has passed it by. The Conservative, though he has aided it, has certainly not considered it in its full bearing upon the social structure; while the Socialists has seized the opportunity thus given him to pervert the impulse behind it into an element in the view of life which he presents; he declares, that is, that ownership by the State is ownership by the people, implying that that means a property-owning democracy. In fact, of course, it does not. What everybody owns, nobody owns; and far from expressing the wage-earner’s ideal, Socialism makes it unattainable, while communal ownership, when obtained, neither interests nor influences a single human being. We have yet to hear of the man who, in the Great War, rushed to arms to preserve his share in the London County Council Tramways or in Battersea Park.

And the effort has been isolated in another sense. It has had no direct relation with the wage-earner’s life as a worker. It has had nothing to do with his work. His thrift effort and his work have, moreover, not only been carried on independently, but in two opposite moods. His mood is “Capitalist” when he saves; it is “Labour” while he works. And the mental confusion resulting from that opposition of moods has had startling results, of which the most amazing example is the large application of the funds of the Co-operative Societies to assist and support the Socialist movement.

But most vital of all, these intense and prolonged efforts have not altered the industrial status of the wage-earner. Whatever his savings may be in the Co-operative Society, or in War Savings Certificates, the wage-earner, as industrialist, has only the economic status of a machine; for his wages, as such, are, and can only be, part of the costs of production, occupying the same position as the expenses of running the machines of the factory or workshop in which he is employed. Small wonder, then, if the wage-earner’s isolated and barely recognised effort to become a property-owner has left, at the beginning of the new era, his own life and the whole social structure lop-sided and unstable.

It is these very efforts, however, which are largely responsible for the instinctive sympathy between the main body of the nation and Conservatism. Can it be doubted that the mass of the people feel that the only school of political thought which understands and is capable of solving the problem is the Conservative, and that it is for this very purpose (intuitively felt, indeed, rather than logically reasoned out) that the country preserves and approves Conservatism to-day?

Constructive Conservatism, #4

A view of life, a statement of fundamental principles, can only be met by the presentation of a truer view and of principles more fundamental. If Conservatives are not to fight with one hand tied behind their backs, the active principles of Conservatism must be felt anew. The whole intellectual content of Conservatism, its moral and intellectual foundations, its practical applications, must, whatever “the mental strife” involved, be made plain to educated democracy. Conservatism must expound its “view of life.”

Clearly this implies an extension of the functions of the Conservative politician, a new meaning so far as he is concerned, of the word “politics.” Conservatism believes in a restricted field for the action of the State, and most emphatically the view of life, the ideal of advance, it must present to the nation, cannot be exhaustively embodied in Acts of Parliament. In the new era we must step outside the old limits and depart from the view that politics mean only public affairs, and that public affairs mean only public business. No doubt this makes politics more difficult, for it is easier to explain the provisions of a Bill than to present a “view of life.”

But the older, narrower view is a caretaker’s only: it confuses the function of the politician with that of the policeman. Historically, it is the survival into the era of educated democracy of methods which were successfully practiced in the period of the triumphant bourgeoisie. But in the new era it will not serve: for it is to abandon the intellectual and moral leadership of the community: it is to withdraw from the duty of moulding and shaping public opinion. It may look like ruling: it is really abdicating.

One further word must be added. The prosperous, peach-fed classes do not readily understand the angle from which the mass of the people approach political life. To the former, politics is not a medium of education, of general culture. That side of life, they have an infinite number of other means of enjoying—fastidious living, beautiful homes, the enjoyment of literature, art, travel, the closeness and variety of their points of contact with human culture and civilisation. Because their general interests are wider, the intellectual area they allot to politics is correspondingly narrower. And for those who are the heirs of “the governing classes” of the past, politics naturally means, above all, administration.

To the mass of the people the opposite is the case. Politics is their main point of contact with general ideas; the paramount expression of the life of the community; the chief, if not the only means of satisfying their goût des grandes choses. But their attitude towards politics it is which makes true the definition of man as “a political animal”; for the mass of the people feel the reality, the life, the organic, as opposed to the mechanical, quality of politics. To them political deliberation is a high function, as the gravity and sincerity of a “popular audience” testify. If the British people do not now take their pleasures sadly, they certainly take their politics seriously.

Such, then, is the situation. A people at the dawn of a new era, equipped with full political power, educated, and still more, highly sensitive to educative influences, presented by a powerful and devoted Socialist Party with a view of politics which is really a comprehensive “view of life,” and yet instinctively trusting to their natural Conservative instincts: a Conservative Party, inclined, perhaps, in common with other parties in the past, to regard politics with only a caretaker’s eye, and yet, obviously, from the wider point of view, charged with the duty of expounding the Conservative “view of life,” since in it lies embedded the true solution of the fundamental problem the new era presents.

Constructive Conservatism, #3

Meantime, upon this educated democracy—alert, sensitive, receptive, plastic—another Party in the State plays unceasingly, feeding the newly aroused intellectual appetites, the highly responsive social conscience, with wide and glowing general principles—comprehensive, challenging, alluring. It is to no purpose to reply that Socialism finds its strength in appeals to cupidity, envy, and hatred. That may be true also: but it is the least part of the truth, and to emphasise it—much more, to treat it as fundamental—is entirely to misread the true appeal of Socialism. For the real strength of Socialism lies in the fact that it is making an intellectual appeal at the very moment when the craving for mental nourishment is so universal. It is presenting a “view of life” to the nation in a method admirably suited to the mood and atmosphere of the new era. The Socialist finds a welcome because he comes disguised as an educator and teacher.

And just because it is presenting a comprehensive view of life, Socialism has very greatly extended the boundaries of politics. It is, of course, easy for Socialism to draw into the traditional territory of politics the whole structure of national life, for politics in its accepted meaning deals with the actions of the State and, in the Socialist ideal, the action of the State is co-extensive with the life of the nation. This widening of the territory of politics is, indeed, a reaction of the new situation, which even in the most general survey cannot be passed by unnoticed.

The battles between Whig and Tory, Unionist and Liberal, were, like those of an earlier stage of armed warfare, fought on a narrow front and by small armies of professionals, whose passage through the life of the nation affected it hardly more than a charabanc disturbs the countryside to-day—some vapour and much noise, a rut left in the highway, a film of dust on the hedgerow.

But Socialism fights on the broadest of fronts, and this breadth of front must dominate the strategy and tactics of the new era; for envelopment and the crushing defeat which successful envelopment achieves form the danger against which Conservatism must guard in the great battles ahead.

Constructive Conservatism, #2

II — The New Era

What then, are the main, the special features of the new era, in which Conservatism must play a constructive part, or perish? There are two on which attention must be concentrated, because in importance, in their reach and power, they stand in a class by themselves.

First, Britain is now, electorally, a complete democracy. A new and tremendous element is this in the situation, particularly because the acquisition of political rights by women has flung into the seething pot of our political life a fresh and distinctive ingredient, has brought into the general pool, and given opportunity for the expression of a mental and moral outlook, a temperament and a tradition which are different (though to what extent and even in what respects might be matter of controversy) from those of the previous exclusively male electorate. However that may be, Conservatism, now and for the future, is face to face with democracy. Democratic electoral rights are, in a word, no longer a plank in political programmes, they are the medium in which the statesmanship of the future must work. This feature of the new era at last opens the way to the full operation of Conservative principles and, incidentally, makes it unnecessary even to mention Liberalism as a school of thought: for Liberalism, which had in the past so much to say about political freedom, has nothing to do in our era, when complete political freedom has been attained.

Secondly, the new era is one not merely of democracy, but of an educated democracy. Education is so gradual a process that its growth is easily overlooked. Yet, as in all continuous processes of growth, there are decisive moments when change is apparent. Last week the cherry was in bud, to-day it is “hung with snow.”

Such a decisive moment was the War. In a flash, the distance which Britain had gone along the road of education was revealed. The technical ability, the rapidity in acquiring new kinds of knowledge and in mastering new duties, the self-reliance, the self-respect, the power to accept responsibility, the spontaneous facing of sacrifice, the large grasp of the issues at stake, the firmness and fineness of temper, the general spaciousness of character and outlook displayed by the men and women of Britain meant, and could only mean, that the influences of education had penetrated deeply and strongly into their minds and character. The present writer, who on four fronts saw men under the most varying conditions of danger and of dullness, has never wavered in his conviction that it was largely to the extent to which the mass of the people had absorbed the benefits of some forty years of strenuous education that we owed our achievements in the War.

And the more the temper and psychology of our people are seen and studied, the more apparent becomes the fact that ours in an educated democracy. A habit of mind, alert, sensitive, receptive, has replaced one traditionally prone to be sluggish and prejudiced. And if alertness has brought with it a wholesome inquisitiveness into the validity of traditional points of view, sensitiveness has produced a rapid appreciation of principle; and receptiveness, particularly marked in all the qualities which may be grouped under the phrase “the social conscience,” has given a remarkable power of appreciating what lawyers call “the merits” of a question.

The change is so profound that only by a several mental effort can the new situation it has produced by envisaged. The Conservative Party must make that mental effort, and the even greater one necessary to think out all the reactions which must follow in the political life of the people. If it does not, how can it meet the instinctive trust of the people with a view of politics fitted for the new era?

Constructive Conservatism, #1

I — Architect or Caretaker

Is Conservatism prepare to supply, in the new era we are entering, the main creative and moulding influence in the national life?

Liberalism cannot. Its thought is barren: its fires are cold: it sees no objective: even if it did, its energies are too exhausted to let it reach it.

Socialism, on the other hand, has force, fire, energy indeed; but its objective, if attained, spells economic disaster and moral despair; it can neither increase wealth nor develop character. The omnipotent State, the kept citizen, responsibility checked, initiative crippled, character in cold-storage, wealth squandered—towards such a goal, Britain, it may be said, will never consent to be led very far; but every step taken is a step wasted, and if a safer road with a better ending be not found for the people—if the alternatives are to be between Socialism and stagnation—the national choice will not fall on stagnation.

For a moulding and creative force there must be, since free nations do not live by caretakers and policemen alone. It is Conservatism which must do the architect’s work. Nothing else is worth its while. From time to time, no doubt, there will be a demand for intervals of repose, when even the most stationary party might fulfil a useful function. But any party can “mark time.” That calls for neither principles nor vision. It is in action that principles come into play. The caretaker’s job is for those who are past work. And, in fact, the principles of Conservatism are not only unexhausted but are exactly fitted to lead the country along the next stage of its journey. To adopt the caretaker’s attitude now and refuse the architect’s task would be to deprive the country of the benefits of a constructive Conservatism at the very time when most it needs it; for a positive, active alternative must be presented to the mass of the people, who are unceasingly urged to believe that in Socialism alone does there lie, for the rank and file, any hope of reaching and enjoying “an ampler ether, a diviner air.”

Yet faith in Conservatism—subconscious, intuitive—remains to-day, as ever, the deepest-rooted political instinct of Britain. It has been a tragedy too often repeated, indeed, that the broad, sound, living national Conservatism has found itself reflected, in the purely political sphere, by a bloodless, rigid, paralysed habit of mind, which has traded on that subconscious, intuitive faith, and has often imposed what would have proved an intolerable strain on any loyalty less patient and less profound than is that of the people of Britain to the underlying truths of Conservatism.

Yet it is only by the Conservative party that the best energies of the country can be released; for it is the character of the race which feels the appeal of Conservatism; and it is only when its character is touched, that these higher energies can be liberated. Therefore, there is a work for Conservatism to-day which no other party in the State can do. If Conservatism will not do it, it will remain undone. Heavy, then, is its responsibility, if the Conservative party refuse to apply its active principles to the deeper troubles of the new era; for in these principles alone can a cure be found.

Britain, unlike France, achieved political democracy without the disaster of revolution. Whether or not a similar success can be achieved in the economic sphere, depends first and mainly upon the ability of a constructive Conservatism to apply its own principles to the problem.

Private property, in the Conservative view, is the basis of civilisation, for on it rest the character and the economic freedom of the individual citizen. To Conservatism, therefore, the way lies open to expound the greatest of all social truths—that the success and the stability of a civilisation depend upon the widest possible extension amongst its citizens of the private ownership of property.

And round private property the political combats of the future will rage: their issue will decide whether wholesale pauperisation is in store for the people, or an advance to new levels of character and responsibility: the issue itself depends upon the vision, the courage, the resource of Conservatism.

It is only when the new era is analysed, its problems stated, Conservative principles recalled, their appropriate application suggested, that the full need for a constructive Conservatism can be realised. And whether the analysis, the statement, the application, in these pages attempted, be correct or not, this much is certain—that the battles ahead cannot be won, or the moulding, creative influence exercised, by the use of a caretaker’s mop.

New Stoa Serial! Noel Skelton’s “Constructive Conservatism”

It’s been a while since we had a serialisation at the Virtual Stoa—it’s been a while since we had any real content here, of course—so let’s fill up the dying days of August and the start of September with a brand new recycling job. Usually I go for left-wing pamphlets of one kind or another—we’ve had Oscar Wilde’s Soul of Man under Socialism in 2004, bits of Thomas Hodgskin’s Labour Defended against the Claims of Capital (also 2004), and, more recently, Trevor Pateman’s Poverty of Philosophy, Politics and Economics (2008). Now it’s time for something from the other side of the political divide: we had A Challenge to Scouting a few years ago (2005), and here I’m going to republish Noel Skelton’s Constructive Conservatism.

Noel Skelton was a Scottish Unionist lawyer born in 1880, elected to Parliament for Perth in the November 1922 general election and defeated again in December the following year. In April and May 1923 he published a series of four articles in The Spectator on post-war Conservative political strategy. They were well received—John Strachey, the magazine’s long-serving editor, wrote that ‘The first was very good, but the second was really one of the best things we have ever had in The Spectator’—and three of the essays were republished the following year in pamphlet form as Constructive Conservatism, together with new a introductory section. (The first article of the original series had dated more rapidly than the rest, being specifically addressed to the distinctive political situation in the wake of the 1922 election.)

Constructive Conservatism is famous above all for one thing: the introduction of the phrase, a ‘property-owning democracy’ into the political lexicon. And that’s an expression that has subsequently been attached to a variety of ideological projects, whether the moderate socialism of James Meade in his 1964 book, Efficiency, Equality, and the Ownership of Property, the classic restatement of liberal political philosophy in John Rawls’s 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, or the neo-liberal conservatism of Margaret Thatcher and her policies to encourage wider home ownership, above all through the sale of council houses to their tenants. Those who write academic papers on this kind of thing are well aware of the ideological ancestry of this particular phrase: Amit Ron published an article in History of Political Thought a few years ago (Spring 2008) on ‘Visions of Democracy: Skelton to Rawls and Beyond’, and the forthcoming collection edited by Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson on Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond contains an excellent contribution from Ben Jackson on the history of the idea.

In that piece, Jackson notes that ‘Skelton remains an enigmatic and neglected figure’ but that ‘it is not possible in this brief discussion to do justice to the subtlety of the analysis that led him to advocate a property-owning democracy’. So perhaps the time has come to let Skelton speak to us in his own words again, and explain just what he was on about. I’ve taken the four sections of Constructive Conservatism and divided them into eleven bite-sized instalments, which will be appearing at here at the Virtual Stoa one-chunk-per-day over the next eleven days starting tomorrow—and I’ll be very interested to hear what, if anything, any of you have to say.

Noel Skelton was defeated in 1923, re-elected for Perth in 1924 and 1929, and returned to Parliament for the Combined Scottish Universities in 1931. He served in the Scottish Office for the National Government, and was re-elected for his Universities seat in 1935, despite having died between the polls closing and the declaration of the result, with the subsequent by-election giving Ramsay MacDonald a route back into the Commons after his embarrassing defeat at Seaham.

For more on Skelton, Philip Williamson’s ODNB entry is useful. There’s also a recent biography by David Torrance, Noel Skelton and the Property-Owning Democracy (Biteback, 2010), from which the Strachey remark, above, was taken, but that book doesn’t add much to the ODNB, unless you’re weirdly interested in Skelton’s romantic life (or lack of same).