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).

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