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).

Nick Clegg, Liar

There are many comic things about British politics right now, and one of them is the way in which the entirely loathsome creature and great champion of electoral reform, Nick Clegg is reckoned last year to have called the Alternative Vote, for which he is now campaigning so enthusiastically, a “miserable little compromise”.

Yesterday, however, I read this, in tehgraun:

Clegg claimed his remark did not refer to the voting system itself but to the previous Labour’s government’s attempt to shoehorn in a promise of AV that had little chance of being delivered.

He said: “I’ve had this a lot. What I was actually referring to was Gordon Brown’s suggestion, very late in the day in his government, of making changes that everyone knew would not come into effect …

“I was talking about the Labour party’s offer in the latter days of its government which it had no way of implementing.”

How interesting, if true. Let’s now go to the original source. Here’s Andrew Grice, political editor of the Independent, on 22 April 2010:

Nick Clegg will demand that Gordon Brown improves on his “miserable little compromise” of limited electoral reform as the price of propping up Labour in a hung parliament.

In an interview with The Independent, the Liberal Democrat leader rejected Labour’s proposals for electoral reform, which stop short of proportional representation (PR), and insisted on a truly proportional system for electing MPs.

Mr Clegg said the latest opinion polls, which suggest Labour could come third in the share of the vote but cling on to power, would make the campaign for PR unstoppable: “It is not going to be a question of us propping up [another party] but of us insisting on the changes only we advocate.”

Raising his party’s sights, he declared: “Everyone says the only question is whether we could support another party. But I think it is now much more open than this. We are going for broke. I want to try to push this all the way.”

Until now, the Liberal Democrats have suggested they would accept the alternative vote (AV), with people listing candidates in order of preference, on which Labour has promised a referendum next year. But Mr Clegg is now demanding the “alternative vote plus” system, which unlike AV is proportional and was recommended by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead in 1998.

Mr Clegg said: “AV is a baby step in the right direction – only because nothing can be worse than the status quo. If we want to change British politics once and for all, we have got to have a quite simple system in which everyone’s votes count. We think AV-plus is a feasible way to proceed. At least it is proportional – and it retains a constituency link.

“The Labour Party assumes that changes to the electoral system are like crumbs for the Liberal Democrats from the Labour table. I am not going to settle for a miserable little compromise thrashed out by the Labour Party.”

What a squalid little liar he is.

British Values Day, One More Time

The people who grouped themselves together under the New Labour brand identity had many, many stupid ideas, one of which was the proposal for British Values Day (also, especially) which they served up from time to time.

But even New Labour’s stupidest ideas aren’t too stupid for the Coalition, which is now making plans to abolish the Virtual Stoa’s favourite bank holiday–May Day–and replace it with a BVD-themed UK Day, appropriately enough in October, when everyone’s beginning to feel cold and miserable.

H/t, Simon.

Andy Coulson, etc.

From the New York Times Magazine‘s long piece about News of the World phone hacking:

A draft of the paper’s unpublished article about [chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association Gordon] Taylor’s alleged affair indicated it was based on a voice mail message he had received from his assistant. Lewis [ = Taylor’s lawyer] said the message went: “Thank you for yesterday. You were great.” The paper assumed “she was talking about shagging,” Lewis explained. In reality, she was referring to a speech Taylor gave at her father’s funeral.

The A List: Where Are They Now?

Back when David Cameron’s “A-List” of preferred Tory candidates was published in 2006, I ran a series of posts on the ten of them who struck me being as most entertaining, in one way or another. Where are they now – and, specifically, will any of them be in the House of Commons after 6 May?

  1. Louise Bagshawe, the chick-lit author who once opined that President Bush’s tax cuts had “single-handedly pulled America out of the Clinton Recession”, is heading for victory in Corby.
  2. Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, ‘The Black Farmer’, who struck me as the most impressive of the A-Listees, seems to be heading for defeat in Chippenham to the Lib Dems’ Duncan Hames (whom I’m told is odious, though I don’t really know anything about him myself), but perhaps this one could still go either way.
  3. Julie Rook is the councillor from Deal who was in favour of a local kid getting fined £80 for being overheard by a police officer using the words “fuck all” in conversation with a friend. She’s fighting Wolverhampton North East, where she just isn’t going to win.
  4. Caroline Righton, the former TV-am presenter and author of The Life Audit, is in a close fight with the Lib Dems in St. Austell and Newquay, which she’ll probably lose if current levels of Lib Dem support hold up.
  5. Anti-abortion campaigner Philippa Stroud is trying to dislodge the Lib Dems in Olga Maitland’s former stamping ground of Sutton & Cheam; it’s not clear she’s going to succeed.
  6. Zac Goldsmith is trying to win Richmond Park from the Lib Dems, but I’m going to guess that he’s going to fail.
  7. Priti Patel, who worked for the Referendum Party for two years (‘an amazing experience’), is PPC for Witham, wherever that is, and ought to take the seat comfortably.
  8. Margot James may be the most prominent lesbian in today’s Conservative Party, and she’s fighting in Stourbridge, where she’ll beat Labour’s Lynda Waltho.
  9. God may have called Hannah Parker to ‘follow a path into Politics’, but the ways of the Lord are mysterious, and right now He appears to be consigning her to defeat at the hands of incumbent Ben Bradshaw in Exeter. Could be an upset, I suppose, but I doubt it.
  10. Amber Rudd, former professional ‘aristocracy coordinator’, seems to have a pretty good chance of knocking off Labour MP Michael Jabez Foster in Hastings & Rye.

So I’m guessing about half of this crowd will be returned. Not a bad hit-rate, but not quite as triumphant as it was all supposed to be once upon a time.

Retoxifying the Brand

That’s enough pointing-and-laughing at the British National Party for a while. Now for a bit of pointing and laughing at the Tories…

I’ve never had much time for Cameron and Clegg, with Cameron modelling himself on Blair, and Clegg on Cameron. But what the election campaign is bringing out is the extent to which Cameron was only ever offering the most fraudulent impersonation of Blair, and that it’s because of this that the Clegg-as-Cameron strategy is working out so very nicely for the Liberal Democrats.

The reason Blair was far more successful as a centrist politician than Cameron is managing to be is that he went out of his way to humiliate the Left of his party in public as a part of his move to the right. He chose to pick fights that he really didn’t have to fight, with the result that it made it all much easier for former Conservative voters to think that it was safe to vote Labour after all.

Cameron, by contrast, has made a lot of centrist noises, and he’s done various things that the Tory headbanger tendency doesn’t much like (stuff on the website about tackling homophobic bullying in schools, running more women candidates or candidates from ethnic minorities in winnable seats, banging on about the environment, usw), but he’s never seriously tried to stage a meaningful fight with the party’s Right, to lure them out into the open, and to slap them down in public. Bullying Norfolk South West into having Liz Truss as their PPC just doesn’t count, and when the Right tried to bully him, making it a condition of its support in the leadership campaign that he pledged to quit the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, he was happy to fall in line.  And one consequence of this kind of thing is that voters find it harder to take his centrist pretensions especially seriously.

And this is why Clegg is doing so well. Cameron’s strategy has been to try to bring centrist-minded, middle-class, non-lunatic voters into the Conservative orbit, and to fight the election as if this is the key demographic, but if you’re a C-M, M-C, N-L voter, and you want to vote for that kind of thing, there’s no good reason not to vote for the real thing (Clegg) rather than the dubious fraud (Cameron). Cameron’s only pretending to be Blair, and that’s what’s making it easy for Clegg to be what Cameron would like to be, but can’t, a politician operating entirely comfortably on the terrain of what we might call the centre-centre-right of British politics.

So we have the happy result that John Major won 31% in 1997, William Hague won 32% in 2001, Michael Howard won 33% in 2005, and David Cameron’s ‘decontaminated’ Tories are heading for, um, 34% in 2010. At this rate it’ll be another quarter century or so before they’re in spitting distance of a parliamentary majority. Happy days.