BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
The original "Red Tory"
, September 29, 2012
and the Property-Owning Democracy
by David Torrance
(London: Biteback Publishing)
Hardcover: 283 pages
Reviewed by John Ballantyne
“The property-owning democracy” was a term coined in 1923 by a Scottish Conservative politician, Noel Skelton, to describe his vision of a just social order.
His thinking had a major impact on a younger generation of up-and-coming British Conservative MPs at the time. After World War II, three of them — Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home — would each in turn serve as prime minister.
Today, however, Skelton himself is relatively little-remembered. He was first elected to the House of Commons in 1922. In 1935, still an MP, he died of cancer at the age of only 55. The highest ministerial post he held was parliamentary under-secretary for Scotland.
In 1923, the Spectator magazine commissioned Skelton to write a short series of opinion pieces in which he used the phrase “the property-owning democracy” for the first time.
For a self-identified conservative intellectual, he was surprisingly open to advocating radical policies. In his Spectator series (which is reproduced in the biography’s appendix), he argued that “the success and the stability of civilisation depend upon the widest possible extension amongst its citizens of the private ownership of property”.
To bring this state of affairs about he advocated four particular measures:
1) For the wage-earner, whether in factory or in field, industrial co-partnership and profit-sharing;
2) For the agriculturalist, who seeks to become completely his own master, small ownership;
3) For the rural world as a whole, agricultural co-operation; and
4) For the community, to secure it against sudden assault, the referendum.
True to his principles, Skelton in 1924 didn’t hesitate to support a housing bill then being piloted through the House of Commons by firebrand Red Clydesider John Wheatley. Skelton saw this legislation, which aimed to construct 190,000 new council houses at rents working-class people could afford, as entirely in keeping with his vision for promoting greater home ownership.
Skelton, during his public career, sought to persuade his Conservative Party colleagues to make a genuine effort to bridge the economic gulf between capital and labour. He wrote: “Since, to-day, practically all citizens have political rights, all should possess something of their own. Mocked and jeered at in the past as ‘the Party of Property’, it is precisely as such, now that the wheel has turned full circle, that Conservatism in the new era holds in its keeping the key to the problem.”
Torrance, in his scholarly and very readable biography of Skelton, tries to see the development of Skelton’s thought as part of the progressive “One Nation” tradition of Benjamin Disraeli, whose Conservative governments in Victorian Britain sought to improve the lot of the poor. Torrance is right to identify Skelton with this tradition, but only up to a point.
English political philosopher Phillip Blond, in his widely discussed book Red Tory (2010), more accurately traces the pedigree of Skelton’s thought to the “distributist” ideas developed before World War I by Catholic intellectuals Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton. Torrance does acknowledge Blond’s point, but only very briefly on the last couple of pages of his biography.
In fact, 11 years before Skelton coined the term “property-owning democracy”, Belloc published his famous political tract, The Servile State. In it he warned against an accelerating tendency he had observed in modern society for inequalities to increase and for wealth and ownership to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.
His friend and political ally, Chesterton, once observed that the problem of capitalism was not the presence of too many capitalists “but too few capitalists”.
The antidote to this, according to Belloc and Chesterton, was not, as the Fabian Society and much of the Labour Party believed, for government to nationalise the means of production and centrally plan the economy.
The solution was to adopt measures designed to promote the widest possible degree of ownership of private property and capital. The name Belloc and Chesterton gave their creed of widespread private ownership was distributism.
Distributism, although not as widely understood as the better-known political programs of socialism and the free market, has lingered on in one form or another over the past 100 years. Those influenced by distributist ideas have included:
• Noel Skelton and his intellectual followers in Britain’s Conservative Party;
• German economist Wilhelm Röpke, a key architect of the postwar West German Christian Democrats’ “social market economy”;
• Australia’s B.A. “Bob” Santamaria, the National Catholic Rural Movement (NCRM) and the Democratic Labor Party. (On its formation in 1955, the DLP adopted as its slogan, “Property for All”);
• America’s Dr Allan Carlson and his Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society; and
• England’s “Red Tory” Phillip Blond and his ResPublica think tank.
It is high time for modern-day conservative parties to look beyond the ideas espoused by free-market think-tanks and to discover how much the distributist tradition has to offer.
David Torrance has performed a valuable political service by producing this excellent biography of one of the finest distributists, Noel Skelton.
John Ballantyne is editor of News Weekly.