David Torrance
Biteback author David Torrance writes in the The Times (Scottish edition)

The beleaguered Scottish Tory Party would do well to revisit the writings of a largely-forgotten Conservative thinker. “Until our educated and politically minded democracy has become predominantly a property-owning democracy,” declared Noel Skelton in 1923, “neither the national equilibrium nor the balance of the life of the individual will be restored.”

With that, Skelton contributed an enduring concept to the modern political lexicon. The Unionist MP for Perth in the 1920s and early 30s said “property-owning democracy” was the cornerstone of the most important component of the party’s “view of life”. Later, this was interpreted as home ownership, characterised by Margaret Thatcher’s promotion of council house sales, although Skelton intended much more. He wanted individuals to have a stake in every layer of society, in government and industry as well as individual property. It was an influential idea. A trio of prime ministers – Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home – all pay homage to Skelton in their memoirs, while David Cameron is familiar with the phraseology, if not the man himself.

Winning Perth for the first time in 1922, Skelton said the duty of Conservatives was clear. “They must not only be Unionists on polling day but every day, and all the day.” He realised that the party could not regard any system of government “as necessarily permanent”. If there was to be “some devolution, some alteration in the present system”, he said in the early 1930s, Scotland would “come to that new duty and that new responsibility not as a minor member, not as inferior to England; she will come to it with a full knowledge of parliamentary life, and she will come because she is ready”.

He was, therefore, a Nationalist and a Unionist, Scottish and British, a political balancing act his successors have lost sight of. “If Conservatives are not to fight with one hand tied behind their backs, the active principles of Conservatism must be felt anew, thought anew, promulgated anew,” he proclaimed.

Not a bad mission statement for the modern Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.

Skelton was the first to recognise the need to move beyond the party’s traditional association with privilege. The next Scottish Tory manifesto should emphasise what Skelton characterised as “fair play between all classes and the desire of each to farther the common weal”. His progressive Conservatism can, with a little refreshment, work again.

David Torrance’s biography, Noel Skelton and the Property-Owning Democracy, is available here, priced £25.00