by David Torrance
“For most political biographers…the ideal subject is an, as yet, unwritten major figure,” observed the political historian D. R. Thorpe in 2007. “The problem, as for mountaineers, is that the number of virgin Himalayan peaks is rapidly diminishing. Often the only alternative is to explore a hitherto unknown, but lesser range.”
In my recent biography of Noel Skelton, I opted for one of the lesser ranges. This was both rewarding, for I stumbled across sights no one had seen for more than seventy years, but also frustrating, not least because convincing other people they were worth seeing proved difficult. Publishers, naturally enough, prefer books about virgin Himalayan peaks.
The discerning Iain Dale, however, freed his mind and said yes. The timing was also fortuitous. Three years ago, when I virtually completed the manuscript in the space of a few months, Skelton and his timeless ideas – particularly that of the “property-owning democracy” – seemed irrelevant and out of date. Thus my typescript languished.
By the beginning of this year, however, not only did the election of a progressive Conservative government look inevitable, but political debate centred upon the use of co-operative models in the public sector, referendums to decide issues of constitutional reform and the extension of property ownership, all issues first explored by Skelton in his ground-breaking 1924 pamphlet, “Constructive Conservative”.
Skelton was also remarkably fortuitous in other respects, almost anticipating the early weeks of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government. “Self-preservation is the fundamental rule of political life,” he wrote of the Liberals in 1931, “and it is in an effort to obtain the Alternative Vote that their energies are now concentrated. That is to be the prize which reconciles them to the huckstering and juggling of which they are at heart ashamed.”
Noel Skelton and the Property Owning Democracy by David Torrance is available to buy from Biteback, priced £25.00