David Melding AM writes for WalesHome.org

The Original Red Tory

MANY OF you will think that YMCA exclusively stands for the Young Men’s Christian Association and perhaps recall the Village People’s slightly outrageous hit. Long before the song, in the 1920s in fact, the acronym was used derisively to describe youthful liberal leaning Conservative MPs. Many so labelled – Harold MacMillan, Robert Boothby, Duff Cooper – became well known names; but that of their mentor did not.

Phillip Blond, author of the influential book Red Tory, has called Noel Skelton the “original Red Tory and one of the most important MPs and thinkers of his era”. I confess that Noel Skelton was unknown to me but this important political life has been resurrected by David Torrance in his latest book Noel Skelton and the Property-Owning Democracy (Biteback, £25). Torrance is the gifted young author of a series of books that have shed striking light on the Scottish Tory tradition.

Noel Skelton was the Scottish Tory MP who coined the phrase ‘property owning democracy’ in the inter-war years. Skelton believed that the challenge of socialism had to be met by an ambitious programme of Constructive Conservatism (the title of his most influential work) that offered people extensive co-partnership in industry, land reform, and a more direct democracy via the use of referendums. Skelton urged the Conservative Party to take advantage of the new opportunities opening up in the 1920s, surely the most fluid decade in British politics. When his near contemporaries, Anthony Eden, Harold MacMillan, and Alec Douglas Home secured the premiership, they adopted Skelton’s influential phrase but focussed narrowly on its implications for home ownership. Skelton himself had a far wider vision which might be best summarised as Conservative co-operatism. <!--more-->

Torrance has rescued a significant Tory thinker from the slow backwaters of history. The pace and dynamism of inter-war politics is adroitly drawn out and it invites comparisons with the post devolution challenges facing the Conservative Party today. The Tories, as Skelton saw, had to be a national party or be nothing. For Skelton, this meant developing a social and economic programme that could meet the challenge of socialism. In the 1920s, as now, the Conservative Party had a core vote that was larger than any other party but one that was smaller than the combined forces of radicalism. He realised that the Labour Party had a greater potential to attract uncommitted opinion because Tories were so aloof on social and economic issues.

The 1920s certainly echoes loudly in contemporary politics. To detoxify the brand, Conservatives in Scotland – led by Alec Dunglass (the future Alec Douglas Home) and supported by Skelton – considered dropping the very name ‘Conservative’. Meanwhile, the increasingly enfeebled Liberal Party was demanding a move to the Alternative Vote. Torrance brings these debates back to vivid life and his analysis of the Conservative Party’s then new obsession with the use of referendums as a means to counter the siren calls of socialism, is quite apposite.

Serendipity plays a huge part in political success. Worthy candidates are often frustrated and never win the lottery of selection, and those that secure election are constantly at the mercy of events, illness and premature death (whether literal or metaphorical). Skelton died relatively young at the age of 55. He can be compared to his friend Oliver Stanley in this respect. Both might have contended for the highest offices had Fortuna been kinder.

Torrance has given Skelton the posthumous recognition he deserves. As a reddish Conservative myself – perhaps seven parts High Tory, three parts Lloyd George Liberal – I greatly enjoyed this book. It is a timely reminder that unless the Conservative Party forges social and economic policies fit for the whole British nation, failure will be its inevitable reward.

Noel Skelton and the Property-Owning Democracy is available to buy from the Biteback website, priced £25.00