Constructive Conservatism by Noel Skelton

Archibald Noel Skelton, 1924

I. The Opportunity

27 April 1923, Page 6

THE fate of Conservatism and Unionism hangs in the balance. It must lead or perish. The issue is quite plain: is the body of political principle inherent in the words Conservatism and Unionism to be the main creative and moulding influence in the new era we are entering today? A moulding and creative force in politics there must he. Free nations do not live by caretakers and policemen alone ; and if the Conservative Party were to confine itself to a caretaker’s job and make per viltate it gran riftuto when faced with the architect’s, it would itself be the bar to its principles—principles which are the point of attraction for all those better and braver elements of the nation that instinctively abhor the political mentality and morality of the Socialist. If so, it will have no second chance in our generation; but in its place will arise a hybrid organization of opinion, with compromise at the root of its thought, and for that season presenting, in place of the massive and impressive simplicity of a homogeneous structure, the blurred and meaningless outlines of a composite photograph. Such a hybrid organization will neither have the will nor the power to apply the principles nor expound the =faith which, despite much neglect and some misuse, still animate the Conservatism of the people.

Every practical man knows, of course, that between the pure political principle which lies at the core of any living Party and the expression of it in legislation or otherwise by a Government there must be some loss of quality. The wine cannot be poured from’ the golden to the silver cup without parting with some of its fragrance. That is one of the inevitable features of the translation of thought into action, and only .a pedant would deny that if compromise has any legitimate place in men’s affairs it is there. But the compromise of thought, the hybridization of underlying principles, is in quite another category. It produces sterility of action; it turns the organic into the mechanical.

Failure of the Conservative Party to realize and express the vital elements in its ‘faith would produce a wave of disillusionment and disgust sufficient to overwhelm utterly the ship and its precious cargo. It does not help at all to recall how often, in the past, the Conservative Party has failed, when in power, to realize and express its principles, has mumbled instead of speaking out, has drawn back instead of moving on, and how, -despite it all, confidence in the essential truth of these principles remains one of the deepest-rooted political instincts of Britain. But let there-beano such failure this time; for one of these opportunities has arisen, for which a Party has often to wait for a generation, – when the whole set and habit of its principles seem to “jump” with the .dangers and the special requirements of the time. Today Conservatism, rightly understood and wisely applied, can bring something like a. real solution of our problems. It is, most certainly, more fitted to express the hopes and aims of the British people than any other set of political principles. It is only when we try to analyse the opportunity, the situation and the problem that we can realize how deep would be the ignominy and how poignant the irony of a Conservative failure. What then is the opportunity, the situation, the problem? The opportunity is this: Conservatism is in control of the national destiny at the very beginning of a new political era. For a new era it is; one of these times when old values have lost their meaning, old prejudices their force, old axioms their sanctity; when opinion, ideas, the minds of men are plastic. Nor is that all. Conservatism is a control by the people’s choice—a highly significant fact. All beginnings are moments of instinct, and the election of November, 1922 (that national miracle which turned the water of the Carlton Club meeting into wine), was, in essence, an instinctive gesture on the part of the nation, an intuitive, subconscious recognition and reaffirmation of its trust and confidence in Conservatism.

On the writer recently expressing this view to a political friend he was met with the reply: ” But the Coalitionists thought in November, 1918, that they were the accepted heirs of the new era.” No doubt they did so think; but only because they never understood the character of their own election. They hoped it was a prologue: it was really an epilogue. The Coalition was, in fact, a War product. It could never rid itself of the smell of blood and antiseptics. It had a hospital outlook, and, regarding the nation as its patient, characteristically spent its last breath in urging it to remain ” under treatment.” But, with the callous ingratitude of. the convalescent:— ” The boy his nurse forgot  And bore a mortal lot,” preferring to shut the hospital doors behind him and to look the new era in the face. And the election bore the characteristic marks of a new era. The curiously simple outlook, the absence of elaborate views, the obsoleteness of old methods of controversy, the reliance on first instincts were all visible there, as they are in any form of intellectual or emotional renaissance. But the Conservative opportunity does not consist merely in being the party in power at the opening of this new era. It has, in a very special- sense, a fair field.

On only one great branch of political thought and action has the country, from time to time, felt doubtful of the wisdom of the Conservative attitude. No franchise question can now arise to bring with it the risk that the country may suspect Conservatism of being the foe of popular political rights. A real danger is thus eliminated, and what has proved, again- and again, the easiest avenue of attack upon- Conservatism is- closed. It is a remarkable paradox, of course, that the party which is instinctively trusted and understood by the people should at times, it would seem, have feared the people and therefore misunderstood them. And naturally enough, – conversely, the period when the people’s instinctive confidence became a deeply-reasoned and strongly-felt support was really ushered in by the Conservative Reform Act of 1867, that great act of faith in the people of this country to which the Conservative Party was led by Disraeli. It is perhaps not irrelevant to recall that the At of 1918, which has produced a similar freedom from purely franchise questions, was passed with the support of the Conservative and Unionist Party led by a Cabinet predominantly Unionist.

So much, then, for the opportunity. It is unique: that Conservatism should have been thus preserved and approved by the people at the opening of a new era, that it should have been given the opportunity of drawing the plans and laying the foundations, that at such a moment the Conservative Party can speak as one having authority, and have a fair field for the exposition and application of its principles should surely, if anything can, fire the imagination and mobilize the best qualities of any political organism. Has the Conservative Party the imagination, the will, the courage to seize the opportunity and do an architect’s work?

II. New Era

4 May 1923, Page 5

AND now what, in barest outline, are the main, the special features of the new era, in which Conservatism must play a constructive part or perish? There are two on which attention must be concentrated, because in importance, in their reach and power, they stand in a class by themselves. First, Britain is now, electorally, a complete democracy. A new and tremendous element in the situation, particularly because the acquisition of political rights by women has flung into the seething pot of our political life a fresh and distinctive ingredient, has brought into the general pool, and given opportunity for their expression, a mental and moral outlook, “a temperament and ‘a tradition, which are different (though to what extent and even in what respects might be matter of controversy) from those of the previous exclusively male electorate. However that may be, Conservatism, now and for the future, is face to face with democracy. Democratic electoral rights are, in a word, no longer a plank in political programmes, they are the medium in which the statesman- ship of the future must work. This feature of the new era at last opens the way to the full operation of Conservative principles and, incidentally, makes it un- necessary even to mention Liberalism as a school of thought: for Liberalism, which had in the past so much to say about political freedom, has nothing to do in our era, when complete political freedom has been attained.

Secondly, the new era is one not merely of democracy, but of an educated democracy. Education is so gradual a process that its growth is easily overlooked. Yet, as in all continuous processes of growth, there are decisive moments when change is apparent. Last week the cherry was in bud, to-day it is “hung with snow.”

Such a decisive moment was the War. In a flash, the distance which Britain had gone along the road of education was revealed. The technical ability, the rapidity in acquiring new kinds of knowledge and in mastering new duties, the self-reliance, the self-respect, the power to accept responsibility, the spontaneous facing of sacrifice, the large grasp of the issues at stake, the firmness and fineness of temper, the general spaciousness of character and outlook displayed by the men and women of Britain meant, and could only mean, that the influences of education had penetrated deeply and strongly into their minds and character. The present writer, who on four fronts saw men under the most varying conditions of danger and of dullness, has never wavered in his conviction that it was largely to the extent to which the mass of the people had absorbed the benefits of some thirty years of strenuous education that we owed our achievements in the War.

And the more the temper and psychology of our people are seen and studied the more apparent becomes the fact that ours is an educated democracy. A habit of mind, alert, sensitive, receptive, has replaced one traditionally prone to be sluggish and prejudiced. And if alertness has brought with it a wholesome inquisitiveness into the validity of traditional points of view, sensitiveness has produced a rapid appreciation of principle, and receptiveness, particularly marked in all the qualities which may be grouped under the phrase “the social conscience,” has given a remarkable power of appreciating what lawyers call “the merits” of a question.

The change is so profound that only by a severe mental effort can the new situation it has produced be envisaged. Is the Conservative Party making that mental effort, and the even greater one necessary to think out all the reactions which must follow in the political life of the people? If it is not, how can it meet the instinctive trust of the people with a view of politics fitted for the new era?

Meantime, upon this educated democracy—alert, sensitive, receptive, plastic—another Party in the State plays unceasingly, feeding the newly-aroused intellectual appetites, the highly-responsive social conscience, with wide and glowing general principles—comprehensive, challenging, alluring. It is to no purpose to reply that Socialism finds its strength in appeals to cupidity, envy and hatred. That may be true also: but it is the least part of the truth, and to emphasize it—much more, to treat it as fundamental—is entirely to misread the true appeal of Socialism. For the real strength of Socialism lies in the fact that it is making an intellectual appeal at the very moment when the craving for mental nourishment is so universal. It is presenting .a “view of life” to the nation in a method admirably suited to the mood and atmosphere of the new era. The Socialist finds a welcome because he comes disguised as an educator and teacher.

And just because it is presenting a comprehensive view of life Socialism has very greatly extended the boundaries of politics. It is, of course, easy for Socialism to draw into the traditional territory of politics the whole structure of national life, for politics in its accepted meaning deals with the actions of the State and, in the Socialist ideal, the action of the State is co-extensive with the life of the nation. This widening of the territory of politics is, indeed, a reaction of the new situation, which even in the most general survey cannot be passed by – unnoticed.

The battles between Whig and Tory, Unionist and Liberal, were, like those of an earlier stage of armed warfare, fought on a narrow front and by small armies of professionals, whose passage through the life of the nation affected it hardly more than a charabanc disturbs the countryside to-day–some vapour and much noise, a rut left in the highway, a film of dust on the hedgerow.

But Socialism fights on the broadest of fronts, and this breadth of front must dominate the strategy and tactics of the new era; for envelopment and the crushing defeat which successful envelopment achieves form the danger against which Conservatism must guard in the great battles ahead.

A view of life, a statement of fundamental principles, can only be met by the presentation of a truer view and of principles more fundamental. 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. The whole intellectual content of Conservatism, its moral and economic foundations, its practical applications, must, whatever “the mental strife” involved, be made plain to educated democracy. Conservatism must expound its “view of life.”

Clearly this implies an extension of the functions of the Conservative politician, a new meaning, so far as he is concerned, of the word “politics.” Conservatism believes in a restricted field for the action of the State and most emphatically the view of life, the ideal of advance, it must present to the nation cannot be exhaustively embodied m Acts of Parliament. In the new era we must step outside the old limits and depart from the view that politics mean only public affairs and that public affairs mean only public business. No doubt this makes politics more difficult, for it is easier to explain the provisions of a Bill than to present a ” view of life.”

But the older, narrower view is a caretaker’s only: it confuses the function of the politician with that of the policeman. Historically, it is the survival into the era of educated democracy of methods which were success- fully practised in the period of the triumphant bourgeoisie. But in the new era it will not serve: for it is to abandon the intellectual and moral leadership of the community: it is to withdraw from the duty of moulding and shaping public opinion. It may look like ruling: it is really abdicating.

One further word must be added. The prosperous, peach-fed classes do not readily understand the importance which the mass. of the people attach to political life. To the former, politics is not a medium of education, of general culture. That side of life they have an infinite number of other means of enjoying—fastidious living, beautiful homes, the enjoyment of literature, art, travel, the closeness and variety of their points of contact with human culture and civilization. Because their general interests are wider, the intellectual area they allot to politics is correspondingly narrower. And for .those who are the heirs of “the governing classes” of the past, politics naturally means, above all, administration.

To the mass of the people the opposite is the case. Polities is their main point of contact with general ideas; the paramount expression of the life of the community: the chief, if not the only means of satisfying their goat des grandes choses. But. their attitude towards politics it is which makes true the definition of man as “a political animal”; for the mass of the people feel the reality, the life, the organic, as opposed to the mechanical, quality of politics. To them political deliberation is a high function, as the gravity and sincerity of a “popular audience” testify. If the British people do not now take their pleasures sadly, they certainly take their politics seriously.

Such, then, is the situation. A people at the dawn of a new era, equipped with -full political power, educated, and still more, highly sensitive to educative influences, presented by a powerful and devoted Socialist Party with a view of politics which is really a comprehensive “view of life,” and yet instinctively trusting to their natural Conservative instincts : a Conservative Government, obviously charged, so far as the immediate day’s work is concerned, with a caretaker’s task : and yet, as obviously, from the wider point of view charged with the duty of expounding the Conservative “view of life” since in it lies embedded the true solution of the fundamental problem the new era presents.

III. Problem and Principle

11 May 1923, Page 5

AND the fundamental problem of this new era— what of it? Beneath the tangle of immediate anxieties—unemployment, the housing of the people, the agricultural emergency, the financial burdens of the State=is it possible to detect a master-problem which, while • it remains unsolved, exercises a profound ‘and malign influence upon the mental outlook and the material condition of the people? If the analysis of the new era which has been attempted is in any degree correct, such a master-problem is not far to seek. For the mass of the people—those who mainly live by the wages of industry—political status and educational status have outstripped economic status. The structure has become lopsided. It is therefore unstable. Until our educated and politically minded democracy has become predominantly a property-owning democracy, neither the national equilibrium nor the balance of the life of the individual will be restored.

To restore that balance is the master-problem of the new era. The wage-earner has for long been attempting to solve the problem for himself. In the Co-operative movement, the friendly societies, the savings banks, and on their benefits side the trade unions, he has made a most determined effort to build up for himself either by way of income to meet illness, unemployment, old age, or by way of capital, something of his own behind him, and the large amounts of wealth held by those organizations show how strong and persistent the impulse has been. These organizations are, indeed, the outstanding economic and social achievement of the wage-earner ; they have at once exhibited, developed and tested his business capacity and his social sense, and in the steady devotion, hard work and unostentatious self-sacrifice shown in their management they have made a splendid contribution to the public life of the community. But the most remarkable proof of the wage-earner’s determination to become a property owner is to be found in the success of the War Savings Certificates scheme. Despite the fact that unemployment insurance, health insurance, and old-age pensions were in either partial or full operation when it was introduced, the steady flow of his savings, in good times and bad, into War Savings Certificates shows how fully the wage-earner appreciates the security and economic freedom which the possession of private property gives.

Yet the effort, large and fruitful as it has been, has not in itself solved the problem. And it is not difficult to see why. In the first place, it has been made by the wage-earners as a separate, isolated class. Its national importance has been overlooked. The Liberal, concentrating his attention on political rights, has passed it by. The Conservative, though he has aided it, has certainly not considered it in its full bearing upon the social structure ; while the Socialist has seized the opportunity thus given him to pervert the impulse behind it into an element in the view of life which he presents ; he declares, that is, that ownership by the State is ownership by the people, implying that that means a property-owning democracy. In fact, of course, it does not. What everybody owns, nobody owns; and far from expressing the wage-earner’s ideal, Socialism makes it unattainable, while communal ownership, when obtained, neither interests nor influences a single human being. We have yet to hear of the man who, in the Great War, rushed to arms to preserve his share in the London County Council Tramways or in Battersea Park.

And the effort has been isolated in another sense. It has had no direct relation with the wage-earner’s life as a worker. It has had nothing to do with his work. His thrift effort and his work have, moreover, not only been carried on independently, but in two opposite moods. His mood is ” Capitalist ” when he saves; it is “Labour” while he works. And the mental confusion resulting from that opposition of moods has had startling results, of which the most amazing example is the large application of the funds of the Co-operative Societies to assist and support the Socialist movement. But most vital of all, these intense and prolonged efforts have not altered the industrial status of the wage-earner. Whatever his savings may be in the Co-operative Society, or in War Savings Certificates, the wage-earner, as industrialist, has only the economic status of a machine ; for his wages, as such, are, and can only be, part of the costs of production, occupying the same position as the expenses of running the machines of the factory or workshop in which he is employed. Small wonder, then, if the wage-earner’s isolated and barely-recognized effort to become a property owner has left, at the beginning of the new era, his own life and the whole social structure lopsided and unstable. But it is these very efforts which are largely responsible for the instinctive sympathy between the mass of the people and Conservatism. Can it be doubted that the mass of the people feel that the only school of political thought which understands and is capable of solving the problem is the Conservative, and that it is for this very purpose (intuitively felt, indeed, rather than logically reasoned out) that the country has preserved and approved Conservatism to-day ?

For what are the principles of Conservatism, these leading ideas and ideals which are the essence of its view of life?

The first of these is the stability of the social structure. A stable condition of society is the main pre-occupation of Conservatism. This is the real clue to its whole political philosophy. If change has been resisted, it has been because the Conservative has feared that it would produce confusion and instability. When it has been clear that only by change can stability be re-established, no party has been more fearless in making the most drastic changes. And similarly, the situations which have given to Conservatism its moments of torturing anxiety have been those when ” marginal cases ” have arisen in which the problem has been whether stability is best secured by the existing conditions or by the proposed change. And this insistence upon stability is no fad or catchword, for, as the generations come and go, the opportunity offered for full enjoyment and full development to each individual during his little span of consciousness depends upon the society and community which surrounds -and contains him being stable: at peace with itself, not at war.

But stability is not stagnation. Stability is as much the condition of steady progress for a society as it is for a ship. Stagnation, since life is movement, means necessarily that atrophy is at work; that tissues are dying which should be living; that dead matter is accumulating which must, by more or less violent means, be cast out. To confuse stability with stagnation is, however, from the nature of things, a special danger for Conservatism, for it is the natural defect of its virtue. And just because Conservatism is the real guardian of stability in the community—the school of thought which alone gives stable conditions their just valuation—it has a special duty constantly to search out the means by which stability threatened can be saved, stability lost can be recovered.

The second fundamental Conservative principle is that the character of the individual citizen being the greatest asset of the State, the primary object and best test of .all legislation which deals with the individual is its influence upon his character. Everything that weakens individual character and lessens individual effort and initiative is anathema to the Conservative. Everything that strengthens and increases these is very near to his heart. The consequences flowing from this principle need no elaboration here. Enough to say that the main and most essential one is the insistence by Conservatism on the necessity of limiting the action of the State to “helping the individual to help himself.” These two leading ideas, however, are what give to ‘the permanent relations existing between the British people and Conservatism their specially intimate quality; for the stability of the State and the value of character are not only the fundamental beliefs of Conservatism: they are the fundamental beliefs of the rave. And these fundamental principles of Conservatism, which form the basis of its whole view of life, lead inevitably to the development of the political, the educated democracy into a property-owning democracy.

The beneficent effect upon human character both of the effort to acquire private property and of the opportunity, after it has been acquired, for its wise or foolish use, can hardly be over-estimated. For what is the effect of property, its proverbial ” magic”? In the getting, the exercise of thrift, of control, of all the qualities which “the rolling-stone” knows nothing of; in its use, an increased- sense of responsibility, a wider economic outlook, a practical medium for the expression of moral and intellectual qualities. It is for Conservatism to see to it that this pathway to the development of character is opened wide to the people; and to expound to the nation—what no one else apparently dares or cares to—the vital inter-relation between character and private possessions. Equally clear, equally fundamental, is the relation between the possession of private property by the people and the stability of the State. This, too, has been left for the Conservative to expound. So deeply, indeed, has Conservatism felt the importance of this relation that in the past it was wont to maintain that only those who possessed private property should exercise political functions. That doctrine has now this new and pregnant application—that since, to-day, practically all citizens have political rights, all should possess some- thing 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.

To make democracy stable and four-square ; to give the wage-earner property and status ; to bridge the gulf set between Labour and Capital; to present a view of life in which private property, instead of being reckoned, as the Socialist reckons it, a shameful thing, shall be recognized to be an essential vehicle for the moral and economic progress of the individual ; these are the tasks to which the opportunity, the problem, and their own principles alike call Conservatism to perform in the new era. It remains, in these notes, only to indicate and suggest the lines along which this work for the nation may be done.

IV. Democracy Stabilized

18 May 1923, Page 5

IN the three preceding articles an attempt has been made to sketch the main features of the new era and to indicate the opportunity which opens to a constructive Conservatism to solve the problem it presents. It remains to state as clearly as may be what means lie ready to develop a property-owning democracy, to bring the industrial and economic status of the wage-earner abreast of his political and educational, to make democracy stable and four-square.

These (to mention only subjects of the widest importance) are, it is submitted, four: — (1) for the wage- earner, whether in factory or in field, industrial co-partnery, or its halfway house, profit-sharing ; (2) for the agriculturist, who seeks to become completely his own master, small ownership; (3) for the rural world, as a whole, agricultural co-operation; (4) for the community, to secure it against sudden assault, the Referendum.

One common principle underlies these proposals, making them a practical and accurate expression of the Conservative “view of life,” for each, in its own way and in its own sphere, at once develops the character of the individual and the stability of the social structure. It may be objected that of these neither co-partnery and profit-sharing nor agricultural co-operation can success- fully be brought into operation by Act of Parliament, but must grow as the nation’s understanding of them grows. So be it—all the more natural and essential it is that Conservatism should make these great topics its own: for they offer a means of economic, social and national progress which the State cannot dole out with a spoon. And if Conservatism fails to show the nation an alternative line of advance, it would have to bear the blame should the people come to the conclusion that the only way forward lay along the Socialist path, however desperate and perilous that might be.

(1) First, then, as to industrial co-partnery. It rests on a firm basis of principle. Capital and Labour by it are to the full recognized as partners in the work of the production of wealth, for each shares in the true profits of that production, arrived at after each, the one by way of a fair rate of interest, the other by way of a fair wage, have been paid the price for its services in the common work. And further, the wage-earner’s proportion of the profits is paid to him partly in cash, partly invested for him in the concern, while, as the workers become capitalists, ” seats on the Board,” either for the domestic internal government of the concern, or for its general direction, very naturally follow.

Thus status and property-owning grow together; the wage-earner, as industrialist, from a machine becomes a man. Nor is this all. To the wage-earner, co-partnery brings a new incentive and a new kind of interest in his work, arising out of his new relation to it ; a union of his thrift effort and his work effort; a wider industrial out- look, since, as his savings in the business increase, so does his interest in its general prosperity, for that prosperity affects him directly as a shareholder.

To the community it brings all the results that flow from a real identification of interest between Capital and Labour—reduction of the number of strikes, with their waste of the national wealth and dislocation of the national life ; the elimination of such crazy doctrines as that of ” ca’ canny” ; improvement in the standard of both management and work, since the wage-earner will not readily submit to his own good work being neutralized by the slackness of his neighbour or the incompetence of his manager.

Yet there are objections, it is said. ” Some industries. are not suited to the system.” Possibly not. But has there yet been any determined effort to work out in practice the modifications necessary to make it suit the special circumstances of particular trades? The over- coming of practical difficulties is a matter for resource and will-power, once the value of the underlying principle is realized. Conservatism in the new era must refute Anatole France’s mocking remark that moderate men are those who have only a moderate belief in moderate opinions.

And again, “The Trade Unions are against it”. Perhaps their Socialist leaders are, but battle has to be joined with them in any ease. That the great mass of the wage-earners is hostile can hardly be maintained, since the fact is that no political party has yet seriously addressed itself to the exposition of co-partnery in all its bearings. In any case, co-partnery is the ideal ground on which to fight Socialism, for it emphasizes the distinction, fundamental but neglected, between a property-owning democracy and the Socialist ideal, and if the Trade Union leaders hide from their followers the more excellent way, so much the worse, when the truth is discovered, for them and for their leadership.

(2) Of small ownership in land, only a word can be said. In principle, generally recognized to be a most powerful factor in the stability of the State and in the development of a democracy of character and intelligence, the policy of small holdings has greatly suffered in Great Britain from the methods which have been adopted. Extravagant expenditure on equipment and administration by Government departments or County Councils has been combined with demands for payments from the holder based upon the principle of making him pay rent for the land and in addition interest on the full cost of erecting the buildings. No private landowner gets an annual return if he lets his land, or a purchase price if he sells it, calculated in this way. The result has been that our State-constituted holdings have imposed on their cultivators burdens which no other agriculturists. in Britain have to bear. The re-settlement of the land of England, the development of intensive cultivation, the reconstitution of the rural community are matters so vital that every effort to devise sounder methods than those presently in operation must be made by Conservatism. And this is pre-eminently a problem which Conservative knowledge and resource can solve. Let it not be forgotten that the Wyndham Land Act was the last and greatest constructive work which Unionism did for Ireland.

(3) And agricultural co-operation. The foundation of modern agriculture throughout the world, the way to prosperity for the small cultivator and large farmer alike, it is inextricably bound up with the Conservative view of life, because it is essentially the means whereby in the cultivation of the soil the individual can be helped to help himself. On this there can safely be neither silence nor indifference. All that the State can do, all that the politician can say, should be said and done to spread a knowledge and assist the development of agricultural co-operation if in the new era Conservatism is prepared to give of its best to the nation.

Of more limited and special expressions of Conservative principle one alone can be mentioned here. The present method of assessing the income of the old-age pensioner, which penalizes the thrift he exercised in the days of his working-life, is the antithesis of Conservatism, and, while it endures, gives excuse for the adoption of the Socialist view that every citizen of pensionable age, whatever his private fortune may be, should have squandered on him the resources of the nation.

(4) But to pass to the Referendum — crown and apex of a constructive Conservatism in the new era. Accepted by Conservatives in the. Constitutional crisis of 1910-1911, its value and necessity is infinitely more obvious now. It was called for then to save the House of Lords, it is needed now to protect democracy. For if democracy, faced in the new era by Socialism as its scarcely-disguised enemy is, from a Constitutional point of view, to be made stable and safe, if its property and liberty is to be preserved, the people, in the last resort, must directly and for themselves decide their own fate. And for this duty they are ripe. Meantime, it needs only a blunder or two on the part of a Cabinet, a General Election dominated by passion or prejudice, and the flank of the Constitution is turned. The t9S1r of Conservatism in the new era would be only half done if the British democracy were to be denied a means of protection the value of which, even within the last few months, has been amply proved elsewhere.

And, in conclusion, whatever means be taken to stabilize democracy, this much is clear—that the Conservative Party cannot leave it a matter of guesswork what its outlook is “Democracy,” Lord Balfour once said, ” is government by explanation.” The mass of the people are profoundly perplexed by the paradox that Conservatism, in which they have so deep an instinctive belief, is apparently content to leave its view of life unexplained, its principles unstated, while Socialism, which they distrust exceedingly, is fearless and untiring in setting out its aims and ideals. For the moment instinct has won: but what will that avail unless Conservatism breaks its silence and makes clear to the nation that it, too, has a vision of the future—of a property-owning democracy, master of its own life, made four-square and secure and able therefore to withstand the shrill and angry gales which, in the new era’s uneasy dawn, sweep across the world of men?

Private Property: A Unionist Ideal

By Noel Skelton

2 May 1924, Page 6

In past issues of the Spectator, Mr. Strachey has expressed fears, obviously deep and sincere, as to the future of Unionism. It may be doubted whether his views are justified by the situation. They certainly do not express the mood or- the reasonable hopes of the rank and file of the party. Among these, indeed, there is a striking increase of interest and energy in the constituencies. It would be difficult to recall a defeat which has produced less depression. And it is not irrelevant to mention this, for the spirit of a party is an essential factor in its prospects.

Mr. Strachey’s argument — especially in his leading article, “The Unionist Party,” published on February 16th  — proceeds upon the line that, whereas a general Tariff has been “dropped,” the continuance of Mr. Baldwin as leader and the return of Mr. Austen Chamberlain and Lord Birkenhead — Protectionists both — to the counsels of the party will make the electorate feel that “Protection” is still the leading object of Unionism; that therefore “the left-centre voter,” whose defection is assumed to have caused his defeat of last December, will remain hostile, and that, in consequence, Socialism, will triumph at the next General Election. But it is safe to say that the next election will find the country in a very different mood than the last did. The actual formation of a Labour Government will make, indeed is making, if it has not already made, a strong revulsion of feeling in the left-centre voter—and in many other voters, too. The subsidy to agriculture—that brilliant improvization of the National Farmers’ Union—has received its quietus, and the underlying hostility to the’ farmer of the county towns has satisfied itself by success But was it the left-centre voter who voted against’- a Tariff, and will the restricted’ policy now adopted induce him to vote Socialist or crypto-Socialist? The section of the community who apparently: most feared a Tariff was one – whose general loyalty to Conservatism in England ‘is of king standing and in Scotland is constantly increasing. The small rentier, the shopkeeper, the merchant (and their wives) are natural Conservatives; but they were swept off their feet by fear of increased prices. Their scant appreciation of the national danger and ‘ personal distress and demoralization caused by widespread unemployment was the most tragic feature of the election. They fear now, however, something else, which they fear much more intensely and much more legitimately and they are determined to have nothing to do with Socialism or with any party which, for any reason, traffics with Socialist politicians. In fact, they have already returned to their allegiance, bringing with them many of their kind who up till now had remained Liberals. And, moreover, they have returned in a mood such as to make the Unionist path much more easy for the future. For these voters, far from being “left-centre,” are perhaps the most inclined to be stationary, if not reactionary, in their political outlook, and their new mood will enable Unionism to advance with more boldness than seemed possible to many when a stagnant, rigid Liberalism stood ready as a harbor of refuge to the backsliders. For middle-class Liberalism, of all ‘political creeds, has been the narrowest and least enlightened. But this port is closed to them: for they feel now that Liberalism is no protection against Socialism — a lesson which Mr. Lloyd George’s pre-War Socialism and-water might have already taught. No one would deny that amongst Conservatives there tends to be a section which dislikes change for its own sake—as well as a large non-party body of similar opinion.

But that body of opinion is alive now to the impracticability and folly of standing still, and when it moves — as move it is now prepared to—it will prefer to move with progressive Conservatism towards a property- owning democracy rather than towards the Sturm und Drang of Socialism of the maneuvers of a suspect Liberalism. And it is not the safeguarding of industries, or perhaps even a “general” Tariff, which will alter their new determination.

The real danger to Unionist prospects comes not from fear of Protection, but from the doubt lest the party should not be in earnest about social reforms: But that ‘ danger has been greatly reduced by the return of such statesmen as, for example, Sir Robert Home, to full participation in Unionist counsels.

Not, indeed, that it is a case of one or two individuals. The future depends upon Unionism as a whole being able to show a line of advance to the great body of wage-earners. Britain, unlike France; passed from political aristocracy to political democracy without the “disaster of revolution”. Can we make a similar advance in the economic sphere? It depends entirely upon Conservatism.

For in its principles, Conservatism holds the key of the situation. – It was not for nothing that the Conservative Party used to be called the “Party of Property.”

Private property is, so far as history gives us a clue, the foundation and sine qua non of all progressive civilizations. It follows that the extent -of the distribution of private property is the measure, on its economic side, of a civilization’s stability and success. Similarly, character and a sense of responsibility are rooted in a man’s possession of “something of his own”. A democracy without scope for the development of economic character and responsibility, cut off from private ownership, cannot be expected to understand the material ‘foundations of civilization. Moreover, it cannot stand. ‘Unless, then, by such means as profit-sharing – and industrial co-partnery and the wider distribution of the small ownership of land the Unionist Party can make property-owners of the present wage-earning classes, no hope can be given to the mass of the people that their economic status can be brought abreast of their political and their educational status. It will perhaps be a slow process; but great parties must take a long view, and if an objective is sufficiently important must not fear the toils of the march.

A property-owning democracy is, at any rate, a truly Conservative objective, and the Conservative Party will never fight for any policy out of harmony with its foundation principles. And such an objective once settled, and approved, the fears expressed by Mr. Strachey that any taint of Protection will sterilize Unionism lose, in the opinion of the present writer at least, much of their force. For it has told against Tariff Reform that it has seemed to many voters to be the sole constructive suggestion which Unionists had to make, and has, perhaps in consequence, acquired almost the character of a substitute for, instead of a part of, a general policy of improving the status of the wage- earner. Certainly many opponents have made haste to point out to the working classes that in the existing industrial system the lion’s share of any advantage would, in their opinion, fall to Capital rather than Labour.

But let the Unionist Party once make it clear that the elevation of the status of the wage-earner to that of a property-owner lies at the root of its social policy and a Tariff, whether general or by way of safeguarding threatened industries, will fall automatically into its place as one of the means—perhaps an essential condition precedent —to that end. “The State helps the citizen to help himself ” is the Unionists’ answer to ” The Socialist State must put the citizen in leading strings.” “Extend the distribution of private property and of the industrial wealth to be produced in the future ” is equally his reply to the Socialist order, ” Sap, weaken, tax, nationalize private property.” It is with the Conservative reply that the character and hopes of the British wage-earner are in consonance.

The hour indeed is struck for the advance of a democratic constructive progressive Conservatism. 1922 preserved Conservatism, 1928 opened its eyes, 1924 will give it at once the desire and the opportunity to do its much-needed work.


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