Who invented the British dream of a ‘property-owning democracy’?

Younger Britons can often no longer afford to buy their own home. The model of the ‘property-owning democracy’ is under threat. But where did the concept come from? Matthew Francis explains how it was first adopted by a Conservative MP in 1923 in an effort to address the post-First World War disparity between people’s social and political rights and their lack of economic capital. In the 1980s, Thatcherites saw property ownership as a way of increasing personal choice and control. But when a society privileges property ownership, it puts social and private-sector renters at a disadvantage – as the Grenfell Tower disaster showed.

homes

Cover of a Thompson Bayliss (Rainham, Essex) catalogue, c. 1936. Photo: Clive Hurst via a CC-BY-NC 2.0 licence

Whenever new figures chronicling the decline of home ownership are released, the internet is awash with pieces speculating about the possible death of the ‘property-owning democracy’. I should know, because I have written my share of them. However, fewer of these pieces consider the history of the concept. Where did the ‘property-owning democracy’ come from?

The term was first used by the Conservative MP Noel Skelton in a series of articles published in The Spectator in 1923 (and subsequently collected together as the pamphlet Constructive Conservatism) and was intended in part as a response to advent of mass democracy after 1918. The reforms of the previous half century had, Skelton argued, produced a considerable extension of the political and educational rights of the mass of the people, but had produced no concomitant extension of their economic rights. The disparity that had subsequently arisen between the social and political rights of the individual and his economic status was, Skelton believed, the root cause of the instability and insecurity of British politics in the early 1920s, and it was the duty of a ‘constructive Conservatism’ to redress that disparity as a matter of urgency.

Skelton’s proposed solution was an enormous expansion in the number of property-owners. Unlike subsequent generations, however, his focus was on the workplace rather than the home. Skelton argued that schemes which would allow workers to acquire a stake in the concern in which they were employed. The result would be to elevate the economic status of the ordinary worker, and to simultaneously close the gap between capital and labour, affording workers an insight into the operation of the free enterprise system. These schemes were, in any case, far from uncommon in the period, and already well-known even among Conservatives: Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain both operated similar schemes in their family firms. The result would be the creation of a ‘property-owning democracy’: a democracy composed of property-owners and, crucially, a society in which property-ownership was democratised (though not, of course, equalised).

The term – if not the specific proposals – caught the imagination of the Conservative Party, and remained part of Conservative discourse after Skelton’s premature death in 1935. The survival of the concept was, in part, because Skelton had in the 1920s sat at the centre of a network of upwardly mobile MPs who would become crucial to the party’s fortunes after the Second World War. It was one of those MPs, Anthony Eden, who revived the concept, offering the ‘property-owning democracy’ as an alternative to the nationalisation pursued by Attlee’s Labour government. In a 1946 speech Eden juxtaposed the centralisation of power and property proposed by Labour – proposals which, Eden suggested, posed a threat to liberty – with a Conservative vision in which power and property were widely distributed across citizens.

Eden, however, adjusted Skelton’s concept in one crucial respect. Rather than focusing on the issue of industrial property, Eden instead reoriented the ‘property-owning democracy’ toward the home. While the party would continue to make reference to industry into the 1960s, an emphasis on the home made sense against the backdrop of the housing crisis of the immediate postwar years. The party leadership had, moreover, not failed to notice that homeowners were disproportionately likely to vote Conservative. An emphasis on home-ownership therefore made sense in both political and psephological terms, and, initially, Harold Macmillan’s construction programme and, subsequently, the Right To Buy made a ‘property-owning democracy’ of this sort a reality for very many (though far from all) people.

However, the postwar years also saw competing versions of the ‘property-owning democracy’ emerge from other political traditions. As Ben Jackson has shown, many Labour politicians began to see the creation of a ‘property-owning democracy’ as one plank of a postwar egalitarian strategy. Prompted by the economist James Meade, a number of Labour’s leading revisionists – Tony Crosland and Douglas Jay foremost amongst them – began to argue that the ‘property-owning democracy’ ought to be claimed as a socialist, rather than a Conservative, concept. Stuart White has shown how postwar Liberals wove together earlier traditions which interpreted dispersed property-ownership as a means of securing individual liberty with elements drawn from socialist thought to develop a challenge to existing forms of capitalism. Even the embryonic Plaid Cymru had, in a slightly earlier period, offered a version of the concept, perchentyaeth, which in many respects represented a compromise between the prewar Liberal and postwar Conservative positions.

While other political traditions offered competing versions of the ‘property-owning democracy’, the meaning of the concept within Conservative thought remained fairly stable after Eden’s redefinition of the term in 1946. However, the ‘property-owning democracy’ underwent significant discursive reconstruction in the 1980s under the influence of the Thatcher governments. Most obviously, Thatcherites expanded the meaning of ‘property’ beyond the home to encompass the employee-ownership endorsed by Skelton and also other forms of investment – often shares in privatised industries, but also pensions and life insurance. As a result, some Conservatives began to speak of a desire to create a ‘capital-owning democracy’, a phrase which found its way into the 1992 Conservative manifesto.

The more significant change, however, was to the meaning of ‘democracy’. Since Skelton had first coined the term in 1923, Conservatives had understood the ‘democracy’ in the ‘property-owning democracy’ to refer to either the political system (i.e. a democracy composed of property-owning citizens) or to the distribution of property. However, Thatcherite Conservatives increasingly conceived of property-owning as a means of enlarging individual choice and control. That was perhaps most obvious in the field of housing – Raymond Plant and Kenneth Hoover once disparagingly remarked that the ‘choice’ offered by the Right To Buy was the choice of the colour of one’s front door; a choice which was, for many council tenants, rather more meaningful than Plant or Hoover appear to have realised – but the choice offered by dispersed property-ownership was by no means limited to the field of housing.

Thatcherites spoke of property-ownership as something which would enhance individual choice-making and, thereby, democracy. John Moore spoke of property as a means of giving people power: the ‘power to make choices, power to control their own lives’. David Howell suggested in Freedom and Capital that a society based on widespread property-ownership would enlarge personal choice and therefore have a ‘far better claim to be democratic’. However, perhaps the clearest expression came in John Redwood’s 1988 book Popular Capitalism, in which he wrote that property-ownership was ‘the economic expression of democracy’, and ‘the essence [of] the democracy of the marketplace’. The exercise of choice and of democracy, on this reading, took place as much through market participation as at the ballot box.

The temptation is to suggest that these conceptual shifts may not matter very much in the real world. What difference does it make, after all, if a few Conservative MPs use a concept in one way rather than another?

The history of Grenfell Tower illustrates why it matters. In his book The Ideology of Home Ownership Richard Ronald notes that the conception of ‘choice’ (or ‘democracy’) as something which is exercised through the market creates biases against other forms of choice, and in particular undermines forms of collective choice. The working assumption of this approach is that individuals unhappy with their current accommodation can move elsewhere. Except, of course, that many social renters and low-income private renters may not have that option. Unable to exercise the ‘choice’ to leave accommodation which they clearly felt was unsafe, the occupants of Grenfell Tower found that forms of collective action were an ineffective alternative. So ineffective, indeed, that members of the council housing committee were entirely unaware of their concerns.

These are not reasons to abandon the concept altogether. Some recent work has called for the recapture of the ‘property-owning democracy’ for the left, and the malleability of the concept suggests that it may yet prove to be a site of productive exchange between conservatives, liberals, and social democrats. However, the lesson of the Thatcher period is that it would be a mistake to think that the ‘property-owning democracy’ is simply about the distribution of wealth – it is about far more than that.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit.

Matthew Francis (@drmjfrancis)is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of History, University of Birmingham. He has a particular interest in conceptual history, political ideologies, and ideological change.

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