A recent report from the Halifax on prospective first-time buyers has led a number of commentators to speculate about whether we might be witnessing the beginning of the end for the property-owning democracy.
Often understood as an invention of the Thatcher governments of the 1980s, the idea of the property-owning democracy in fact has a much longer and more complicated history. As I have explained elsewhere, the Conservative MP Noel Skelton originally coined the term in the early 1920s. It formed part of his search for a ‘constructive conservatism’ that would help his party win working-class votes during an era of mass democracy, and has subsequently gone through various manifestations.
For interwar Conservatives, the prospect of property ownership formed a key part of their appeal to the newly expanded electorate. They also saw it as correcting a dangerous imbalance in national life. Skelton noted that the previous half-century had seen ordinary citizens enjoy a rapid advance in their political and educational status, but no such extension of their economic status. This disparity had produced a society which was dangerously ‘lop-sided’ and ‘unstable’; equilibrium could only be restored, accordingly to Skelton, through the wider distribution of property.
When the term was revived in the aftermath of the Second World War, it formed part of the Conservative reaction to the nationalisations of the Attlee government. In a famous speech in Blackpool in 1946, Anthony Eden contrasted the Labour objective of ‘state ownership of all the means of production’ with the Conservative desire to see ‘the distribution of ownership over the widest practicable number of individuals’. But the return to the issue of property was also driven in part by the needs of ordinary people. The combination of economic stagnation and German bombing had left postwar Britain with a shortfall of nearly two million homes, and a Mass Observation survey prior to the 1945 general election found that housing was at the top of the electorate’s list of priorities. The emphasis on housing was, as the historian John Ramsden put it, the ‘result of public demand rather than party calculation’.
For the Thatcherites of the 1980s, the property-owning democracy formed part of a much wider set of ideological objectives. The sale of council houses and of shares in the nationalized industries formed a crucial part of Conservative statecraft, as the Thatcher governments sought to reduce state involvement in the economy. But for many Thatcherites the wider distribution of property was also part of what the Conservative leader herself called a ‘crusade to enfranchise the many in the economic life of the nation’. Property-ownership was seen as a crucial prerequisite to democratic power and full citizenship.
The housing boom of the 1990s and 2000s has ensured that the ideas surrounding the property-owning democracy have retained political currency. New Labour was only too keen to trade on the idea as part of an appeal to ‘aspirational’ voters. That same boom has, however, threatened its continued existence. The rapid rise in house prices and the growing caution of mortgage lenders has led many to become increasingly pessimistic about their prospects for getting on the housing ladder.
This poses an important problem for politicians with an interest in property. For while all three mainstream political parties now endorse the notion of the property-owning democracy, none has yet attempted to address the question – what happens when no one can afford to join it?