The son of Sir John Skelton KCB LLD, Skelton was born on 1 July 1880 at Hermitage of Braid in Edinburgh and was educated at Glenalmond College, Edinburgh University and at Christ Church, Oxford, to which he won a history scholarship. He was placed in the Second Class in the School of Modern History in 1902 and in 1906 he was called to the Scottish Bar and therefore joined the Faculty of Advocates. Skelton was respected as a lawyer, but dealt mainly with divorce cases and those involving disputed wills. In 1920 he was appointed Junior Counsel to the Post Office, and to the Board of Inland Revenue in 1921. In the First World War, Skelton served with the Scottish Horse as a Lieutenant, Captain, and latterly a Major, in Gallipoli, Salonika, and France, where he was seriously wounded in the last weeks of the war.
Skelton first stood for Parliament at the second general election of 1910, but he lost the East Perthshire Division to his Liberal opponent. Despite his defeat, Skelton remained active in politics, speaking frequently from Unionist platforms across Scotland. He was opposed to Irish Home Rule but was more progressive on issues like land reform, industrial relations and the use of the referendum. At the end of the Great War Skelton stood aside and allowed the Coalition candidate in East Perthshire to be elected unopposed. But he was elected Member of Parliament for the new Perth Division in 1922, although he lost the constituency a year later to a Liberal.
Skelton was a talented journalist and wrote frequently for The Spectator, including four articles in April and May 1923 under the heading 'Constructive Conservatism'. These lively articles set out Skelton's political philosophy - chiefly the pursuit of a 'property-owning democracy', the division of land into small-holdings, co-partnership and share options to improve industrial relations, and finally, the use of referendums to resolve disputes between the House of Commons and House of Lords - as well as urge the Unionists to compete with Labour on more typically Socialist issues like pensions and housing. The four Spectator articles were republished as a pamphlet in 1924 which had a lasting influence, particularly among younger Tory MPs.
Skelton was re-elected for Perth in 1924 and again in 1929. He quickly struck up friendships with the Conservative MPs like Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Robert Boothby, John Buchan and Oliver Stanley, and became the intellectual leader of a Parliamentary grouping dubbed the 'YMCA' by cynical older Parliamentarians. The group lobbied to make sure that Stanley Baldwin, the prime minister, resisted the influence of reactionary elements in the Conservative Party and instead implemented progressive legislation. Baldwin was sympathetic, and it was soundings with the YMCA which prevented Baldwin backing a controversial Political Levy Bill which would have had disastrous consequences for UK trade union relations.
Skelton also maintained the group's journalistic presence, writing several articles for the Spectator, the Quarterly Review and the English Review.
Skelton switched to the Scottish Universities constituency in 1931 and was returned unopposed. That same year he was appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland with responsibility for health, housing and education. He was a talented administrator but occasionally pedantic when intervening in Commons debates.
By 1935 Skelton was terminally ill with cancer and after several weeks in a nursing home died in Edinburgh on 22 November 1935. The declaration for the Scottish Universities constituency was made three days later, and Skelton was re-elected posthumously.
Although Skelton died at the relatively young age of 55, he had once been seen as a potential Conservative leader, and certainly as a senior Cabinet minister. And although he was quickly forgotten among the wider public, his influence, as Harold Macmillan wrote in his memoirs, 'on politics and political thinking must have grown steadily year by year'. His thinking on property ownership as the fundamental basis of modern conservatism proved particularly attractive, and Anthony Eden personally revived the phrase as a political slogan at the 1946 Conservative Party conference. Macmillan then used it as the intellectual basis for the 1950s house-building boom, while his successor as prime minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, owed his early political career to Skelton, as his PPS from 1931-35.
Margaret Thatcher's first government and her popular policy of giving council house tenants the Right to Buy while promoting share ownership among the public sector workforce, not to mention her emphasis on the individual, perhaps saw Skeltonian principles at their height. And even today, with the focus having shifted from a 'property-owning democracy' to 'affordable housing', Skelton's influence is still profound.
- Torrance, David, Noel Skelton and the Property Owning Democracy (Biteback 2010)
- Torrance, David, The Scottish Secretaries (Birlinn 2006)
- Thorpe, D.R., Alec Douglas-Home (London 1996) & Eden (London 2003)
- Green, E.H.H., Ideologies of Conservatism (Oxford 2002)
- Young, Kenneth, Sir Alec Douglas-Home (London 1970)
- Tweedsmuir, Lady, John Buchan by his Wife and Friends (London 1947)
- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Noel Skelton
- Let us at least give house-room to property tax idea – The Herald article, dated 9 November 2006
- Prices on the up but homes ideal has its downside – Edinburgh Evening News article, dated 16 November 2006
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
|Member of Parliament for Perth
Robert MacGregor Mitchell
Robert MacGregor Mitchell
|Member of Parliament for Perth
George Berry and
Dugald Cowan and
|Member of Parliament for Combined Scottish Universities
With: John Buchan, 1927-1935;
Dugald Cowan, to 1924;
George Morrison, from 1934;
John Graham Kerr, from 1935
Ramsay Macdonald and
George Morrison and
John Graham Kerr