He may not be well-known now, but former MP Noel Skelton probably had one of the most profound impacts on the guiding philosophy of the Conservative party.
His series of pamphlets in the aftermath of the First World War explained clearly how the expansion of education and political rights, without the same expansion of economic rights, would leave democracy at risk.
People left without a stake in society would start to feel that the state was their only option. The left would then use them as a reason to grant more and more power to that state.
This should sound awfully familiar to readers today.
Skelton called for an ambition that would then be adopted by some of the best thinkers on his side over the next century: a property-owning democracy.
The Prime Minister Anthony Eden used the term to mean property that people lived in. He had not failed to notice that people who owned their own homes were less likely to enjoy the idea of a socialist state that sought to have control over property.
While most people’s minds immediately go to British Telecom or British Airways when they think of privatisation, by far the biggest private revolution was in housing.
By giving social tenants the right to buy the homes they lived in from the council, Margaret Thatcher gave them the chance to own their own property – and therefore to have the state as servant and not as master.
Of course, you don’t have to own property to be a capitalist. What matters isn’t who owns what, but whether there is a choice – the opportunity to own, not the fact of ownership.
For too many households in Britain today, that choice doesn’t exist. Our restrictive planning laws have led to many of us, even those lucky enough to work in the City, being unable to own our homes. It has meant more and more of our pay going on rent, and less opportunity to invest in our futures.
House prices are far beyond the affordability of many people who live in the capital. Everyone from cafe workers to well-off city slickers knows this, but it is particularly true for the lowest-income Londoners, who live in council houses.
The government has been trying to make home ownership a reality for this group, but the numbers don’t add up.
Right now, tenants can buy their home from their council. A discount is given, up to a maximum of £108,000 in London. But this is only available for the home they live in. For many in London, the value is well above this. Even with the discount they’d never afford the mortgage above that. They’re trapped paying rent to the state.
That’s why the Adam Smith Institute is proposing that the government looks back at Thatcher’s reforms and introduces a flexible right to buy scheme, whereby those living in council properties can use the discount as a deposit for another private home.
They could choose to downsize and stay in their area, or move elsewhere, while the council could sell the property and raise revenue on the windfall, or re-allocate it to someone on a waiting list.
Our analysis estimates that almost 200,000 people could become homeowners under this policy. It would boost productivity and wages by enabling people to live closer to where they work and socialise. Importantly, it will mean the expansion of choice.
We should be honest: our housing crisis is one caused by the state, by draconian planning restrictions and convoluted finance policies.
More state intervention in the form of rent controls, as has been suggested in some quarters, would merely help the privileged few already here at the expense of the next generation and leave us all the poorer for it.
A massive expansion in council-owned housing while ending the right to buy will not be a long-term solution either. Sure, you’re no longer trapped paying rent to a private landlord. But you’ve merely swapped to paying rent forever to the state. What a choice.
Our housing crisis will only be fixed by freeing up the market and building more – and we will continue to call on the government to do exactly this, and build more homes where they are most needed. But we need to make better use of our existing homes too. And that starts with giving people choice.
In 2017, the Tories had a lead of over 20 points among homeowners, but were behind by over 30 points among those in social housing. The absence of choice leaves the door open for socialists who would rather pass private property into the hands of the state. The Conservatives cannot afford to let that happen.
Thatcher recognised that property is one of the main bulwarks of freedom. Now Theresa May has a chance now to expand that freedom. She should take it.