Wednesday, May 20, 2009

John Stuart Mill... of his own free will

May 20th is JS Mill's birthday. he was born in 1806, only seven month after Trafalgar and died in 1873. A brilliant child, he is said to have spoken ancient Greek at the age of three. Certainly he received an extremely intense education, piloted by his philosopher father James Mill, assisted by his friends, including the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham- whose embalmed body you may see if you visit University College, London.

Perhaps not surprisingly after such a hothouse education, JS Mill had a nervous breakdown in his early twenties, but he later went on to become one of the most complete Liberal philosophers of his day. His ideas on free will and liberty now form the backbone of modern day Liberal political philosophy- which is why, notably, a first edition of his book "On Liberty" is used as the badge of office of the Liberal Democrat Party President.

That charming stalwart of Liberalism, the late Professor Conrad, Earl Russell also had a direct connection with Mill, since his father, Bertrand Russell, was JS Mill's godson.

In his work, Mill focused on the problem of societal control, and unlike many other philosophers he chose an active road to express his ideas. He was for three years a Liberal MP, and in his work on women's rights, free speech and the problem of Liberty itself, he was as much a campaigner as an observer.

In recent years the value of Mill as a philosopher of a kind of individualistic Liberalism that had been unfashionable has now once again been recognised. The Liberal Democrats have, in a sense, rediscovered their roots, and the utilitarian ideas of Mill have gained a wider following.

What, perhaps, is rather lowering is the fact that so much of Mill's practical political agenda remains unfulfilled. His ideas of women's rights now look at least a hundred and fifty years ahead of his time, as does his support for political reform in Ireland.

Meanwhile his ideas of a state under the control of its people now looks like a idea whose time has come. The rotten borough electoral system in the UK has persisted for far too long and has allowed the emergence of a detached, unaccountable set of MPs in safe seats who treat the electorate with contempt. A more open electoral system is long overdue, and the current constitutional crisis now makes this more glaringly obvious than ever.

Perhaps then the ideas that Mill put forward in the middle of the nineteenth century can finally be achieved in the early part of the twenty first century.

4 comments:

Newmania said...

His ideas on free will and liberty now form the backbone of modern day Liberal political philosophy- which is why, notably, a first edition of his book "On Liberty" is used as the badge of office of the Liberal Democrat Party President.


All political Parties are for "Freedom " as variously conceived, but the Liberal Party have included far more of the Socialist derived "Freedom to " than the Liberal "Freedom from" ,generally championed by the Conservative Party. We can see this in the attitudes to America and Europe where the Liberal Party have joined the left anti US consensus which .We see it in the Lib Lab pact which was on going at the time Parliament was threatened by mob rule in the shape of the Unions. We see it in the cavalier approach to personal Liberty adopted by Liberals across a range of social questions where the instinct is usually for prescription along modish progressive lines .
We have sometimes planned a debate in Lewes about who JSM would support now. As the MP is a Beveridge group member with a long history of collectivism bossy statism and trendy me too-ery you have reminded me of what fun we could have .
The most problematical question for the SDP/Lib Dem centre group is the market. It has fallen to the Conservartive Party to defend Liberal economics from Marixist derived assault . Bugger assisitance has been forthcoming from a Party supported more than any other by Public Sector professionals ( White middle-class ones at that).
After the next GE the political battle ground will return to a state last seen in the 70s. Public Sector cuts must be defended in order that the prosperity and freedom of the Nation is secured. I expect to see the Lib Dems in their usual spot alongside the Labour Party attacking the Conservatives along easy populist lines when painful cuts to services have to be made. If there was any real will to rid the group of its Marxist taint then it must be prepared to support a Liberal economy where it is difficutl and not just when it is easy.

Perhaps I am wrong , perhaps we will see a departure from the Liberal Party I have known all my life . Perhaps pigs shall soar majestically above the dreaming Downs …….

Cicero said...

As usual, Newmania you see waht you want to see and not what is actually our there.

It is not news that the Conservative Party is something of a Magpie when it comes to Liberal ideas. After all Mrs Thatcher, when she brandished Hayek's "The Constitution of Liberty" and said "This is what we believe", had clearly had not read the essay at the back called "Why I am not a Conservative".

When in office the policies of the Conservatives were remarkably similar to those of the current, Labour, government: especially in the way that they eviscerated the power of local government.

Though there were honourable exceptions, like Stefan Terlezki, for decades most Conservatives were quite indifferent about personally opposing Communism- prefering what they saw as pragmatic, but which others, like myself, saw as unprincipled business collaboration with the East- a collaboration that continues with the large number of Conservatives involved in companies with business in Russia today.

The acid test about freedom and free markets is when it comes to applying those principles to ones own sector, and in politics the Conservative opposition to openness and accountability is been very consistent. The Tories still prefer the rotten boroughs of the current electoral system to offering the voters a genuine choice and insisting on genuine accountability. The Liberal Democrats all supported the release of expenses data- the majority of the Tories opposed it.

Mill would never support the Conservative Party that insists on the Spanish practices of the current Constitution, on the unaccountable state and on the defence of entrenched privilege. If you think these are bad things, then, Newmania, Mill is in the right party- but you might not be.

Be careful what you wish for- Cameron as PM is shaping up to be Heath or Major, not Campbell Bannerman or Asquith.

Newmania said...

"Why I am not a Conservative".

Heard it a thousand times . Hayek was a tool with which to attack the post war concensus to Conservatives not a doctrine . If you look hard enough you can find Churchill praising Hitler (he did ), Liberals defending FPTP (Lloyd George ..vociferously )and reduce any discussion to trivia pursuit
.As far as the defence of elitist gerrymandering is concerned , the rest of us have been giggling at ability of Liberals to moralise their most basic desires since Gladstone saved fallen women from their virginity.
Still its a most interesting and thought provoking subject. I find so often nowadays that what I really think is quite difficult to express quickly and so fall back on easy jibes.We really ought to arrange that debate and I`ll say this for Baker , he`d probably turn up.

Cheerio

Cicero said...

Well, I am a Liberal Democrat because I believe in Liberalism, I guess you chose an ideology to support being a Conservative! I guess you have to hand it to Norman, he really does believe in what he is doing- and you can't say fairer than that, even if you disagree with him. I would happily attend the debate...