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.