Accidental hero

For 150 years, John Stuart Mill has been the intellectual icon of the British left - but his ideas a

John Stuart Mill has been an iconic figure for British liberals and social democrats for more than 150 years. In his important new biography, Richard Reeves suggests that he has even more to say to the ideology-lite 21st century than he did during the great contest between capitalism and socialism that dominated most of the second half of the 20th, and there is something in it. Mill was one of the great masters whom Gordon Brown celebrated in his speech on British liberty a few weeks ago, and the literature on Mill continues to grow. In the past 25 years, we have had Alan Ryan on Mill, John Gray, John Skorupski, Bernard Semmel, Stefan Collini and Gertrude Himmelfarb, as well as a host of others.

Part of the reason is that he was an extraordinarily nice, warm-hearted and intellectually generous man, as well as an extraordinarily gifted one. It is impossible to dislike him. His exemplary life - a paradigm of high Victorian earnestness at its best - still compels affection as well as admiration. His terrifying education, at the hands of a rigid and dogmatic father who seems to have had no sense of humour and no empathy for others, is legendary. He learned the Greek alphabet at three; read Plato (in Greek) at seven; learned Latin at eight; and read Aristotle on logic at 11. Also legendary is his depressive breakdown at 20, when he asked himself whether he would be happier if all the reforms he and his father believed in were achieved, and realised with horror that the answer was "no".

Mill's intellectual range was as astonishing as his education. His System of Logic (1843) and Principles of Political Economy (1848) were bestsellers, each running to seven editions in his lifetime. His essay "On Liberty" (1859) is pro bably the most famous political tract ever written in this country. It has been prayed in aid by Simon Jenkins and Chris Huhne on opposite sides of the same question. According to Reeves, it has inspired both David Willetts and David Miliband, to say nothing of Roy Hattersley. But Mill was not an ivory-tower theorist. He was an MP for three years and was one of the most unlikely (and most attractive) members the House of Commons has ever seen.

He spent no money on his election campaign and, when heckled at a predominantly working-class meeting, refused to retract a comment that the working classes were "habitual liars". Even so, his parliamentary achievements were substantial. His famous amendment to the Reform Bill 1867 - substituting "person" for "man" - which would have given women the vote 50 years before they actually won it, put the cause of women's suffrage on to the political agenda for the first time, and did far more for it than all the suffragettes' window-smashing, arson and hunger strikes put together. He was a lifelong feminist, went to prison for advocating birth control (only for two days), championed Irish land reform and advocated a form of market socialism, based on worker co-operatives.

Reeves brings him vividly to life. Mill, he shows, could hardly have been further removed from the desiccated, calculating machine of anti-Mill legend. His long love affair with Harriet Taylor - the wife of a prosperous pharmacist of radical inclinations - set tongues wagging all over literary and intellectual London. Reeves's picture of their relationship, and particularly of their belated marriage after John Taylor's death, is beautifully done. So is his picture of the disputatious, slightly gauche and indomitably radical young Mill. Best of all is his treatment of the no longer gauche, but equally disputatious and, if possible, even more radical older Mill - of Mill the hammer of British misrule in Ireland, the scourge of the brutal Governor Eyre of Jamaica, and the unyielding opponent of the notorious Contagious Diseases Act that empowered the police to arrest women suspected of being prostitutes in garrison towns, and to subject them to forcible medical examination. There are some light-hearted vignettes as well. I particularly relished Reeves's story of the young Mill at work in India House, so full of intellectual energy that he took off his trousers, as well as his coat and waistcoat, before settling down at his desk.

There is no doubt that Mill was on the right (in other words, left) side in most of the great political battles of his time. He was for women, for the Irish, for the Reform Acts 1832 and 1867, for the 1848 revolution, for the North in the American civil war, for the co-operative movement and, more surprisingly, for the First International and, on occasion, for its guru, Karl Marx. He was against the aristocracy, against unearned incomes, against Napoleon III, against commercialism and against exploitation, cruelty and injustice wherever he found them. But none of this makes him an icon. Reeves is right to devote a lot of space to Mill the activist; by doing so he puts Mill the thinker into context and converts him from a piece of uplifting statuary into a creature of flesh and blood. But with all his generosity of spirit and willingness to defy the complacent and reactionary, Mill the activist would be remembered only by students of Victorian history had Mill the thinker never existed.

The question that matters for 21st-century liberals and social democrats is not whether Mill was a good man who fought the good fight. Manifestly, he was. The question is whether his ideas - and above all, his political ideas - deserve the iconic status the liberal and social-democratic left of our day has given them. Reeves has no doubt that they do; and has said so repeatedly and persuasively, not only in this biography, but in newspaper and magazine articles. I am not so sure. Of course, there are several Mills. Like most political thinkers, he wrote for the moment, not for eternity; and, over 50 years of incessant ratiocination and furious writing, he changed his mind several times.

Social democrats of our day have much to learn from some of his less familiar writings. His long review of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, in which he insisted that strong local democracy was a precondition for democracy at the national level and emphasised the need for a diverse civil society, rich in what would now be called "social capital", resonates as powerfully today as it did when he wrote it. His insight that democratic citizenship is a practice, which has to be learned through strenuous activity in small groups, not a chocolate bar to be handed down from on high by a benevolent state, was widely shared in the early labour movement. It inspired the 19th-century co-operative movement and the syndicalists who called for industrial democracy before the First World War; and it surfaced repeatedly in the writings of G D H Cole. Its abandonment by the later Labour Party was a tragedy from which the British left has not yet recovered.

But this, too, is irrelevant to Mill's claim to iconic status. "On Liberty" is the foundation stone of that claim; and despite its captivating panache and emotional force, I can't suppress nagging doubts about its value for the 21st century. Mill's chief target was social tyranny, not state tyranny. He wanted to counter the informal, non-legal, customary pressures through which the homogeneous, complacent and often stifling society of Victorian Britain stunted the growth of individuality, which he saw as a supreme good. Society, for him, was a vast eiderdown of conformity, pressing down, ever so gently, but to deadly effect, on the individuals who made it up. The most insidious enemy of freedom was not the policeman or the jail, but the neighbours.

When Mill wrote, there was a lot to be said for this focus. The mid-Victorian state was one of the least oppressive in the world - at any rate for the respectable classes to which Mill belonged. On the other hand, mid-Victorian society was complacent, conformist and intolerant of deviant opinions and lifestyles. The wheel has come full circle 150 years later. The multicultural, multi-ethnic society of the 21st century is not in the least like an eiderdown; it is a ragged patchwork with huge holes between the pieces.

Particular ethnic or cultural enclaves sometimes oppress their own members, but if they go too far, the law can step in; and, in any case, they do not endanger diversity or individuality in the wider society. In a sense, there are no longer any deviant opinions or lifestyles to be intolerant about: there are no fixed standards to deviate from. There is only a cacophony of divergent voices. State oppression, however, is a real and present danger as the politics of fear takes hold.

Mill loathed Napoleon III because he saw him as an authoritarian despot, but Napoleon III's state was a cuddly kitten compared to the fearsome beasts spawned by modern techniques of surveillance and opinion management. Mill thought advancing liberalism had won the battle against the despotic states of past centuries. Twenty-first-century liberals should be prepared to fight it all over again.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How New Labour turned toxic