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Power to the people

John Stuart Mill’s classic treatise On Liberty, published 150 years ago, has much to teach an intell

In the early months of 2009, the Labour Party was walking wounded. After the most comprehensive electoral humiliation in its entire history it is now walking dead. There are some parallels between Labour’s condition now and the Conservatives’ in the dying days of the Major government, but the differences are much more striking. John Major’s Conservative Party was bitterly divided ideologically and emotionally. Labour today is ideologically inert and emotionally drained. The old divisions between Blairites and Brownites – which were, in any case, personal rather than ideological – have not quite disappeared, but they no longer matter. The New Labour “project”, over which eager thirtysomethings enthused during Tony Blair’s springtime as party leader, fizzled out years ago.

Enemies new and old have cast Gordon Brown as the scapegoat, but that merely shows that this is a culture of denial, in which the instinctive response to misfortune is to find someone else to blame. The Prime Minister does bear some of the responsibility for Labour’s parlous state. He is too serious and too heavy on his feet for the glib inanities of popular politics in our time. But the notion that he is the sole author of the party’s downfall is ludicrously – even contemptibly – wide of the mark.

The true culprit is the Labour Party itself. It is the vision of democratic politics which, above all, has shaped its statecraft since the early 1920s. This was a vision of centralised power, exercised by an enlightened and benevolent state on behalf of a grateful and largely passive citizenry. On the eve of the Second World War, the young Labour economist Evan Durbin summed up its essence in a striking passage. “The interests of the whole are sovereign over the interests of the part,” he wrote. “To the centralised control of a democratic Community our livelihood and our security must be submitted.” For one brilliant moment, it looked as if Blair might break with that inheritance, but it soon became clear that the changes he had forced down his party’s throat had left its essence unaltered. Under New Labour, the Old Labour vision of politics and society was harnessed to new purposes, but it was recognisably the same vision. The enlightened state had become the camp follower of the global market instead of the would-be master of the national one. It no longer sought to equalise reward; it strove mightily, and with horrifying success, to make Britain a happy hunting ground for the world’s super-rich. But it was the same state, legitimised by the same rhetoric. The whole was still sovereign over the parts; the individual was still duty-bound to submit to centralised communal control.

All this gives a special piquancy to the 150th anniversary of the publication of John Stuart Mill’s immortal tract On Liberty, which falls this year. For the vision which has guided Labour for so long has patently collapsed. The enlightened and benevolent state has turned out to be remarkably unenlightened, while its approach to civil liberty becomes ever more malevolent. Not surprisingly, the citizenry are no longer grateful. As the furore over parliamentary expenses shows, the public mood veers from the contemptuous to the mutinous. Even before the credit crunch turned into the deepest economic crisis for 80 years, statist social and institutional engineering had run into the buffers. Now it is hopelessly discredited, as is the conception of democratic politics that went with it.

In words – though not, so far, in deeds – even the engineers are jumping ship. Labour ministers are searching feverishly for ways to reconnect the public to the political system. An elected second chamber, a more proportional electoral system and that old chestnut, a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, are all on the table. Brown, the erstwhile Treasury micromanager, has announced his personal support for a written constitution and declared that democratic reform cannot be top-down. But, far from filling Labour’s philosophical vacuum, the brouhaha has only made it more obvious. The Labour leadership is trying desperately to stave off catastrophe at the next election and to dampen public anger with the political class. Like a harassed babysitter trying to cope with naughty children, it hopes that if it hands out enough sweets to its charges, they will calm down. But it has given little thought to the content of the sweets. Still less has it realised that this approach to politics and political change lies at the root of its misfortunes. Adult citizens are tired of being treated like children. That is why so many of them have turned against the system in general, and against the Labour Party in particular.

This is where Mill comes into the story. He has been an iconic figure for British liberals, with both a big and a small “l”, ever since On Liberty was published. He was one of the great masters whom Gordon Brown celebrated in his speech on British liberty after becoming Prime Minister. He has been lauded by David Willetts and has received a rather half-hearted pat on the back from Roy Hattersley. The Liberal Democrats recently voted him the greatest British Liberal of all – eclipsing Gladstone and Lloyd George. He is a hero for public intellectuals as various as Samuel Brittan, John Gray and Alan Ryan. Richard Reeves, the director of Demos, published a glittering biography of him a couple of years ago. But, like many iconic figures, Mill has left a more complex legacy than appears at first sight.

Everyone knows that he thought people should be free to make their own choices as they wished, provided they did no harm to others, and that he feared the tyranny of “prevailing opinion” more than the tyranny of the “magistrate”. But these well-known axioms convey only part of his message – and not the part that matters most today. In the multi-ethnic, multicultural, multi-fissured Britain of the 21st century, the tyranny of opinion is not what it was when Mill wrote. There are several tyrants, not one. The lumpen bully-boys who prowl the blogosphere, the hysterical secularists who proliferate among the commentariat and the dogmatic Islamists who try to impose their interpretation of the Quran on the rest of the Muslim community are all tyrants of a sort. They have all abandoned argument for clamorous assertion, and they all try to stamp out contrary opinions. They have little in common, however, with the blancmange-like conformists who infuriated Mill.

Today, the moral and emotional sources of Mill’s arguments resonate more powerfully than the arguments themselves. He speaks to us less because of what he thought than because of what he felt. On a level deeper than that of argument, he offers a wonderfully rich and exhilarating vision of the good life and the good society, fit for the grown-up citizens whom the Labour vision infantilised. Though he did not say so in so many words, it was a quintessentially republican vision. Passage after passage in On Liberty recalls Milton’s glowing evocation of revolutionary London as the “mansion house of liberty”, where vigorous and continuous public debate armed the people against the enemies of freedom. Mill’s vision was also quintessentially elitist, and though he was no friend to aristocracies, it was strongly tinged with aristocratic values. On Liberty is studded with words such as “noble”, “base”, “high”, “low”, “servile” and “abject”.

Like his friend and mentor Alexis de Tocque­ville, the aristocratic French liberal, Mill thought the tendency of the age “to raise the low and to lower the high” was eroding the social foundations of the nonconformity and diversity that had given European civilisation its vitality in past periods. If that tendency continued un­checked, it would soon be too late to make a stand for in­dividuality, the human quality that Mill prized above all others. In the last paragraph of the tract, he summed up the political implications with a splendid roll of drums. “The worth of a State,” he wrote, “is the worth of the individuals composing it.” A “State which dwarfs its men . . . will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished”.

Liberty was a means to an end. The end was individuality. It could flourish only in a society that cherished diversity, free discussion and public reasoning, and that left plenty of space for personal growth. Mill was for limited government and laissez-faire, but for moral rather than economic reasons: because he feared that an overmighty state would choke the springs of individuality and public spirit. A people that lacked the habit of “spontaneous action for a collective interest”, he wrote in a seminal review of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, long before On Liberty appeared, would be governed like “sheep by their shepherd”. Citizenship was a testing and arduous practice, not a right. It could not be handed down from on high or guaranteed by a piece of paper. The habits that made it a reality could be learned only through active participation in “the business of life”. Popular government in small local communities was a prerequisite of popular government in the state.

Equally, the manifest evils associated with private ownership of the means of production – above all, “wretched” poverty and flagrant social injustice – could not be cured by state socialism, and still less by a proletarian revolution. Mill went out of his way to emphasise his sympathy for the socialist critique of capitalism, and his admiration for socialist thinkers such as Fourier and Robert Owen, whom Marx scorned as utopians. But the notion that the state could manage the whole economy by direction from the centre seemed to him chimerical and dangerous – a recipe for the overmighty state and dwarfed citizens that he most feared.

The answer lay in a kind of market socialism, based on co-operative production and distribution. Property rights would not be abolished. They would be diffused ever more widely, and made softer and more fuzzy in the process: for, although production was governed by the invariable laws of classical political economy, property was a different matter. Property rights were not fixed or timeless, still less absolute. Different societies had treated them in different ways. In medieval Europe, landed property had been held in return for service; even in Victorian England the freeholder was, in legal theory, the tenant of the Crown. New forms of co-operative property could perfectly well emerge in future, and existing property rights could be modified or abrogated for the sake of the public good. Property should become society’s servant instead of its master.

The great question is whether Mill’s vision of the good life, the good society and the good economy can irrigate the parched souls of today’s left. If only because the world has changed so fundamentally since Mill wrote, his words cannot serve as the raw material of an election manifesto or a project for government. But in at least two ways – one concerning the state and the other the economy – they can and should illuminate the forbidding terrain that British liberals and social democrats now face.

Fear of the overmighty state has been a favourite trope of Conservative rhetoric whenever the Conservative Party is in opposition. Partly because of that, it makes old-style social democrats, and even some old-style liberals, twitchy. But the anti-statism espoused by Conservative oppositions is a classic case of the old line, “The devil was ill, the devil a saint would be.” Conservative governments have behaved very differently. Lord Hailsham issued his warning about an elective dictatorship when Labour was in power. When he and his colleagues returned to office under Margaret Thatcher, nothing more was heard of it. The Thatcher state was far mightier than any previous peacetime state in British history; indeed, the bossy, intrusive, audit-fixated New Labour state was the lineal descendant of its Thatcherite predecessor. There is nothing Conservative about Mill’s belief in the supreme value of individuality, or his deeply held conviction that an overmighty state would stunt or crush it. They were shared by many Labour pioneers, notably G D H Cole and the guild socialists, the syndicalists who dreamed of industrial democracy in the workplace and the Co-operative movement.

A Millian left would seek to retrieve that ground from the right. Given that a Cameron government would almost certainly be as top-down and state-friendly as previous Conservative governments have been, this should not be difficult. Cameron’s vacuous talk of giving power to the people is a patent smokescreen, designed to disguise his constitutional orthodoxy from voters disgusted by the arrogance of the political class. A left opposition with the courage of Millian convictions could easily dissipate it. But to do so, it would have to offer a coherent programme of democratic reform, based on a compelling strategic vision. Mill’s belief in learning by doing – in civic activism in local communities as a school for citizenship on the national level, and in the need to prevent an intrusive state from “dwarfing” its citizens – provides the basis for such a vision. The sad remnants of New Labour would shudder. The ghosts of Cole, of the authors of The Miners’ Next Step and of the Rochdale Pioneers would cheer.

I think the same applies to Mill’s market socialism, though it is harder to make the case here. As Andrew Gamble has recently pointed out, crises wipe old slates clean, and create unforeseen opportunities for new thinking and new directions. The current crisis is no exception. But the British left has failed dismally to seize the opportunity to think and act anew. In essence, it offers a slightly tarted-up version of business as usual: better regulation, smaller banks, and at least a dent in the bonus culture. But the object of the exercise is patently to return to the pre-crisis, advanced-capitalist merry-go-round, with all its gross injustices, built-in instability and contempt for social need. We have had our Keynesian fling, and – suitably chastened – we can now return to a slightly less flagrant version of the casino capitalism that Keynes excoriated.

So far as I can see, that is what Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling think; and so, naturally, do David Cameron and George Osborne. As a revisionist of long standing, I find this response to the deepest capitalist crisis since the 1930s miserably inadequate.

Of course, we can’t go back to state socialism: Mill’s strictures on that have been amply vin­dicated. But surely we can think anew about different forms of property, the relationship between private property and social need, and the responsibility of property owners to the common good. Will Hutton and others tried to do this 15 years ago, under the rubric of stakeholder capitalism. It’s time to start again. Mill doesn’t show us how. But he does encourage us to start.

David Marquand is the author of “Britain Since 1918: the Strange Career of British Democracy” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)