John Stuart Mill on the Right to Free Speech, vs. IDS and the Coalition

600_JohnStuartMill_StatueofLiberty

John Stuart Mill is one of the great founders of the modern concepts of political liberty, democracy and equality for women. His book, On Liberty, became the classic statement of Liberal ideology to the point where it was given to the leader of the Liberal party on his accession. He saw parliament as supremely important as the organ of government in which every opinion present in the country should be expressed and debated, so that politicians should form and adjust their policies accordingly. He wrote

‘In addition to this [i.e., the function of control], the Parliament has an office, no inferior … in importance; to be at once the nation’s Committee of Grievances, and its Congress of Opinions; an arena in which not only the general opinion of the nation, but that of every section of it, and as far as possible of every eminent individual whom it contains, can produce itself in full light and challenge discussion; where every person in the country may count upon finding somebody who speaks him mind well or better than he could speak it himself – not to friends and partisans exclusively, but in the face of opponents, to be tested by adverse controversy; where those whose opinion is overruled, feel satisfied that it is heard, and set aside not by a mere act of will, but for what are thought superior reasons, and commend themselves as much to the representatives of the majority of the nation; wh4ere every party or opinion in the country can muster in strength, and be cured of any illusion concerning the number or power of its adherents; where the opinion which prevails in the nation makes itself manifest as prevailing, and marshals its hosts in the presence of the government, which is thus enabled and compelled to give way to it on the mere manifestation, without the actual employment, of its strength; where statesmen can assure themselves far more certainly than by any signs, what elements of opinion and power are growing, and what declining, and are enabled to shape their measures with some regard not solely to present exigencies, but to tendencies in progress. Representative assemblies are often taunted by their enemies with being places of mere talk and bavardage. There has seldom been more misplaced derision. I know not how a representative assembly can more usefully employ itself than in talk, when the subject of talk is the great public interests of the country, and every sentence of it represents the opinion either of some important body of persons in the nation, or of an individual in whom some such body have reposed their confidence. A place where every interest and shade of opinion in the country can have its cause even passionately pleaded in the face of government and of all other interests and opinions, can compel them to listen, and either comply, or state clearly why they do not, is in itself, if it answered no other purpose, one of the most important political institutions that can exist anywhere, and one of the foremost benefits of free government. Such “talking” would never be looked upon with disparagement if it were not allowed to “doing”; which it never would, if assemblies knew and acknowledged that talking and discussion are their proper business, while doing, as the result of discussion, is the task not of a miscellaneous body, but of individuals specially trained to it; that the fit office of an assembly is to see that those individuals are honestly and intelligently chosen, and to interfere no further with them, except by unlimited latitude of suggestion and criticism, and by applying or withholding the final seal of national assent … Nothing but the restriction of the function of representative bodies within these rational limits will enable the benefits of popular control to be enjoyed in conjunction with the no less important requisites (growing ever more important as human affairs increase in scale and complexity) of skilled legislation and administration.’

He also made it very clear that he had some sympathy with Socialist aspirations for the improvement of humanity and the destruction of the class system. He stated

‘In short, I was a democrat, but not the least of a Socialist. We [i.e., he and his wife] were now [i.e., in the early 1850’s] much less democrats than I had been, because as long as education continues to be so wretchedly imperfect, we dreaded the ignorance and especially the selfishness and brutality of the mass; but our ideal of ultimate improvement went far beyond Democracy, and would class us decidedly under the general designation of Socialists. While we repudiated with the greatest energy that tyranny of society over the individual which most Socialistic systems are supposed to involve, we yet looked forward to a time when society will no longer be divided into the idle and the industrious; when the rule that they who do not work shall not eat, will be applied not to paupers only, but impartially to all; when the division of the produce of labour, instead of depending, as in so great a degree it now does, on the accident of birth, will be made by concert on an acknowledged principle of justice; and when it will no longer either be, or be thought to be, impossible for human beings to exert themselves strenuously in procuring benefits which are not to be exclusively their own, but to be shared with the society they belong to. The social problem of the future we considered to be, how to untie the greatest individual liberty of action with a common ownership in the raw material of the globe, and an equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labour …

… and we welcomed with the greatest pleasure and interest all socialistic experiments by select individuals (such as the Cooperative Societies) which, whether they succeeded or not, could not but operate as a most useful education of those who took part in them, by cultivating their capacity of acting upon motives pointing directly to the general good, or making them aware of the defects which render them and others incapable of doing so’.

So how does the Coalition measure up to these ideals? Not very well at all. Indeed, there is more than a little of a ‘democratic deficit’ at the heart of their conception of the value of parliament. The Coalition has just passed the gagging law, which means that unless you are an approved corporate lobbyist, you may not approach parliament to voice your opinions and concerns. Unless you’re a prospective Corporate sponsor, and there’s money and directorships in it, Cameron and Clegg really don’t want to hear what you think or have to say. They also don’t want to see you, either. Legitimate, democratic displays of protest can now be banned as a nuisance to the people down whose road you are marching. It’s particularly dangerous in London, as BoJo has decided that, while he can’t find the money to pay the firemen to stop your house or business burning down, he can afford to buy watercannon to train on protesters. It’s a German watercannon, so perhaps its a bit too repressive for them. Back in the 1960s and 1970s their use in the Bundesrepublik was extremely controversial, after a protester was killed by one during demonstrations by the ‘extraparliamentary opposition’. I’ve got a feeling that incident fuelled the conviction that all too many Nazis had escaped justice at Nuremberg, and were still holding lucrative posts in the police, armed forces and civil service. BoJo likes to present himself as man of the people against Cameron, but his instincts are definitely with their oppressors and the watercannons are just two more weapons in his armoury.

Not only does the Coalition not want to have to discuss any nasty, disturbing and possibly liberal ideas in parliament, or see them on the streets, they also don’t want to have to answer to parliament or keep the people informed of the consequences of their policies either. IDS dragged his feet until the very last minute before attending the Work and Pensions Committee. When he did, ‘RTU’ appeared surrounded by bodyguards and armed police officers, just in case the members of the public in attendance said something unpleasant about him. Or cause a serious, life-changing injury to his dignity by throwing a custard pie at him, like someone did to Murdoch. As for non-interference by parliament in the way the officials charged with executing their public policies perform their duty, well, once again IDS fails to make the grade. He tried to get one of his subordinates to take the blame for his own mistakes.

It’s not just RTU that hasn’t read his Mill. The Information Commissioner hasn’t either. FOI requests for information on the number of people, who’ve died after being judged fit for work by ATOS have been repeatedly turned down. Why? They’re vexatious. IDS’ DWP has also refused to release information about this and similar issues on the grounds that it would cause opposition to their policies, and prevent those policies from being implemented. So much for believing that political ideas need to be discussed in parliament, and held up for criticism. Or as someone once said, ‘Arguments are upsetting and sometimes cause you to change your mind’. Or words to that effect.

As for Socialism, the Tories have been an enemy of this ever since Maggie Thatcher declared it was a nasty, foreign import that she was going to destroy. At first Cameron’s localism agenda looks like it might be approved by Mill, for the way he wanted public institutions like libraries and so on to be staffed by volunteers. Mill also lamented the way modern society left increasingly few posts without pay, where they individual would have the honour for working for the public good without material reward. However, under the Coalition, as under Blair, politicians have been all too keen to enjoy material benefits – increased pay, and lucrative posts with industry. It’s only those, who can’t afford to that are expected to work for nothing, like the increasing ranks of the unemployed on workfare. As for the destruction of the class system, and the division of the world into the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, that had already increased under Labour and the gap is even wider under the Coalition.

So, despite their talk about democracy and accountability, the Coalition has consistently acted against some of the most fundamental principles of democracy articulated by Mill, perhaps its greatest British exponent. In some ways this isn’t surprising coming from the Conservatives, who traditionally stood for the privileges of the ruling classes. Clegg, however, must take his credit for the way he and the others supporters of the free-market ‘Orange Book’ have done so much to destroy Mill’s political legacy and the enduring Liberal traditions in which they were raised, and which they have betrayed.

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 Responses to “John Stuart Mill on the Right to Free Speech, vs. IDS and the Coalition”

  1. Mike Sivier Says:

    So Margaret Thatcher said socialism was a nasty, foreign import, did she? Shows how much she knew. Wasn’t The Communist Manifesto published in London, here in the UK?

    Still, she probably believed Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty (“This is what we believe now”) was published here, too.

  2. Mike Sivier Says:

    Reblogged this on Vox Political and commented:
    “Unless you’re a prospective Corporate sponsor, and there’s money and directorships in it, Cameron and Clegg really don’t want to hear what you think or have to say.”
    Well put.

  3. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks, Mike. I think she attacked Socialism for being foreign and un-British at a meeting in Cheltenham after she was ousted. And the Communist Manifesto was indeed published in London. It was written for the Communist League, a group of émigré German radicals led by Wilhelm Weitling. Nevertheless, if you read Marx’s writings, an awful lot of them were written either for publication over here, as in the Communist Manifesto, or were given as speeches to British worker’s groups. One was even read at a Chartist meeting. This is, of course, quite apart from the Utopian Socialist predecessors of Marx in this country, like Robert Owen, who introduced the term ‘Socialism’ into English, and Thomas Spence. And trade unions were also a British invention. They first appeared in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in about 1795. But you can’t expect Maggie to know, or even want to recognise that.

  4. stewilko Says:

    Reblogged this on stewilko's Blog.

  5. John Stuart Mill on the Right to Free Speech, v... Says:

    […] John Stuart Mill is one of the great founders of the modern concepts of political liberty, democracy and equality for women. His book, On Liberty, became the classic statement of Liberal ideology t…  […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: