I am currently half-way through writing a mega-post round up of conference but in the meantime my choice for the best fringe at conference would be “The search for the greatest Liberal” debate on the Wednesday night.
This was a fringe organised by the Liberal Democrat History Group to accompany the vote they have been running of conference delegates and members of the History Group to decide who was the greatest Liberal in a choice between William Ewart Gladstone, David Lloyd George, John Stuart Mill, and John Maynard Keynes.
Speaking in favour of John Maynard Keynes was Lord Tom McNally, leader of the Liberal Democrats peers. For Gladstone there was Paddy Ashdown, former Liberal Democrat leader. Speaking for Mill was Richard Reeves, former journalist and biographer of Mill and for Lloyd George we had Lord Morgan, a Labour peer and historian. Paddy gave a typically brilliant “Paddy” style speech, but the real star of the evening was Richard Reeves, whose biography “John Stuart Mill: A Life” is available to pre-order from Amazon. If it is half as good as his presentation on Wednesday evening it should be well worth a read.
(Photo, Paddy Ashdown speaking for Gladstone)
The eventual winner announced just before Ming Campbell’s speech on Thursday was John Stuart Mill. This pleased me enormously as Mill was my first choice candidate and I briefly got a chance to speak in favour of him at the fringe in the discussion that followed the speeches made in favour of the four candidates.
The point I made was that the shortlist included two men of action and practical politics, the former Prime Ministers Lloyd George and Gladstone, and two men of ideas and philosophy, Mill and Maynard Keynes. That while those who engage in practical politics are hugely important, indeed critical, it is ideas that change the world. So the choice should be between Keynes and Mill. I then made the point, half joking – half serious, that Keynes was an economist whereas Mill a philosopher. So then the obvious choice would have to be Mill!
A few other people at the meeting made the same point that this was a choice between ideas and action. In his brief summation Lord McNally agreed with this split but he made a very strong case for Keynes and the impact of his ideas. He said Keynes greatness was that his ideas gave progressive politicians the ability to shape economies towards the social benefit of their populations, in Britain and across the world, in a way that has made a huge difference to people’s living standards and prosperity. This struck me as a hugely powerful argument and made me feel a little guilty for being rude about economists! However, the power of Keynes ideas has had an impact across many political traditions, the socialist and social democratic as well as the liberal, and the search was for the greatest liberal.
Mills ideas are specifically liberal ideas. The key reason for supporting Mill, I think, is that in any discussion of what liberalism is about and how it should be applied to problems the starting point inevitably will make reference to the ideas of Mill. This holds true whether we are having an abstract philosophical or historical debate or attempting to apply liberalism to the problems of today and the near future.
Interestingly, Richard Reeves speaking for Mill, wanted to reject the ideas/action split. His claim was that Mill was such a great figure because he combined ideas with action.
I end this post by quoting a brief biography from the History Group of John Stuart Mill, the greatest Liberal:
“John Stuart Mill (1806-73)
Philosopher, economist, journalist, political writer, social reformer, and, briefly, Liberal MP, John Stuart Mill is one of the most famous figures in the pantheon of Liberal theorists, and the greatest of the Victorian Liberal thinkers.
Eldest son of the Scottish utilitarian philosopher James Mill, John Stuart’s works have had far more lasting interest. In Principles of Political Economy (1848) he voiced his unease concerning the excessive power and influence of the state; people understood their own business better than government did. However, he acknowledged a clear role for the state, for example in regulating natural monopolies.
He is best known for his masterpiece, On Liberty (1859), which emphatically vindicated individual moral autonomy, and celebrated the importance of originality and dissent. Although generations of Liberals have used his arguments to oppose state authoritarianism, in fact Mill devoted most of the work to arguing against middle-class conformism, which stultified opposition and a critical cast of mind.
In Considerations on Representative Government (1861) Mill expounded his doctrine of democracy, emphasising the importance of local government. Putting his beliefs into practice, he served as Liberal MP for Westminster from 1865 to 1868, where he argued for proportional representation and the extension of suffrage to women householders – a stance he developed in The Subjection of Women (1869), which remains the only feminist classic written by a man. He maintained that social reform, rather than repression, was the cure for civil unrest in Ireland, and argued for the impeachment of the brutal Governor Eyre of Jamaica. Mill’s defence of civil rights and racial equality helped to lose him his seat in 1868.
Mill’s intellectual achievements were unmatched in Victorian England. His defence of individual liberty can still set the terms of debate today, for example over freedom of speech. This helps to explain why On Liberty is the symbol of office of the President of the Liberal Democrats – and, what is more, the symbol of liberalism itself.”
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.