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A Moralist in and out of Parliament: John Stuart Mill at Westminster, 1865-1868.

Among the eminent Victorians, J.S. Mill is at the same time one of the most and one of the least studied. For, while the bibliography on him as a philosopher, an economist or a political thinker is huge, Mill "the man" has been comparatively overlooked: indeed, the old biography by St. John Packe is still the only organic work on his life and political activities. Given this lamentable neglect, it was perhaps Mill's brief but influential parliamentary career which was most urgently in need of a fresh reassessment. A Moralist In and Out of Parliament is a welcome attempt to fill this gap. Based on a collection of articles, the book has a thematic structure, and provides "a selective account" of Mill's parliamentary career. In parallel with Stefan Collini's Public Moralists (Oxford, 1991), this book explores the theme of the intellectual in public life - the Socratic role that Mill found so congenial. It deals with the four great political and moral campaigns in which the Radical M.P. for the Borough of Westminster was involved: Parliamentary reform (pp. 80-112), women's suffrage (pp. 113-48), Ireland (149-83), and "the Jamaica Horrors" of 1865 (pp. 184-218). The book contains rich accounts and splendid reconstructions of Mill's role in each of these "causes," as well as of the Westminster elections of 1865 and 1868. It culminates with an analysis of the reasons why Mill, successful under the unreformed franchise, was then defeated at the first "democratic" election. This episode elicited sarcastic comments from unsympathetic contemporaries, and has inspired the irony of modern Tory historians; yet it is remarkable that even in 1868 Mill obtained little less than one-third of the votes in a three-cornered contest, despite all the odds of the situation and his own high-minded disregard for practical electioneering.

The book is built around the thesis that, though at first unenthusiastic about the possibility of a parliamentary career, once elected Mill felt that there was much useful work for him to do in the House: in fact, it could be said that he felt that he had a "call" - that his "mission" was to radicalize the Liberal party. His various activities were systematically conceived and directed towards the achievement of this aim; his strategy was based on the hope that, once the electoral system was purified and democratized, "progressive" candidates (he thought mainly of intellectuals and labour leaders) would stand a better chance of being returned, and would provide the impetus for further reform. In this endeavour he turned out to be a rather successful parliamentary spokesman for working-class radicalism. He also confirmed himself as a thorough-going supporter of political democracy balanced by proportional representation, and of certain forms of social democracy.

The authors show that Mill had an acute awareness of the importance of national public opinion in modern politics; like Bright and Gladstone, he made sure that his electoral speeches were communicated to the press (pp. 10-11). He was also aware of the importance of party discipline: though celebrating individual dissent in On Liberty, he was a loyal backbencher, consistently supporting Gladstone on most issues. Mill greatly admired "People's William" for his "earnestness, his restless and powerful intelligence [and] his prodigious administrative capacity" (p. 88). He saw in him the leader who would further the cause of "advanced liberalism." This admiration was reciprocated: the High-Anglican Gladstone praised Mill as "the Saint of Rationalism," whose "conduct and language were ... a sermon" and manifested a "singular moral elevation" (p. 7). Despite differences in their respective religious convictions and backgrounds, it appears that there were remarkable affinities between the Christian statesman and the agnostic Radical M.P. They shared, for instance, a strong faith in international law, a hatred for jingoism, and a moral sensitivity to the welfare of ethnic and national minorities within multi-national empires. Indeed, Mill's passionate support for the cause of the Blacks in Jamaica presents strong similarities with Gladstone's later stance over Bulgaria, Zululand, and Armenia. Moreover, both Mill and Gladstone were eminently "European" in their political outlook, and tended to take a historicist approach to major political problems, such as those posed by Irish land reform.

This book goes a long way towards correcting John Vincent's famous portrait of Mill as a "Liberal leader," put forward in a thought-provoking, but rather perverse, chapter of The Formation of the British Liberal Party. In particular, Vincent's verdict about the "the failure of the Liberal intellectuals to make a fruitful relation between thought and politics" (Formation, 1972 edition, p. 188) is hardly acceptable in the light of the formidable realism displayed by Mill in his twofold capacity during 1865-68. One can only regret that Kinzer and the Robsons have not extended their study to the last period in Mill's life, 1868-73. However, what they have produced is sufficient to cast doubts also on Vincent's recent dismissal of the late Mill as one who undermined "the temple of Gladstonianism," and who "went with the crowd" (TLS, 31/1/1992, p. 7): for, from this careful investigation the philosopher-politician emerges as a forerunner, almost a prophet, of mature Gladstonianism. The contrast between the Peterhouse-Bristol professor and the Canadian scholars is sharp, but contrary to what one would have expected (and wished for) Kinzer and Ann and John Robson have felt no urge to engage themselves in a critical assessment of this and other trends among British commentators on Mill's life and work. Though this is likely to limit its impact, A Moralist In and Out of Parliament is an important addition to the bibliography on both Mill and Victorian Liberalism, and will remain the standard text on the subject for years to come.
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Author:Biagini, Eugenio F.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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