Sunday, December 12, 2010

Richard Grayson on Mill, Hobhouse and T.H. Green

Because of Charles Kennedy's indolence as leader, Richard Grayson had a large say in the running of the party for many years. Which makes him a slightly unconvincing representative of the party's grassroots in today's front-page Observer report by Anushka Asthana and Allegra Stratton.

Richard Grayson has an article of his own on the Guardian website in which he complains:
all we hear from Nick Clegg is lots about John Stuart Mill. Rarely, if ever, is there talk of the Liberals cited by Ed Miliband, nor the originators of social liberalism such as LT Hobhouse or TH Green. A philosophy which seldom goes beyond Mill is firmly stuck in the 1850s, as if more than a century of social liberalism never happened.
The explanation for this can largely be found in an article on Mill that I wrote for Liberator in 2007:
It is fashionable to name check L.T. Hobhouse and T.H. Green, but I suspect that few who do so have really read their works. Hobhouse’s Liberalism is approachable, but hardly profound when set against Mill, while Green is next to unreadable. In part this is because Green’s heyday came during that brief period in the late nineteenth century when Idealism was the dominant force in British philosophy, and it is hard for we 21st-century realists to make much of him as a result. Equally, however, there was a tension in Green’s thought between his espousal of liberty and the enthusiasms, such as Temperance, which he derived from his religious views. The suspicion must be that he sometimes found it convenient to take refuge in obfuscation.
In short, Green is unreadable and Hobhouse is not that good. But I do strongly recommend Peter Clarke's Liberals and Social Democrats, which looks at the intellectual circles of which Hobhouse was a member.

I was also a little amused that Richard complains that Nick Clegg is stuck in the past, but can offer no alternative thinkers more recent than Hobhouse (who died in 1929) and Green (who died in 1882 ). I wonder what Professor Grayson would make of a student essay that presented these two as representatives of modernity?

In my Liberator article I did manage to mention more recent names: Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin and Richard Rorty (who had only just died when I wrote it). But what we really need are some current-day Liberal thinkers.

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Iain Sharpe said...

I can't claim to have read Hobhouse extensively either. But I note that Ed Randall's and David Howarth's entry on him in the Dictionary of Liberal Thought states that [Hobhouse] sought to explain the social programme and taxation policies of the Liberal party as an extension, not a reversal of the economic principles of earlier Liberals such as Mill.'

Richard Grayson's seeming alienation from the party is sad and disappointing, the more so as he seems so reluctant to give the Lib Dem leadership the benefit of any doubt and so keen to absolve E Miliband and Labour from blame, either for the last 13 years of government or the failure of negotiations earlier this year.

Richard Grayson said...

Jonathan - fair point (and justified amusement) that I didn't offer anyone more recent. But I cited those two because I think they are widely held in the party to be the founders of social liberalism that has been so important in the party's tradition, and that Mill is seen to speak to speak to us on narrower ground. Of the others, yes, of course they are important but not so widely revered in the party. In limited space, my overall point was that Nick doesn't really talk about the people a lot of the rest of us focus on.

Richard Grayson said...

Iain - "as an extension, not a reversal of the economic principles of earlier Liberals such as Mill."

I think that you are right Iain, but the extension is the important bit!

Richard Grayson said...

Jonathan - "Which makes him a slightly unconvincing representative of the party's grassroots in today's front-page"

Or just possibly the LD grassroots were a bit closer to the leadership then? And I have been a parliamentary candidate for eight years. Isn't that grassroots? Whether I represent them or not is a different question, but I have some credentials to be part of hem.

Unknown said...

"But what we really need are some current-day Liberal thinkers."

Yes, indeed. How about Virginia Postrel? Her book The Future and its Enemies is admittedly just over a decade old but deals with today's questions. Her argument is that politics is seeing a divide between "dynamists" and "stasists" - between people who welcome individual initiative and experimentation and those who either want to direct change technocratically or try to stop it altogether.

She is very much on the side of the dynamists (and acknowledges an influence from Mill on her thinking in this regard) and punctures technocratic and reactionary arguments throughout the book. For me I naturally see liberals as dynamists, though as Postrel points out this division does not follow (American) party lines but can cut right across them.

If you haven't read her book I strongly recommend it:

Unknown said...

P.S. Bertrand Russell is sadly no longer with us, but his book An Intelligent Person's Guide to Liberalism is still very relevant. I think his argument that liberalism is fundamentally about limiting and distributing power rather than (say) supporting the free market for the sake of it is absolutely right. That said, the quality of his arguments does diminish towards the end of the book.

In answer to Prof Grayson's comments, I'd like to make a couple of points:

1) Nick Clegg and other Lib Dems (such as those who voted Mill the Greatest Liberal a few years ago) go on about Mill because much of what he has to say is timeless: the rights of the individual versus the power of the collective, the source of creativity and social progress; these are surely 21st-century issues as well as 19th-century issues?

2) Unlike Bastiat or more recent liberal thinkers such as von Mises or Hayek, Mill's thought is not considered to revolve around economic liberalism. In fact, in On Liberty he explicitly says that trade can be regulated by society. He was also an enthusiast for land reform, like many 19th-century British liberals, though he rejected socialism. So being a disciple of Mill does not automatically make someone a free-marketeer. Nor is it a signal that they don't care about social liberalism.

Unknown said...

P.P.S. I forgot another contemporary liberal thinker: Amartya Sen!

Development as Freedom is readable and displays his distinctive conception of social liberalism, which is one I feel I share.

Richard Grayson said...

Thanks Niklas. That's Conrad Russell's book, rather than his father Bertrand's. But it's very good nonetheless. Fail Mill about Mill being timeless, but is that it? Nothing since that is also timeless? I think Hobhouse at least stands the test of time.

Unknown said...

Gosh, sorry about the silly Russell mistake!

I have not read Hobhouse myself so only have a vague idea of his views. Is he worth taking the time to understand?

Jonathan Calder said...

Hobhouse is easy to understand, but I think you may be disappointed if you are looking for an authoritative resolution of the tensions between individual liberty and collective provision.

Liberal Neil said...

@Iain Richard may be alienated from some of the coalition's policies, and even Nick Clegg's direction, but that isn't the same thing as being alienated from the party.

I have a serious concern that some of the views of Nick and several of the people around him do not represent what i beleive to be the general position the party has taken up until now, and that this, in turn, probably has an impact on the balance of debate within the coalition.

For example his recent speech about social mobility and equality was, in my view, not representative of the general view within the party.

Adam Bell said...

Hi Jonathan,

In terms of contemporary liberal thinkers, you may also wish to look at Fleischacker, who I wrote about on LDV here: