J.S. Mill and the Problem of Party

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Although party was a considerably more limited force in the British political system between the repeal of the Corn Laws and the Second Reform Act than it had been either during the thirties and early forties or in the later decades of the nineteenth century, it was nonetheless a significant fact of English political life throughout the Victorian period. Few students of nineteenth-century British politics, however, would look to J.S. Mill, perhaps the most influential political thinker of his time, for insights into the role of party. The consensus has been that very little of a positive nature can be said about Mill and party. In The Elements of Politics, Henry Sidgwick observes that “Mill… hardly seems to contemplate a dual organisation of parties as a normal feature of representative institutions.” A.H. Birch asserts, in his Representative and Responsible Government, that Mill “simply ignored the existence of political parties.” Dennis Thompson's study of the structure of Mill's political thought devotes some three pages to Mill's attitude towards party government, the author concluding that he was hostile to it and did not consider it necessary “for effective, stable democracy.” Indeed, Mill's major political treatise, Considerations on Representative Government, says remarkably little about parties, and where they are referred to no constructive influence is imputed to them. His discussion of Thomas Hare's plan of personal or proportional representation, for example, makes clear that one of its numerous virtues is the security it provides for insuring the representation not of “two great parties alone” but of every significant “minority in the whole nation.”


Journal of British Studies





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