Mill and the Problem of Party



More potent at certain times than others, party yet held a significant place in British political life throughout the Victorian period. Few students of nineteenth-century British politics, however, would look to J.S. Mill, the most influential political thinker of his time, for insights into the role of party. Party, it is generally thought, had no standing in Mill’s conception of a healthy political order. In The Elements of Politics, Henry Sidgwick says that “Mill … hardly seems to contemplate a dual organisation of parties as a normal feature of representative institutions.”1 A.H. Birch, in his Representative and Responsible Government, asserts that Mill “simply ignored the existence of political parties.”2 Dennis Thompson’s study of the structure of Mill’s mature political thought devotes some three pages to Mill’s attitude toward party government, the author concluding that he was hostile to party and considered it unnecessary “for effective, stable democracy.”3 A recent assessment of Mill’s political theory, Nadia Urbinati’s Mill on Democracy, echoes Thompson’s judgment. Mill, Urbinati states, condemned party “for restricting competition among individuals and engendering mediocre electoral choices.”4


Party System Liberal Party Conservative Party Universal Suffrage Radical Party 
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  1. 1.
    Henry Sidgwick, The Elements of Politics, 4th ed. ( London: Macmillan, 1929 ), 590.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    A.H. Birch, Representative and Responsible Government: An Essay on the British Constitution ( Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964 ), 114.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Dennis F. Thompson, John Stuart Mill and Representative Government (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976 ), 118–21, 187.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    John M. Robson, The Improvement of Mankind ( Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968 ), 191–99.Google Scholar
  5. 53.
    See Michael Barker, Gladstone and Radicalism: The Reconstruction of Liberal Policy in Britain, 1885–1894 ( Hassocks, Sussex: Harvester Press, 1975 )Google Scholar
  6. J.P. Parry, Democracy & Religion: Gladstone and the Liberal Party 1867–1875 ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986 )CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Eugenio F. Biagini, Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform: Popular Liberalism in the Age of Gladstone, 1860–1880 ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992 ).Google Scholar

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© Bruce L. Kinzer 2007

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