John Stuart Mill was born in London in 1806, the son of James Mill, the disciple of Jeremy Bentham and Chief Examiner (Chief Executive Officer) of the East India Company. Mill's youth was spent mostly in an exceptionally rigorous experimental education directed by his father; but he also put his Utilitarian ideas into practice, and was arrested and briefly imprisoned in 1823 for agitating in favour of contraception. In the same year, he joined the East India Company as a clerk, and was to work there for most of the next forty years, finally achieving the post of Chief Examiner in 1856.
In 1858, Mill retired from the Company and devoted himself to philosophy and writing for several productive years. On Liberty was published in 1859, and Utilitarianism and Considerations on Representative Government in 1861. After a brief spell as Member of Parliament for Westminster, Mill retired to Avignon in France, where he died in 1879.
Mill's thought is of particular interest for the current debate. Not only was he one of the leading philosophers of liberal democracy and an early advocate of many aspects of the rights of women, universal suffrage and religious tolerance; but throughout his life, he was intimately involved with the British Imperial rule in India, and amongst the leading figures of the high tide of the liberal, Utilitarian project between 1828 and 1857.
In his Considerations on Representative Government, Mill argues that "the ideally best form of government is representative government":
"There is no difficulty in showing that the ideally best form of government is that in which the sovereignty, or supreme controlling power in the last resort, is vested in the entire aggregate of the community; every citizen not only having a voice in the exercise of that ultimate sovereignty, but being, at least occasionally, called on to take an active part in the government, by the personal discharge of some public function, local or general." (CORG, Ch. III)
The reason for this is that good government is nothing other than government in the interests of the governed. Hence self-government is the ideal form of government, because only self-government can ensure that the executive maintains "that complete and ever-operative identity of interest with the governed."
The chief competitor to self-government in Mill's eyes is some form of despotic rule: and it is dangerously seductive:
"It has long … been a common saying, that if a good despot could be ensured, despotic monarchy would be the best form of government. I look upon this as a radical and most pernicious misconception of what good government is . . ." (CORG, Ch. III)
For a despot, no matter how benevolent, to realise government in the interests of the people in the same manner that representative self-government, would require "one man of superhuman mental activity managing the entire affairs of a mentally passive people" – a combination, in other words, of the impossible with the utterly undesirable.
The price of democracy is compromise and sometimes indecisiveness. As a result, Mill argues, the illusion that good government may be had more cheaply is all too attractive, and entertained just as often by well-intentioned modernisers as by self-seeking dictators:
"It is not much to be wondered at if impatient or disappointed reformers, groaning under the impediments opposed to the salutary public improvements by the ignorance, the indifference, the intractableness, the perverse obstinacy of a people, and the corrupt combinations of private interests armed with the powerful weapons afforded by free institutions, should at times sigh for a strong hand to bear down all these obstacles, and compel a recalcitrant people to be better governed." (CORG, Ch. III)
How then did Mill square these views on the primacy of democratic self-government with his own career as an officer of a colonial regime? The answer lay in the concept of the 'general degree of … improvement' of a people – their position within the 'general scale of humanity'. Peoples that are not sufficiently civilised may not at first be able to sustain representative self-government, and for them, 'real good government is not compatible with the conditions of the case. There is but a choice of imperfections.' In such cases, the best feasible form of government may well be undemocratic imperial rule by foreigners:
"Thus far of dependencies whose population is in a sufficiently advanced state to be fitted for representative government. But there are others which have not attained that state, and which, if held at all, must be governed by the dominant country, or by persons delegated for that purpose by it. This mode of government is as legitimate as any other, if it is the one which in the existing state of civilisation of the subject people, most facilitates their transition to a higher stage of improvement" (CORG, Ch. XVIII)
The imperial mandate is therefore a serious business: 'the highest moral trust that can devolve upon a nation'. It is fraught with dangers: although 'the thing appears perfectly easy to superficial observers', 'it is quite certain, that the despotism of those who neither hear, nor see, nor know, anything about their subjects, has many chances of being worse than that of those that do'.
Nevertheless, so long as the goal of the imperial project is always religiously fixed as the eventual self-government of the people concerned – the goal that distinguishes liberal imperial rule from mere despotism – then 'a government of leading strings' is justified as the optimal means of bringing a less civilised people to the stage when they can themselves enjoy self-government.