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The gall of Roy Hattersley

He has the gall to (metaphorically) dig up J S Mill’s dead body, sit it next to him, do a ventriloquist’s act with the dead skull, and then to say, “look – Mill agrees with me.”

Hattersley claims that Mill would have joined him in wanting schools to be banned from teaching creationism. Here’s the offending article. Yes, I know that Mill sometimes departed from pure classical liberalism, but if there was one thing that he, writing in an age riven by religious controversy and when religious organisations provided the majority of British primary education, would have recognised as a test case for liberty it would be the right of religious people to propagate their beliefs to their children as they see fit. Yet Hattersley writes:

“We need to decide where individual freedom begins and ends. Fortunately, we have John Stuart Mill to guide us. He was a passionate opponent of what vulgarians call “the nanny state”. So he insisted that: “All the errors which [we are] likely to commit against advice and warning are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain (their neighbours) for their own good.” But, while we must be free to harm ourselves, there can be no freedom to “injure the interests of one another, or rather certain interest which, either by express legal provision or tacit understanding, ought to be considered as rights.” It is surely self-evident that to teach in schools that Eve was created from Adam’s rib injures children’s interests. They either go into the world believing manifest nonsense, or spend their adolescence under the impression that their teachers are cranks.”

I may not have my copy of On Liberty to hand, but thanks to the internet, I can nail that one. Back before I lost the book I put an entry in my blog about Mill’s very explicit view that propagating mistaken beliefs did NOT constitute an injury to another’s rights. A quick Google search called it up. When the secretary of the Alliance, an organization agitating for the prohibition of alcohol, said, “I claim, as a citizen a right to legislate whenever my social rights are invaded by the social act of another,” Mill replied:

“So monstrous a principle is far more dangerous than any single interference with liberty; there is no violation of liberty which it would not justify; it acknowledges no right to any freedom whatsoever, except perhaps to that of holding opinions in secret, without ever disclosing them: for the moment an opinion which I consider noxious passes any one’s lips, it invades all the ‘social rights’ attributed to me by the Alliance.”

From memory that passage comes very soon after the passage Hattersley quotes. How on earth did Hattersley come to miss it? Don’t answer that! And how, too, did he come to claim Mill as an ideological ally given Mill’s view, expressed in the same book, that Hattersley’s beloved state education was a thoroughly bad thing:

“A general State education is a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mold in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government–whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the the existing generation–in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.”

(Quote found via Improved Clinch)

I haven’t touched here on Hattersley’s remarks on extending anti-discrimination legislation to cover sexuality even for religious schools who hold homosexuality to be a sin, nor on his views about halal slaughter. But I am pretty sure that on those topics, too, Hattersley vilely misrepresents the inferences it is possible to make from J S Mill’s writings when he (Hattersley) concludes his article thus:

No doubt the government will behave in that way as it examines “creationist” teaching, employment discrimination and ritual slaughter. Unfortunately, it will take as its text not On Liberty but the recent report of a focus group.

6 comments to The gall of Roy Hattersley

  • cydonia

    Nice job, Natalie!

    One point which is unclear from the Hattersley article is whether the schools in question are private or State.

    If they are State then I don’t see that there is any great issue of principle involved. State schools, by their very nature, will always be battlegrounds for competing ideologies (with the various interest groups competing to decide how the taxpayers money is to be spent).

    If they are private schools, then it is a whole different ballgame. The notion that the State should criminalise the teaching of certain ideas as between consenting parties (viz the schools and the parents) because the Great and the Good disapprove of the teaching of those ideas, is pure authoritarianism. Unfortunatelyhowever, this is now the law – see section 157 of the 2002 Education Act.

    Incidentally, this highly authoritarian provision seems to have slithered in beneath the radar of pro-Liberty groups.


  • Tony H

    Yes, nice demolition job on Hattersley, would-be cuddly chat-show performer whose rotund jollity conceals an old style Labour authoritarian – cf his oppressive but predictable views on gun control. I think his arrogance and dismissive contempt are neatly summed up in his reference to “what vulgarians call the ‘nanny state’ “. I suppose by his standards I’m a vulgarian – always thought “nanny state” pithy & apposite.

  • G Cooper

    Tony H writes:

    “… conceals an old style Labour authoritarian…”

    Stalinist is the word that springs to mind. Hattersley was a failure in office and has been a pompous fool out of it.

  • Ian

    From his Guardian article: “We might even have to support Islam’s right to declare a fatwa against offending infidels.”

    Is this not the same Roy Hattersley who seemed quite happy to side with those supporting the fatwa against Salman Rushdie? Admittedly, votes rather than principles were at stake…

  • Liz

    Based on Hatterley’s previous record, I would not be all surprised if he did, in fact, ‘dig up J S Mill’s dead body, sit it next to him, do a ventriloquist’s act with the dead skull, and then to say, “look – Mill agrees with me.” ‘

    Come on, you can just see it, can’t you?

  • Cydonia,

    Hattersley either wants to ban private education entirely or at the very least wants to harass, stigmatise and tax it half to death. I couldn’t find any clear statement of which option he goes for on Google, but this article gives an idea of his thought on the matter.

    In other words, he wants to make it next to impossible for views he despises to be taught.

    Incidentally he traduces Mill again in that article. By no means do I agree with every word Mill wrote; he did tend towards limited socialism in his latter years. But to write that, “Like John Stuart Mill, I [Hattersley] am only in favour of limiting individual freedom when its exercise does damage to the rest of the community” turns what Mill actually wrote on its head.