Blair, Bentham and Beyond
Delivered at Conway Hall 25 February 1999. Chaired by Professor Philip Schofield and presented by Professor Frederick Rosen.
New Labour’s current attempts at reform are closely linked with the political radicalism of British utilitarianism in the 19th century. A key figure in utilitarianism was Jeremy Bentham. He was centrally concerned with the idea of constitutional / representative democracy. This he favoured as a means of securing freedom for the individual citizen by enabling him to remove oppressive rulers by voting them out of office. However, the people’s exercise of the vote was not the same as their exercising direct political power as rulers —something which Bentham regarded as impossible in large, modern states.
For Bentham, not only did the people not directly exert political power, but they did not create civil and state institutions either. It was government that held power, while the people, through voting, could protect themselves against misuse of that power. Also, the relationship between the people and their elected representatives was highly complex; this meant that there were a variety of ways in which the public interest was served. Overall, even in a representative democracy, effective power would always lie with a numerical minority, a “ruling few.” Hence the state could not be some kind of neutral institution: it would always contain individuals who liked power; and to think otherwise (as some in New Labour do) was unrealistic.
Nevertheless, Bentham did seek ways of controlling the ruling few in government. One way was securing public access to information, so that corruption and wrongdoing could be exposed. New Labour follows Bentham in committing itself to a Freedom of Information Act, thus acknowledging the strength of Bentham’s advocacy of open government.
In the economic sphere, Bentham argued for governmental support for the poor, and a free-market competitive system. While favouring private ownership of property, he also called for more material equality, as the condition for more widespread social happiness. Equality was compatible with liberty, provided property-rights were respected. All this is echoed in New Labour’s approach to the economy, with its full acceptance of the capitalist system, its policies on social welfare, and its concern to reconcile equality with liberty.
Finally, New Labour shares with Bentham’s utilitarianism a commitment to pragmatic effectiveness rather than to ideology. This pragmatism can produce reforms which, though modest, are real gains.