It was interesting to see Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, citing John Stuart Mill in his defence of multiculturalism in yesterday's Independent newspaper (28th Nov. 2006, p.29 'To defend multiculturalism is to defend liberty'). Livingstone described the current assault on multiculturalism as 'simply one manifestation of the age-long struggle between liberty and its opponents.' For him John Stuart Mill's On Liberty provides the foundations of multiculturalism, and justifies why people should be free to choose to wear 'a yarmulke, a turban or a hijab or none'. He explained the Harm Principle (Mill's view that individuals should be immune from state interference unless harming others), though reinterpreted it somewhat by emphasing not harm to others, but 'interference' with others.
He also distanced multiculturalism from moral relativism (the view that there are no universal moral values, that values are always relative to particular cultures or subcultures): ''The very statement that people should be able to do only such things that do not interfere with others is clearly an assertion of a universal value.' Livingstone is admirably clear that some culturally relative practices, such as female circumcision, are morally unacceptable and should not be tolerated.
This is for the most part admirable. It is unusual to find a politician giving such a clear and principled account of the values he or she espouses. Yet I wonder if Livingstone realises that Mill was not willing to extend such liberty to everyone. He did not allow that liberty was appropriate to
'those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage...
And, contrary to the sorts of values I believe Ken Livingstone believes in, Mill went on
Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. [from John Stuart Mill On Liberty, Penguin edition, p.68-9.]
Nevertheless, it is excellent to see this kind of reasoned philosophical defence of a position entering public debate about multiculturalism. It is a good antidote to the knee-jerk assertion of values and patronising rhetoric that is so commonly the stuff of editorials.