Thomas Hill Green

Green was a British political writer and thinker who was also a political activist . He was a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford, but alongside his academic career Green was politically active; though never an MP, he served as a Liberal councillor in Oxford for a short while . He supported pressure groups such as the Reform League (for extending the franchise), the National Education League (which advocated compulsory, universal, state-funded non- denominational education) and the United Kingdom Alliance (which promoted anti-drink legislation) . His main works were published after his death and included Prolegomena to Ethics (1883) and Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation (1885–88) .

His main contributions to new liberalism were his ideas about the role of the state and his reflections on freedom . His impact was greatest on British Liberal politicians such as Herbert Asquith (prime minister 1908–16), who, along with David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, introduced a number of social reforms such as sick pay and unemployment benefit for many workers, as well as old-age pensions for the poorest . Recent government attempts to eradicate child poverty in the UK could also be seen to have their roots in some of Green’s ideas 

Thomas Hill Green argued for a much bigger role for the state, especially in the relief of poverty.

■ First, Green argued that the state had a key role in the self-development of individuals, above all those beset by poverty. In essence, he argued that the removal of poverty would lead to a fairer and more just society for all and that for such a change to be successful, the state had to get involved. He particularly promoted social reforms, including education, better housing and public health.

■ Green also reflected the new liberal shift in the definition of freedom from an essentially negative one to a positive one. As he put it in a lecture on political obligation, ‘To an Athenian slave, who might be used to gratify a master’s lust, it would have been a mockery to speak of the state as a realisation of freedom;  and perhaps it would not be much less so to speak of it as such to an untaught and underfed denizen (resident) of a London yard.’ The state must work for all its citizens, especially the poorest in society, and not be content to see freedom as just an absence of formal restrictions. To be really free, an individual must be lifted out of the chains of poverty.

Green’s theory of liberty was positive. It was a positive power of doing or enjoying something. As Green put it, ‘When we speak of freedom … we mean a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing.’ Freedom was something to be enjoyed in common with others, and again the state should promote this.

■ He also saw a role for the state not only in fighting poverty but also in promoting moral improvement. People would desist from immoral and damaging behaviour such as drunkenness and prostitution if they were released from the prison of poverty. Again, the state could help, for example by restricting or even prohibiting the sale of alcohol.