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Bright and 19th Century English Liberalism

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This essay first appeared as an editorial in the journal Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought, Winter 1980, vol. III, no. 4, published by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio. Although the editorials were unsigned, they were probably written by the Editor Leonard P. Liggio or the Managing Editor John V. Cody. It is republished with thanks to the original copyright holders.

English Liberalism in the nineteenth century had its roots nurtured in several sources. Intellectually, it drew inspiration from eighteenth-century radical Whig traditions and their source in the Commonwealthmen. The Philosophical Radicals from Bentham through John Stuart Mill provided active debaters in liberal periodicals and books, as well as parliamentary commissions and other investigative bodies. The Manchester School of Economics provided liberals with significant experience through the Anti-Corn Law League. Finally, the spirit of nationalism lay not far beneath the surface of liberalism. Indeed, where earlier historians saw support for foreign self-determination (especially for Italian nationalists) as a hallmark of English liberalism, modern historians have noted the paradox that the constituencies for English liberalism were the oppressed peoples of the Celtic Fringe. In parliament Celtic support for liberalism was obvious with the Irish Nationalist members seated with the Whigs and Radicals. Likewise, “English” members sat for other parts of the Celtic Fringe (western England, Wales and Scotland) as well as for the north of England. The Liberal party arose from the heavy mobilization of voters stimulated by party rivalry in the 1830s following the Reform Act of 1832 (an era corresponding to the Jacksonian period in America).

It is impossible to overemphasize the importance to liberalism of the Commonwealthman tradition and its conception of England's seventeenth-century revolutionary history. The English middle class viewed liberalism through the revolutionary filter of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution. John Stuart Mill to accept Bright's influence rather than his own logical formulations in politics.

Bright's liberalism warmly approved local communities of people and humanity, both of which he considered to be under regular assault by central governments. For Bright, the nation was divided into two classes: “tax-eaters” and “tax-payers.” The “tax-eating” class consisted of the bureaucracy and special interest groups that benefited from government intervention. Bright was especially concerned about the “tax-eaters”—the army, navy, foreign office, colonial agencies and those interest groups which profited from belligerency, whether in the form of restrictive laws or military acts directed against other peoples. In either expression of hostility Bright detected the exploitation of the “tax-payer.” The “tax-payers'” work is exploited by the tax paid to the subsidized or protected industry whether the reason given is to protect jobs, profit margins, commercial, or political interests abroad. Bright's arguments on behalf of the Anti-Corn Law League's efforts to repeal subsidies and tariffs mirrored those against imposing on the producers the costs of the government's overseas military and political spending. (On the classical economists' arguments, see Edmund Silberner, The Problem of War in Nineteenth Century Economic Thought, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1946.)

Although he was convinced that a country needed an adequate and modern means of defense, Bright would “repudiate and denounce the expenditure of every shilling, the engagement of every man, the employment of every ship which has no object but intermeddling in the affairs of other countries.” Arms and loans to authoritarian governments would not perserve them, while self-governing people would defend themselves better with their own resources. Bright and Richard Cobden, his close associate in the Anti-Corn Law League, braved unpopularity in their spirited opposition to the Crimean War. Their firm stand on principle was the foundation for the popular non-interventionism of the Liberal Party lasting from Gladstone until the early twentieth century when World War I destroyed the nineteenth-century's accumulation of capital and, with it, the Liberal Party.

The nineteenth-century's accumulation of capital and the industrial revolution on which it was based was important to Bright. He noted that the French wars of 1793–1815 had lowered living standards undermining the early advances of the industrial revolution. Increased living standards resulted from increased real income derived from improved productivity. By raising the costs of production, the Factory Acts decreased employment and thus harmed workers.

For Bright, the economic arguments could not be separated from the moral arguments. The right to property in things is an extension to the right to property in one's self. When Sir Robert Peel proposed to introduce an income tax, Bright opposed its intrusion upon his right to privacy. He refused to disclose his income and organized a petition campaign invoking resistance to the invasion of privacy involved in the income tax. “No government,” he wrote to Cobden in 1842, “can have the right to make me state the amount of my profits and it is a vile system of slavery to which Englishmen are about to be subjected.” Bright's major speeches are collected in: Thorold Rogers, ed., Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by John Bright, M.P., (London: Macmillan and Co., 1869); and Selected Speeches of John Bright on Public Questions (London: J.M. Dent and New York, E.P. Dutton, 1907).

Last modified April 10, 2014