Liberty Matters

Why Couldn’t Cobden Replicate His Anti-Corn Law Success?

“I am not sanguine as you know about the success of any effort to recall to the attention of the public the details of our long agitation – I doubt the possibility of any body making the history an interesting one. In fact, it is not a pleasant chapter to go over again in all its minutiae; for it was but a blundering unsystematic series of campaigns, in which we were indebted for our success to the stupidity of our foes, & still more to the badness of their cause.’ --Richard Cobden to Archibald Prentice, 13 September 18523. [12]
Cobden’s own comment on the history of the Anti-Corn Law League suggests that he was less certain about the roots of his own success than Davies’s careful reconstruction of his ideas and strategy implies. Nevertheless, in combating the Corn Laws, not only did Cobden benefit from the weakness of the protectionist cause, but unlike those seeking change today, he also rode the wave of recent political activism. For following the Reform Act of 1832, the 1830s in Britain had seen a revolution in political participation with the emergence of a vastly increased electorate, local party politicization, and the revitalization of municipal government, whose councils were in effect the “soviets of the bourgeoisie.” (Hence Cobden began political life as “Alderman Cobden of Manchester.”)
Inspired by the successful antislavery movement, a huge number of pressure groups were also already in action seeking goals as diverse as temperance, disestablishment of the Church of England, and the repeal of the Union with Ireland. The free-trade movement also existed at various levels – within the bureaucracy, the Political Economy Club, and in various localities -- while the Manchester Anti-Corn Law Association from which the League sprang existed independently of Cobden. Indeed he had been absent in Germany when it was formed.[13] Cobden’s success lay therefore in harnessing growing activism to a better-focused free-trade movement, although all this may have been unnecessary had the Liberal Tory William Huskisson (1770-1830), often deemed the father of free trade, succeeded in the late 1820s in his planned reform (possibly even abolition) of the Corn Laws.
Cobden’s own animus against the Corn Laws did, as Davies argues convincingly, stem from his wider intellectual outlook, but it is useful to recall that this was originally expressed in his pamphlets on foreign policy in the mid-1830s,[14] designed to attack reliance upon the bogey of the “balance of power” to justify expensive entanglements abroad, which in turn served only to benefit the few at the cost of the many. Significantly these tracts were published under the sobriquet of “A Manchester manufacturer.” This was important, for Cobden remained an outspoken representative of the entrepreneurial classes, seeking to free industry from the exactions of the aristocratic state, although his own rural roots added a strong strain of radical hostility to landlordism or “territorialism.”[15] But Cobden’s anti-aristocratic sentiment ran through his entire career, fueling inter alia his campaigns for peace and the reform of foreign policy, his opposition to colonial expansion, and his campaigns for financial and land reform. Here in many ways therefore he held to a consistent worldview which directed his efforts at reform.[16] This therefore leads us to the question Davies rightly asks – was his success over the Corn Laws “contingent” upon other factors -- and to the question Davies prompts but does not answer – why did Cobden’s later campaigns fail to replicate the success of his anti-Corn Law campaigns? Why did his single-minded strategy work over the Corn Laws but not over land, peace, and foreign policy.
Interestingly Cobden himself used the success over the Corn Laws to formulate in effect a seven-year model of successful reform, combining the education of opinion, pressure from without, and parliamentary campaigning: “We must serve our apprenticeship in these great legislative measures … and it is well we have to do so, for if we were to succeed too soon we should not consider our advantages worth preserving.” (Morning Post, 27 November 1849) Why did he not successfully put this into subsequent practice? One cardinal rule he emphasized in the case of the League was single-issue politics, a clear decisive legislative goal. This proved far more difficult in later radical campaigns when goals were often confused, for example, financial and parliamentary reform in the late 1840s. Nor did later reforms lend themselves to such well-orchestrated social support – Cobden often referred to the League’s success as that of “a middle class set of agitators,”[17] with the cotton masters of northern England (of whom Cobden was one) providing the spearhead and the vast majority of its funds while using the Corn Law issue to assert their presence and identity within the political system.[18] Virtually all later reforms fragmented rather than united the middle classes. Thus education, to which Cobden attached huge importance, immediately fell victim to the church and chapel consciousness of the Victorians, with the fissure between the Church of England and the serried ranks of Dissenters and Catholics proving a fatal obstacle to reform. Over land reform, the direct assault of the bastion of the aristocracy, the middle classes as urban property owners remained indifferent, or alternatively, as nouveaux riches aspiring to their own landed estates, became hostile. 
On major issues of foreign policy, especially the Crimean War, Cobden felt isolated from the patriotism of the many, fed he believed by the war-mongering martial spirit inculcated by the elite. Even before the end of the Crimean war the Radicals Cobden and Bright appeared as “generals without armies.” Against this background, despite his efforts to cultivate public opinion, Cobden remained unable to recreate the enthusiasm generated by the anti-Corn Law movement, which remained the outstandingly successful reform pressed from without. Equally, following the suggestion in the quotation from Cobden above, we may surmise that other causes were both “better” in themselves and better defended, for example, the case for the reform of international maritime law, where Cobden found J. S. Mill among his leading opponents.[19] Interestingly other reforms with which Cobden was identified, for example, the important introduction of limited liability in 1855, seemed to pass without great visible external pressure, while the highly important repeal of the taxes on knowledge (completed in 1861) has passed almost unnoticed by historians until recently.[20]  In later life Cobden lost confidence in his own ability to orchestrate reform from without, but he also looked in vain for the new generation to succeed him. Perhaps the greatest “missed opportunity” lay in terms of the peace movement, where Cobden had the capacity to unite the disparate strands of utilitarian pacifist and religious opposition to war.[21] Yet here too the context remained unfavorable to success as war enveloped the Near East, Italy, and the United States.
This therefore left repeal of the Corn Laws as the chief achievement of Cobden’s career. Although he rightly took great satisfaction from the 1860 Anglo-French commercial treaty, this had been achieved by working within the political system, although Cobden’s purpose was still to use foreign economic policy in order to subvert aristocratic rule, a consistency of ideas although not of strategy. This also helped cement the gains of the 1840s, and here, while Davies rightly points to the long-term impact of repeal, repeal in itself, while necessary, was not sufficient for Britain’s becoming the free-trade nation.[22] Not only was the memory of repeal carefully orchestrated in popular history and memory, but institutions such as the Cobden Club[23] worked avidly to cement this legacy, which was also central to the popular politics of the Liberal party under Gladstone. In this way later challenges of “Fair trade” and tariff reform were defeated by the deep-rootedness of the popular loyalty to free trade created after 1846.[24]
Finally, as to context, the repeal movement undoubtedly benefited from the new postal facilities of the 1840s, but free trade was also part and parcel of the wider communications revolution in which the railways, the telegraph, canals, and steam shipping reduced time and distance and sustained trade and capital flows within the world economy. Here the third quarter of the 19th-century proved to be a period of considerable globalization, of which Cobden himself was an optimistic proponent, believing that all nations might be united by trade, that imperial power was unnecessary as were wars, and that popularly governed nations, on the model of the United States, would have “no foreign politics.”[25] This vision was already under threat before his death 150 years ago; whether it is capable of resurrection in a new age of globalization will certainly require at the very least an individual of supreme organizational skills and systematic thought, but might be expected more readily to emerge within institutions (of which Cobden himself was profoundly suspicious) devoted to global governance.
[12.] See, Howe, Anthony, ed. The Letters of Richard Cobden Volume 2 1848-1853 (Oxford, 2010).
[13.] See, Howe, Anthony, ed. The Letters of Richard Cobden, Volume 1 1815-1847 (Oxford, 2007) .
[14.] See Cobden, England, Ireland, and America (1835) </titles/82#lf0424-01_head_007> and Russia (1836) </titles/82#lf0424-01_head_015>.
[15.] See, Howe, Anthony, Free Trade and Liberal England, 1846-1946 (Oxford, 1997) .
[16.] See, Cain, Peter, “Capitalism, War, and Internationalism in the Thought of Richard Cobden,” British Journal of International Studies 5 (1979), 229-47.
[17.] See for example, "Our opponents have been fond of telling us that this is a middle-class agitation. I do not like classes, and therefore have said that we are the best of all classes; but this I believe, that we have enough of the middle class, and the propertied portion of the middle class, to beat the landlords at their own game in all the populous counties in England." in Richard Cobden, Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P., ed. by John Bright and J.E. Thorold Rogers with a Preface and Appreciation by J.E. Thorold Rogers and an Appreciation by Goldwin Smith (London: T.Fisher Unwin, 1908). 2 volumes in 1. Vol. 1 Free Trade and Finance. "Speech on Free Trade XIII. London, Dec. 11, 1844." </title/927#Cobden_0129.01_399>.
[18.] See, Howe, Anthony, “The ‘Manchester School’ and the Landlords,” in M. Cragoe and P. Readman eds. The Land Question in Britain, 1750-1950 (Basingstoke, 2010).
[19.] See, Varouxakis, Georgios, Liberty Abroad: J. S. Mill on International Relations (Cambridge, 2013).
[20.] See, Hewitt, Martin, The Dawn of the Cheap Press in Victorian Britain (London, 2014).
[21.] See, Ceadel, Martin, “Cobden and Peace,” in Anthony Howe and Simon Morgan, eds., Rethinking Nineteenth-Century Liberalism: Richard Cobden Bicentenary Essays (Aldershot, 2006) .
[22.] See, Trentmann, Frank, Free Trade Nation (Oxford, 2008).
[23.] See, Howe, Anthony, Free Trade and Liberal England, 1846-1946 (Oxford, 1997).
[24.] See, Howe, Anthony, “Free trade and its Enemies,” in M. Hewitt ed. The Victorian World (London, 2012).
[25.] "We know of no means by which a body of members in the reformed House of Commons could so fairly achieve for itself the patriotic title of a national party, as by associating for the common object of deprecating all intervention on our part in continental politics. Such a party might well comprise every representative of our manufacturing and commercial districts, and would, we doubt not, very soon embrace the majority of a powerful House of Commons. At some future election, we may probably see the test of “no foreign politics “applied to those who offer to become the representatives of free constituencies. Happy would it have been for us, and well for our posterity, had such a feeling predominated in this country fifty years ago! " in "Part I. England" in England, Ireland, and America (1835), in Richard Cobden, The Political Writings of Richard Cobden, with a Preface by Lord Welby, Introductions by Sir Louis Mallet, C.B., and William Cullen Bryant, Notes by F.W. Chesson and a Bibliography, vol. 1, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903). </titles/82#Cobden_0424-01_331>.