Liberty Matters

Cobden’s Single-Issue Politics


The illuminating essay by Stephen Davies clearly identifies the strengths in Richard Cobden’s intellectual armoury. Practical business experience, foreign travel, and wide reading all contributed towards his great political acumen, along with his ability to vibrantly assert and convey a coherent set of principles encompassing a progressive worldview. These intellectual attributes marked Cobden out as a unique figure outside the mainstream of political opinion, most definitely a “Victorian outsider.” Equally, Cobden’s advocacy of commercial liberalism and free exchange has led to his being known as “the International Man.”[26] It was particularly appropriate and just recognition of the importance Cobden placed on freedom in international commerce as the facilitator and driver of economic growth, international peace, and more philosophically, the progress of ethical values and human civilization. Cobden built on Herbert Spencer’s distinction between “militant” and “industrial” societies:[27] the former organized primarily for war with free reign for militarism and aggressive instincts, while the latter sublimated these instincts in work and commerce: civilized, peaceful activities which contributed towards wealth-creation.[28] Here was the broad basis for the division between “productive” and “idle” classes which permeated Cobden’s social theory.
Cobden first came to public prominence as the author of two pamphlets, England, Ireland, and America (1835) and Russia (1836) under the (significant) pseudonym “A Manchester Manufacturer.”[29] Foreign policy and nonintervention were Cobden’s main concerns early in his career, and his opposition to traditional balance-of-power diplomacy was expressed in vigorous but disarmingly plain terms:  
Those who, from an eager desire to aid civilization, wish that Great Britain should interpose in the dissensions of neighbouring states, would do wisely to study, in the history of their own country.… To those generous spirits we would urge, that, in the present day, commerce is the grand panacea, which, like a beneficent medical discovery, will serve to inoculate with the healthy and saving taste for civilization all the nations of the world.[30]
Although often viewed as a highly progressive and modern thinker, elements of Cobden’s thought clearly owed something to the oppositional 18th-century “Country” tradition.[31] Yet, while there were many different aspects to Cobden’s thought, and his radical ideas were developed and refined over time, the fundamental principles he advocated in the 1830s remained largely intact throughout his life.[32] Before taking his message to the world Cobden had to convince his own countrymen of the desirability of free trade. The notion of greater commercial freedom had a long history in Britain, with abortive moves towards liberalization in the 1780s, and a more systematic implementation of freer trade by reciprocal commercial treaty arrangements promoted by Huskisson in the 1820s. Despite these steps, protectionism remained entrenched within the British body politic, for fiscal and political reasons which had evolved over centuries.
At a theoretical level the astonishing growth in political-economy ideas promoted by the disciples of Adam Smith did not stop at the lecture-room but entered the public domain through periodicals, pamphlets, and abridged and/or cheaper volumes for working men.[33] Theoretical development, particularly Ricardian comparative advantage in international commerce,[34] proved to be hugely influential. Enlightened statesmanship and theoretical rigor were accompanied by a vibrant, expanding manufacturing sector pursuing open markets as a means of procuring cheap raw materials and selling finished products. Cobden himself served an apprenticeship as a clerk and commercial traveler before becoming a partner in a Lancashire calico-mill in 1828, and British manufacturing expansion and industrial development raised suspicions that for all the moralistic talk surrounding open markets, free trade, international peace, and civilization, far more base motives were at work. Domestic protectionists claimed Cobden and his business associates, particularly cotton manufacturers, in the Anti-Corn Law League were primarily motivated by personal gain. The nefarious activities of League “millocrats” were attacked by protectionists and Chartists, and abroad the free trade ideas of “perfidious Albion” were denounced more widely as a tool for ensuring British political and economic hegemony.[35] This type of critique has been maintained by historians in a less pejorative sense, with Cobden characterized as a “middle-class Marxist” based on his blend of “interest and principle.”[36] Certainly manufacturers were important in financing and providing leadership, but the League represented more than merely an organization established to obtain Corn Law repeal for the benefit of manufacturing industry. For tactical reasons, Cobden had to downplay the wider implications of repeal, not only because it was potentially divisive but also because it risked diluting and detracting from the repeal campaign. Cobden patiently explained to colleagues that corn and provisions alone must be the focus of the campaign, and by keeping to single-issue politics he successfully avoided division, though, as the Chartist movement demonstrated, divisions could also occur over means rather than ends.
The radical lineage relating to the Corn Laws went back to the immediate aftermath of the 1815 Corn Law, and anti-Corn Law associations existed earlier in the 1830s, providing an example of how the Corn Laws could be viably agitated against as a single-issue question.[37] Cobden understood the importance of repeal towards other policy areas. For him the Corn Laws were the “keystone of monopoly” within the protective system,[38] and repeal would unlock further reforms as a means of undermining the aristocratic “territorial Constitution” in Church and State. Cobden clearly had vision and imagination, particularly notable in his speeches (and letters) which were characteristically tersely argued, vividly described, and highly politicized. As the most prominent and convincing advocate of repeal, his ability, determination, and capacity for hard work were vitally important to the League campaign. Equally though, repeal was a multifaceted issue, and the League drew on many influential and often somewhat contradictory sources of political thought including theology, secular radicalism, and older popular anti-aristocratic notions of moral economy. In practical terms, repeal was a cause that encompassed different groups and possessed a cross-class and cross-sector appeal. As Marx perceptively noted, the objective of the League was “very general, very popular, very palpable.”[39]
The League was innovative in its methods of agitation and propaganda, and employed numerous rhetorical and theatrical devices to deliver its message; political theatres and staged “events” were often very successful in obtaining publicity and were a potent ideological vehicle. Engels flippantly paid tribute to the ubiquitous nature of the League campaign in citing a delegate to the Economic Congress at Brussels in 1847 as stating “the stalest and most platitudinous shibboleths of the Anti-Corn-Law League, long since known by heart to almost every street urchin in England.”[40]
Nevertheless, the campaign was not all-conquering, and mistakes were made. The annual parliamentary motion for total and immediate repeal did not achieve much, and the petitioning campaign merely diverted opposition to the Corn Laws into innocuous constitutional channels. Moreover, while the noble democratic course of changing opinion was always important in the League campaign, less politically reputable methods of legally challenging votes by the use of revising barristers, and the creation of votes by property qualification were also sanctioned, albeit intermittently, by the League.
Attempting to quantify influence is always difficult, and ultimately Peel was responsible for repeal against the opposition of much of his party and many people in the country. Clearly, the constant agitation and pressure exerted by the League was influential in forcing the issue on to the political agenda, and even into the 20th century, Corn Law repeal remained a symbolic motif embodying a complex skein of quasi-populist, anti-aristocratic and democratic principles. Conversely, many of the causes Cobden espoused in the post-repeal period failed to gain significant traction during his lifetime. Initial support for financial reform, international arbitration, and disarmament was curbed by the 1852 French invasion scare, prompting years of international instability. Yet by the later 1850s, after the Crimean debacle, increasing support for nonintervention and retrenchment in defense spending represented “visible signs of a shift towards Cobdenite sensibilities within English liberalism.”[41]
The standard Cobden set for practical political organization and mobilization of opinion remains relevant today. While impossible to doubt the extent or importance of Cobden’s organizational or rhetorical abilities, contemporary politics, notably Britain’s anti-poll tax campaign, illustrate the potency of a single political issue which can somehow encapsulate a wider philosophy, especially when incorporating a blend of morality, oppositional ideology, and participation in an anti-establishment battle against elite power. Contemporary political cynicism and a more diffuse political culture appear to militate against mobilizing public opinion on the scale and nature of the anti-Corn Law campaign. Yet the Tea Party in the United States, the UK Independence Party in Britain, and the pro-independence “Yes” campaign in Scotland have made significant progress, and all contain elements strikingly similar to the Anti-Corn Law League in terms of their attack on entrenched vested interests, a shared populist rhetoric, and the mobilization of public opinion on single issues, albeit issues highlighting a deeper and wider malaise in the body politic.
[26.] See, Hobson, J. A. 1919. Richard Cobden: The International Man. London: H. Holt and Company.
[27.] On Herbert Spencer’s distinction between “militant” and “industrial” societies, see Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Sociology, in Three Volumes (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1898). Vol. 2. </titles/2632>. Part V. Political Institutions. Chap. XVII. The Militant Type of Society and Chap. XVIII. The Industrial Type of Society.
[28.] Cain, Peter. 1979. "Capitalism, War, and Internationalism in the Thought of Richard Cobden". British Journal of International Studies 5, p. 230.
[29.]England, Ireland, and America (1835) </titles/82#lf0424-01_head_007> and Russia (1836) </titles/82#lf0424-01_head_015>, which are both in 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 (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903), vol. 1.
[30.] In England, Ireland, and America (1835). Part I. England, reprinted in 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), p. 20. </titles/82#Cobden_0424-01_335>
[31.] Conway, Stephen. 1995. "Britain and the Impact of the American War, 1775-1783". War in History 2, p. 136.
[32.] Porter, Bernard. 2007. Critics of Empire: British Radicals and the Imperial Challenge. London: I.B. Tauris, p. 12-14)
[33.] [Editor] Cobden's own speeches were circulated in cheap editions such as The Corn Laws. Speech of R. Cobden, Esq., M.P. in the House of Commons, on Thursday Evening, February 24, 1842. (Manchester: J. Gadsby, n.d.). The 12 page pamphlet was priced at "one penny" and it was the "Sixteenth Thousand-Revised" edition. One might also mention the work of Thomas Hodgskin who regularly lectured to working men's groups at "Mechanics Institutes" and worked for James Wilson's pro-free grade magazine The Economist. One of his lectures was published as A Lecture on Free Trade, in connexion with the Corn Laws; delivered at the White Conduit House, on January 31, 1843 (London: G.J. Palmer, 1843). </titles/321>.
[34.] On Ricardian comparative advantage in international commerce: "Under a system of perfectly free commerce, each country naturally devotes its capital and labour to such employments as are most beneficial to each. This pursuit of individual advantage is admirably connected with the universal good of the whole." in Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817) "Chap. VII. On Foreign trade". The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, ed. Piero Sraffa with the Collaboration of M.H. Dobb (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). Vol. 1. </titles/113#Ricardo_0687-01_454>
[35.]See, McKeown, T. J. 1983. "Hegemonic Stability Theory and 19th Century Tariff Levels in Europe." International Organization 37: 73-91.
[36.] See, Briggs, Asa. 1965. Victorian Cities. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 127.
[37.] See, Cameron, Kenneth J. 1979. "William Weir and the origins of the “Manchester League” in Scotland, 1833-39". Scottish Historical Review 58: 70-91.
[38.] "I say, then, that whatever may be the fate of the Navigation Laws, the Corn question is a different thing. I was always an advocate for confining the public mind to that one question; I call it the keystone of the arch; the rest will fall of itself." in "Speech on Free Trade XXIII. House of Commons, March 8, 1849," 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). Vol. 1 Free Trade and Finance. <http://oll.libertyfu/title/>.
[39.] Marx, Karl. 1855 [1973]. "On the Reform Movement." pp. 286-8 in Karl Marx, Surveys from Exile: Political Writings, vol. 2, ed. David Fernbach. London: Penguin, p. 288.
[40.] Engels. Frederick. 1847 [1976]. "The Economic Congress." pp. 274-8 in Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 6 (1845-48). London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd, p. 277.
[41.] Taylor, Miles. (ed.). 1994. The European Diaries of Richard Cobden, 1846-1849. Aldershot: Scolar Press, p. 31.