Liberty Matters

What Next, and Next? The Cobden Moment: Fleeting or Fundamental?

Stephen Davies’s eloquent essay tackles one of the enduring issues of Richard Cobden and his legacy: what traces did his philosophy, so influential and so effective at mobilizing public opinion in the mid-19th century, leave and is there anything of relevance in his ideas for politics today?  To borrow Cobden’s title for his pamphlet assessing the Crimean War and relations with Russia: what happened next, and next?
The picture looked gloomy in 1903 when F. W. Hirst, the journalist and ardent Cobdenite (he married Cobden’s great niece and for a period resided at Dunford House, Cobden’s childhood home), wrote:
During the last decade it has been the fashion to talk of the Manchester School with pity or contempt as of an almost extinct sect, well adapted, no doubt, for the commercial drudgery of a little, early Victorian England, but utterly unfitted to meet the exigencies or satisfy the demands of a moving Imperialism.[42]
Other, more recent commentators have supported this pessimistic assessment, with Frank Trentmann arguing that Cobden’s vision of a free-trade nation fell out of favor in the interwar period with liberal economists preferring a new internationalism which supported regulation of the global economy.[43]
It is clear that many aspects of the economy and society dear to Cobden’s heart were severely failing in the immediate decades following his death in 1865. Although universal, mass education had been introduced by the Education Act of 1870, many working-class children had an inferior and sporadic experience of school, and educational standards remained low. The numbers of unskilled workers continued to be stubbornly high. Wages were falling, and wealth was unevenly distributed. The 1873 Return of Owners of Land demonstrated that 43 percent of land was owned by a small group of around 1,600 landowners (although it also revealed that there were numerous freeholders owning very small parcels of land). Farms were generally getting larger and relying on smaller numbers of wage laborers, restricting employment in the countryside. The abolition of the Corn Laws had not led to universal free trade policies. Nations such as Russia remained obstinately resistant and tariffs​,​ and monopolies were used to develop industry and infrastructure in India and other parts of the Empire. The cost of the army and navy continued to increase, and foreign policy was increasingly militaristic.
As Davies notes, free trade was but one aspect of Cobden’s worldview and his philosophy was far broader. It is difficult to pin this down precisely as his political writings tended to be commentaries rather than a setting out of a coherent ideological standpoint, and his views were reinterpreted and refashioned by his wide circle of followers. He had a holistic approach, believing that social progress towards political democracy depended on the interaction of economic, moral and religious, and educational factors. Liberty was core to Cobden’s set of values. The Corn Laws were just one manifestation of the consequences of centuries of aristocratic dominance. Others included the corrupt political and electoral system, the intertwining of church and state, militarism, and the unequal distribution of land. Cobden had connections to the complete suffrage movement arguing for household suffrage, the ballot, shorter parliaments, and curbs on the House of Lords. His support for free trade in land was key to his ideology and would become the centerpiece of Cobdenist thought in the late 19th century. A few months before his death, Cobden wrote:
If I were five and twenty or thirty, instead of, unhappily, twice that number of years, I would take Adam Smith in hand – I would not go beyond him, I would have no politics in it – I would take Adam Smith in hand, and I would have a League for Free Trade in Land just as we had a League for Free Trade in Corn.[44]
Davies poses a challenging question in his essay: “whether there was something historically specific about Cobden’s success, dependent upon the particular circumstances of his times, or alternatively that his methods and analysis are still applicable.”
It is clear that the Great Reform Act inaugurated many reform agendas: in the church, law, women’s rights, freedom of the press, health, local government, and the arts. These are ably articulated and assessed in an edited collection by Arthur Burns and Joanna Innes[45]. The 1830s witnessed a raft of legislation including civil registration, the commutation of tithes, Jewish emancipation, banking reform, the abolition of slavery in the British colonies, and the reduction in duties on the press. Extra-parliamentary activities also grew in scale and may be gauged by metrics such as the vast increase in the number of petitions presented to parliament; the growth of pressure groups, societies and associations for the social and economic issues such as temperance, education and the treatment of the poor; and the number of mass meetings and campaigns taking place in communities across Britain. Although the pace of reform diminished from the 1840s onwards, there is no doubt that the “people” had begun an important conversation with parliament which shifted the contours of debate. The establishment now had to engage with the language of reform.
Cobden thus had a fertile environment on which to launch the campaign to repeal the Corn Laws. But was the Cobden moment only fleeting? Some would argue that the lack of success for his later endeavors for land reform and international peace demonstrate that the success of the Anti-Corn Law League was due more to timing than to any ideological or organizational strategy. However, this negative conclusion may be countered by considering the political education gained by those participating in the mass campaign to repeal the Corn Laws – particularly for those hitherto largely excluded from the public sphere.
The League was a pivotal movement for both radicalizing women and for providing a model for the organization of later political campaigns. Strategies which were to prove successful in later campaigns for women’s rights, such as fund-raising, lobbying and electoral canvassing, were shaped by the experiences gained by participation in the movement. Paul Pickering and Alex Tyrrell have analyzed the varied nature of female commitment to the Anti-Corn Law League and women’s contribution to developing the League as a truly national movement[46]. My own work has further demonstrated the rich and vibrant female political culture that proliferated in this period.[47] That this was an enduring, rather than a fleeting, legacy may be demonstrated by the activities of the daughters of Richard Cobden in the later 19th century, at the very time when many commentators argued Cobden’s influence and vision was fading. Jane Cobden carried forward the fight for land reform via her two published books, The Hungry Forties: Life under the Bread Tax (1904) and The Land Hunger: Life under Monopoly. The Land Hunger (1913)[48] was dedicated “To the memory of Richard Cobden who loved his native land, these pages are dedicated by his daughter, in the hope that his desire – ‘Free Trade in Land’ – may be filled.” Cobden’s daughters were refashioning his democratic ideas for the political circumstances of their own age. They were conscious that they were taking his work forward. As well as harnessing his political philosophy, Cobden’s daughters built on the organizational techniques which had made the Anti-Corn Law League so successful. They utilized the courtroom and the streets as well more formal methods of lobbying to keep issues such as land reform, education, and women’s rights at the top of the political agenda in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is just one illustration of how Cobden’s ideas remained at the forefront of radical and progressive politics well into the 20th century, demonstrating that his contribution was not only sustained but remodelled for a new age.
But what of today? Could Cobdenite ideas and tactics be successful in a televisual age? Davies is cautious on this point arguing that the political environment is more hostile to the activities of private individuals. However, whilst the rise of radio and television has meant that face-to-face politics is increasingly mediated through broadcasters, a campaign’s turning-point may still hinge on an unscripted personal encounter between a politician and the public. Thus many argue Gordon Brown’s 2011 election campaign was scuppered when he termed Gillian Duffy a “bigoted woman” after a bruising encounter on the street. With the rise of the Web 2.0 generation, politics is entering a new phase. The activities of the 2009-10 Iranian Green Movement were termed the “Twitter Revolution” because of the protesters’ reliance on Twitter and other social-networking sites to communicate with one another. Attempts by political parties in Britain to control the political blogosphere have gone seriously awry with politicians deviating from the party message and coordinated smear campaigns. Thus, there is potential for Cobden’s ideas and tactics to thrive and prosper in the 21st century.
[42.] Hirst, F. W. ed., Free Trade and Other Fundamental Doctrines of the Manchester School. Set Forth in Selections from the Speeches and Writings of Its Founders and Followers. Harper and Brothers, 1903. London. </titles/94#Hirst_0575_2>
[43.] See, Trentmann, Frank. Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption, and Civil Society in Modern Britain. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford.
[44.] Morley, John. Life of Richard Cobden. 2 vols. T. Fisher Unwin, 1881. London. Vol. ii, p. 456. </titles/1742#Morley_0553_1602>
[45.] See, Burns, Arthur and Innes, Joanna. Rethinking the Age of Reform: Britain, 1780-1850. Cambridge University Press, 2003. Cambridge.
[46.] See, Pickering, Paul, A. and Tyrell, Alex. The People’s Bread: A History of the Anti-Corn Law League. Leicester University Press, 2000. London.
[47.] See, Richardson, Sarah.  The Political Worlds of Women: Gender and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Routledge, 2013. London. See also the collection of images on the Flickr account of Manchester Archives which demonstrate how the anti-Corn Law League appealed to and utilised women in its campaign, many of which can also be found here in the "Images of Liberty and Power" collection in the essay on "Cobden and the Anti-Corn Law League". They include a membership card of Manchester branch illustrating how the League is campaigning to protect the vulnerable, an invitation to a meeting encouraging attendees to bring their family, a poster encouraging voter registration asking women ‘the best of our auxilliaries’ to support the campaing, and a poster for a Manchester Bazaar.
[48.] Jane Cobden, The Hungry Forties: Life under the Bread Tax. Descriptive Letters and other Testimonies from contemporary Witnesses, with and Introduction by Mrs. Cobden Unwin. Illustrated (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1904); Jane Cobden, The Land Hunger: Life under Monopoly. Descriptive Letters and other Testimonies from those who have suffered, with an Introduction by Mrs. Cobden Unwin and an Essay by Brougham Villiers (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1913).