Liberty Matters

Are Other Cobdens Out There?


The three responses all raise specific questions connected with Cobden’s career and legacy while at the same time sharing a great deal in terms of perspective. This shows that there is a wide agreement among historians about many parts of Cobden’s intellectual and political biography but varying emphases when it comes to interpreting them. I agree with Gordon Bannerman, Sarah Richardson, and Anthony Howe that a coherent ideology stands behind Cobden’s career and political activism; we also agree on what the content of that ideology, or worldview, was.  As Gordon Bannerman says, Cobden shared with Spencer and many other 19th-century liberals a vision of both the development of history and the nature of class and political divisions in his own time. Bannerman correctly points out that this worldview descended in part from the older “Country” tradition of 18th-century opposition, but it derived mainly from a combination of radical interpretations of political economy and a highly individualistic conception of human action and agency that came ultimately from religious thinking. (This was perhaps less clear in the case of Cobden than in others such as the Quaker John Bright). Two additional points can be made here. Firstly there was a clear difference between this way of thinking and that of the Philosophic Radicals and their intellectual descendants, no matter how much they may have agreed on specific points of policy. Secondly this ideology was not simply Cobden’s personal Weltanschaung; it was clearly shared by many others, including most of the active members of the Anti-Corn Law League, as well as the obvious cases such as John Bright, Harriet Martineau, Joseph Sturge, and later on people such as Francis Hirst  (who is cited by Richardson).
This way of thinking and the agenda it inspired came partly, as all three respondents point out, from a particular place and social context, which was the manufacturing districts of Britain and particularly, of course, Manchester.  Howe and Richardson both emphasize the essential part that a particular way of thinking about foreign policy and international relations played in this. As Bannerman points out, Cobden’s first venture into national politics came with two pamphlets on foreign policy, and this was to remain a central concern for him throughout his life. The point surely is that rather than a concern with free trade leading to a particular position on international affairs, the arrow rather went in the other direction. It was the concern with the war system and its connection to aristocratic power that then led to his decision to focus on free trade and the Corn Laws.
Howe and Richardson both address the question of why Cobden was unable to reproduce his success with the Anti-Corn Law campaign later in his life and with regard to other issues. The obvious campaign is that of the organized peace movement, which for Howe was perhaps Cobden’s big failure. Certainly this was an area where he and Bright suffered bruising political defeat, thanks to their opposition to the Crimean War.  Richardson emphasizes the importance of the idea of “free trade in land” for Cobden and the way this became a central issue for followers of his (such as G.C. Broderick) but without success – British land ownership is, if anything, even more secretive and just as concentrated as it was at the time of the 1873 Return that she alludes to.
What to say then about this? One point is that there were many campaigns in the 19th century that drew on Cobden’s model without enjoying the same ultimate success.  One was the cause of disestablishment, as advocated by the Liberation Society and Edward Miall. Another was that of temperance, perhaps the biggest single popular movement in later Victorian Britain. However, we should also remember that even “failed campaigns” had major effects in terms of their impact on the popular culture and mentality. Thus the temperance movement played a major part in both a real shift in behavior and the development of an autonomous working-class and artisan-political culture. Moreover, as Howe points out, there were also considerable successes which are simply ignored or taken for granted by much of the historiography. A good example is the one he cites: the abolition of the newspaper duty (taxes on knowledge) 1861.[49]  This was a major event, controversial at the time, and the outcome of a large and impressive campaign. (Another one he mentions, the adoption of limited liability in 1855, interestingly was one that divided those who shared the ideology mentioned, with Cobden a strong supporter and Herbert Spencer a vocal critic).[50]
One explanation for the later failure to repeat the success of 1846, offered by both Howe and Bannerman, emphasizes the lack of a single issue that could attract a broad coalition of support. I think there is something in this, but it is not principally a matter of finding it hard to mobilize support in the absence of a single issue.  The point about the campaign for free trade was that there was a single specific political action that, if taken, would ultimately bring down the entire protectionist structure – the knot of policy could be unraveled by pulling on a single string.  By contrast this was not the case with either international relations or the land system.  Even a measure such as prohibiting entail would not have the same kind of extensive effects on land ownership that repealing the Corn Laws had on trade and fiscal policy, while in international and military affairs, there was no single move that would change the nature of the system. Rather there had to be a gradual movement to build up a different way of doing things, together with sustained pressure over a long time on the military establishment. This was obviously much more difficult. In the case of land, there would have to be a sweeping measure of land reform (as happened in Ireland), and as Howe points out, this was hugely divisive.
In addition, there is the vexed question of how public opinion moved on these other issues that Cobden was concerned with.  One of the great, perhaps the greatest, failures of 19th- and 20th-century liberalism was the way in which the ideal of a cosmopolitan world society (which Cobden clearly and consciously adhered to) was overcome in popular culture by the ideology of nationalism. Here it is worth pointing out that there were serious divisions and disagreements among the broad class of liberals, with many strongly supportive of the kind of romantic nationalism represented by people such as Kossuth and Garibaldi. This led to support for what we might now call “liberal interventionism” in addition to the traditional policy of the balance of power. Moreover, the dominant whig tradition of historiography led to a perception of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, which militated against a more cosmopolitan outlook. 
On the other hand I would disagree with both Howe and Richardson that the cultural and political legacy of Cobden’s work had declined by the 20th century (the view Trentman also takes).  Even at the peak of an economic crisis in 1931, candidates who supported free trade still got a majority of the vote. (The Labor Party and the Liberals both supported it, and a significant part of the National Liberals who would later leave the government over this issue also favored it.) Even today, surveys show that the British public is more strongly supportive of free trade than is the case in most other developed countries and particularly the United States.[51]
What this suggests is that the legacy of Cobden’s campaign is much more robust than many think. One reason is the way, described by Howe, in which there was a systematic effort by organizations such as the Cobden Club, and the Economist , to “fix” a particular way of thinking about this issue in the public mind and to associate it with democracy, popular activism, and a whole series of cultural norms (the process Trentman describes).
Moreover, Richardson makes the hugely important point that Cobden’s example inspired a whole series of other movements that went on to have a transformative effect, above all the women’s movement. Harriet Martineau was one of Cobden’s closest allies and in addition to his daughter Jane, most of the founders of so-called “first wave feminism,” such as Lydia Becker, Jesse Boucheret, Helen Blackburn, and Barbara Bodichon, were both great admirers of Cobden and people who went on not only to emulate the organizational and propaganda techniques he had developed in the 1840s but also to develop them.  The 19th century-liberal movement can be thought of as in some sense a coalition of movements seeking particular changes but united by a foundational ideology, overlapping memberships and personal connections, and, increasingly, a shared political methodology (however mixed the results). The bundle of issues described as “the Woman Question” was central in all this because of the vital part played by women in all kinds of social and political activism, something that had begun in a small way with their participation in the repeal campaign.
The final question raised by my initial piece and addressed by the responses is whether there was something specific about Cobden’s own times that does not translate to ours in terms of enabling his kind of organization and activism. Howe, Richardson, and Bannerman all point to the great upsurge of activism and campaigning of all kinds that took place during the “Age of Reform” and offer various explanations for this. Perhaps we can combine all of these using a simple economic analysis. During the 18th century the cost of political activity for individuals (both literal monetary cost and the virtual opportunity cost) rose steadily as compared to the benefits that most individuals could expect as a result, until at least the 1760s. The result was the political system described by Lewis Bernstein Namier,[52.] dominated by aristocratic patronage and factionalism and the systematic use of office and legislation for personal and class benefit.  Access to politics was effectively open only to the seriously wealthy except in a number of exceptional constituencies.  (This all sounds fearfully familiar).
In the 1770s people such as Christopher Wyvill and the antislavery campaigners started to develop ways of getting round these obstacles. What happened in Cobden’s time, however, were the changes described by Howe, Richardson, and Bannerman. The common factor was that these all reduced the cost of political participation, mobilization, and propaganda. Cobden was the political entrepreneur who took advantage of this opportunity most fully and effectively. One key aspect was bundling the “public good” of political action with private goods such as entertainment and even religious observance. With the passage of time the scene became more crowded and defenders of the status quo also became adept at using these new techniques.
In the course of the 20th century the process went into reverse and the cost of political organization rose again, mainly due to the advent of mass media. I am actually less pessimistic and cautious, however, than Sarah Richardson supposes. I think in fact that the kind of developments she alludes to, such as the rise of Twitter and other social media and the dramatic decline in the cost of publishing and propaganda, mark the start of another period where campaigns like Cobden’s will once again become both easier to organize and more effective in shaping popular consciousness.  The question then is, what issue or issues can play the same role as the Corn Laws and free trade? (My own favored candidates are intellectual property and home schooling, but no doubt others will have different candidates).  The final questions of course are these: is there another Richard or Jane Cobden out there and is there an environment like that of early 19th-century Manchester that can produce people like that?
[49.] The newspaper duty was abolished in 1861 in one of Gladstone’s budgets. The final regulation of the press was done away with in 1868 (after a case involving Bradlaugh). The best book on this is by Hewitt, Martin The Dawn of the Cheap Press in Victorian Britain: the End of the ‘Taxes on Knowledge’, 1849 – 1869. London, Bloomsbury Press 2013.
[50.] Limited liability by a standard procedure was effected by the Companies Act of 1855. (before then it required a Royal Charter or special Act of Parliament.
[52] Namier, Sir Lewis. The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III London, Macmillan 1957 (2nd Edition).