Liberty Matters

The Continuing Relevance of Cobdenite Internationalism

Stephen Davies correctly points to the distinctive nature of Cobden’s thought, while also alluding to the shared values and opinions of those in the forefront of the League campaign. Clearly, however, Cobden’s rural background combined with his education, industrial experience, and broad knowledge gained from foreign travel made for an interesting form of radicalism which was more nuanced and erudite than others from the manufacturing interest.
Corn Law repeal was a facet of Cobden’s wider internationalism. Indeed in December 1847, referring to his pamphlets of the 1830s concerning balance-of-power politics, secret diplomacy, and militarism, Cobden said, “Free trade has been only a labour of love with me, in order that I might carry out those views.”[57]
While it was the aristocratic warmongering basis of the British State, and its convoluted, tortuous, and secretive diplomacy and foreign policy, which primarily propelled Cobden into political activity, there was an interesting juxtaposition in early League propaganda between war, antimilitarism, and free commerce which was a very apt reflection of Cobden’s linkage of these issues. Thackeray’s woodcut “Illustrations of the Rent Laws,” published in the Anti-Corn Law Circular in 1839, strikingly displayed the legal and military forces of the State forcibly preventing grain imports.[58]       
As Davies notes, nationalism proved to be too powerful for the type of cosmopolitan internationalism advocated by Cobden. Cosmopolitanism was easily equated with antipatriotism, and as an old anti-Jacobin rhyme put it, the cosmopolitan was:[59]
A steady patriot of the world alone The friend of every country but his own
Curiously enough, Cobden was rarely criticized for lack of patriotism. While many opposed his views, he remained respected for the principled, robust, and consistent stance he maintained. Cobden himself was never “co-opted” to the British political elite. His role in the Anglo-French Treaty negotiations was the nearest he came to acting in an “official” capacity, and his refusal to consider political office often puzzled those like his political nemesis Palmerston. Uncompromised by office, Cobden’s intellectual legacy has remained untarnished, for maintaining his principles was never tested against the trammels of House of Commons majorities, collective responsibility, and ministerial discipline.
Cobden’s political career was facilitated by constitutional reform and economic development. As Davies argues, the greater activism of the 19th century was clearly related to the reduced cost of political activity. Ironically the increasing cost of elections in the 18th century was perhaps largely owing to greater accumulation of wealth from those involved in “modern” economic activity, that is, wealthy merchants, nascent industrialists, and upstart “nabobs,” securing the representation of small boroughs. As Howe convincingly argues, the anti-Corn Law agitation was an element of the new political activism inaugurated by the 1832 Reform Act. Yet though there was scarcely a feature of the unreformed system that could not be found in existence after 1832, reform paved the way for the influence of local manufacturers in civic and parliamentary life.[60]
In 19th-century Britain, it was the “local state” which “provided the setting where a self-confident middle class built its characteristic institutions and culture.”[61] (Daunton, 152) Nevertheless, the political contours of the British State remained largely dominated by the aristocratic elite. Significantly, on his election to Parliament in 1841 Cobden informed his brother that he was “looked upon as a Gothic invader.”[62] The impulse given to reform movements in the wake of the League, noted by Sarah Richardson and Stephen Davies, was clearly vitally important. Indeed, despite the practical political need to isolate the Corn Law issue, the repeal campaign effectively fueled related issues such as land reform and the Game Laws. These were incorporated within the League campaign, serving as powerful ancillary evidence in the League’s case against landlord legislation and the “usurpations of our feudal lords.”[63]
Despite recent claims of the robust, rounded, and representative nature of the League in national terms, the extent of the League’s popularity must be questioned. While the League campaign was ultimately successful, it did take nearly 10 years to achieve its aim, and the impact of anti-Corn Law meetings, speeches, and literature was highly variable. Attempts to wean workers away from Chartism, though not entirely unsuccessful, met with disappointing results. Bids to construct a hybrid movement failed, with even many notable radicals, including Thomas Hodgskin, trying in vain to win over the working classes towards supporting repeal.[64]
Moreover, agricultural protectionism was buttressed by the complex network of City of London interests, with much support for protectionism, especially relative to sugar and shipping.[65]
Ultimately, the fears of conservatives, if not protectionists, were largely not realized. While Corn Law repeal did bring down the “entire protectionist structure,” repeal seemed to stand as a self-contained, if momentous, reform rather than the precursor of fundamental reform in Church and State. The “Age of Reform” did not fundamentally alter the political foundations of the State, and as John Bright stated in 1866: “There is no greater fallacy than this—that the middle classes are in possession of power.”[66]
The fragmentation of the radical ranks of the 1840s in later decades was clearly a deeply disappointing and disillusioning experience for Cobden.[67] Nevertheless, as Howe points out, there was clearly a paradigm shift in commercial policy which was not overturned until 1931. Equally, the participation of women proved to be inspirational and an important exemplar and template for future political activity. We can therefore agree that there were many positive elements of repeal, and its impact, influence, and legacy were great.
In response to Stephen Davies’s query about the future trajectory of popular movements, I would like to offer a slight variant by alluding to recent events where elements of Cobdenite thought seem to have entered the policy space or at least converged with developments and approaches in international relations. For example, would Cobden have approved of the exercise of “soft” power? While preferable to the “hard” power of coercion and military force, is this not merely a warmer, friendlier term for the economic imperialism and market hegemony of earlier centuries? What of the use of international institutions to resolve and avert conflict? While the record of the United Nations and the European Union is questionable, the principles of conciliation, diplomacy, and pacification embodied by these institutions would surely be approved by Cobden. Yet it is doubtful whether he would have approved of another layer of bureaucratic and highly politicized institutions regardless of the ideals, or the greater emphasis on transparency, accountability, and democratic legitimacy.
If international institutional developments have fallen short of attaining Cobdenite ideals, greater parliamentary consultation and scrutiny of the decision to go to war, emanating from within the UK government, appears more promising. The erosion of the “war prerogative” held by the Crown (though exercised by ministers) is not yet legally enshrined, but after the Iraq debacle, amid accusations that the government waged an “illegal” war, the government is now wary of committing troops without parliamentary consultation and, in the recent case over Syria, parliamentary approval. This change in the operation of the “war prerogative,” inserting democratic accountability and public opinion into the decision to go to war while providing safeguards for national security and operational efficiency, is highly significant.[68] For while Cobden advocated international commerce to completely obviate the need for war, in the absence of this counsel of perfection, moves towards diplomatic transparency and democratic accountability must surely be considered advances in the direction of a Cobdenite conception of international relations.
The legal, political, and diplomatic technicalities inherent in these issues make them unlikely to either capture the public imagination or to provide impetus and enthusiasm for activists. The interaction among political ideas, economic interest groups, and national and supranational institutions has never seemed more complex. It seems unlikely that any popular movement will be able to influence popular consciousness in the same way the Anti-Corn Law League did. Clearly there is no lack of available resources for promoting and pursuing political objectives. However, the proliferation of social media seems thus far to have led to a highly transient and fickle audience, a cacophony of discordant voices, and an ill-defined delineation of political issues, often characterized by sloganeering and oversimplification.
There are clearly limits to what technology can achieve. It can facilitate rather than create, and greater opportunities for political engagement and activism will not necessarily lead to a more politically-conscious nor more politically-active electorate and population. All future activists will have to think carefully about how to effectively deliver, as well as formulate, their message.
[57.]Bannerman, Gordon & Howe, Anthony (eds). 2008. Battles over Free Trade vol. 2. London: Chatto & Pickering, p. 45. For Cobden’s fundamental philosophy, to be found in these pamphlets, see: England, Ireland, and America (1835) </titles/2650> and Russia (1836) </titles/cobden-russia>. For a good selection of Cobden’s speeches, see: Cobden, Speeches on Questions of Public Policy, 2 vols. especially vol. 2  </titles/931>.
[58.] See, Stray Papers by William Makepeace Thackeray. Being Stories, Reviews, Verses, and Sketches (1821-1847). Edited, with an Introduction and Notes. By Lewis Saul Benjamin. With Illustrations. (London: Hutchinson and co., 1901). Frontispiece, pp. 167-68, p. 416. The images can be found in Cobden and the Anti-Corn Law League.
[59.]The verse comes from George Canning, "New Morality" in the last issue of The Anti-Jacobin, or, Weekly Examiner (No. 36, 9 July 1798). The full stanza is:
Taught in her school to imbibe thy mawkish strain, Condorcet, filtered through the dregs of Paine, Each pert adept disowns a Briton's part, And plucks the name of England from his heart.What! shall a name, a word, a sound, control Th' aspiring thought, and cramp th' expansive soul? Shall one half-peopled Island's rocky round A love, that glows for all creation, bound? And social charities contract the plan Framed for thy freedom, Universal Man! No—through th' extended globe his feelings run As broad and general as th' unbounded sun! No narrow bigot he;—his reason'd view Thy interests, England, ranks with thine, Peru! France at our doors, he sees no danger nigh, But heaves for Turkey's woes th' impartial sigh; A steady patriot of the world alone, The friend of every country—but his own.
Republished in 1852 following another French Revolution in 1848, Poetry of the anti-Jacobin: comprising the celebrated political & satirical poems, parodies and jeux-d'esprit of the Right Hon. George Canning, the Earl of Liverpool, Marquis Wellesley, the Right Hon. J. H. Frere, G. Ellis, esq., W. Gifford, esq., and others. New and Revised Edition, with Explanatory Notes. (London: G. Willis, 1852), No. XXXVI (July 9, 1798), "New Morality," pp. 201-20 [quote from p. 204-5.]
[60.] Howe, Anthony. 1984. The Cotton Masters, 1830-1860. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 133-61.
[61.] See, Daunton, M. J. 1989. “‘Gentlemanly Capitalism’ and British Industry, 1820-1914.” Past & Present 122: 119-58.
[62.]Morley, John. 1881. The Life of Richard Cobden, vol. 1. London: Chapman and Hall, pp. 184-85.
[63.] [National Anti-Corn Law League]. 1842. The Anti-Bread Tax Almanack for the Year of our Lord 1842. Manchester: J. Gadsby, p. 2.
[64.] Hodgskin’s A Lecture on Free Trade, in Connexion with the Corn Laws (1843) </titles/321>
[65.] Howe, A. C. 1992. “Free Trade and the City of London, c. 1820-1870.” History 77, pp. 401-4.
[66.] Bright, Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by John Bright M.P. Edited by James Edwin Thorold Rogers in Two Volumes. Second Edition (London: Macmillan, 1869), Speech to the National Reform Union, Free Trade Hall, Manchester on 20 November 1866, vol. II, p. 216. A larger section of Bright's speech is worth quoting at greater length:
The middle class are told that since the Reform Bill of 1832 political power has been in their hands; before 1832 it was with the lords and great land owners, but since 1832 it has been in the hands (if the middle class; and now the middle class are asked whether they are willing to surrender that power into the hands of a more numerous, and, as these persons assert, a dangerous class, who would swamp, not the exalted class of lords and great landowners, the highest in social position, but would swamp also the great middle class with whom power is now said to rest. And they try to teach the middle class that there is an essentially different interest between them and the great body of the people who are not yet admitted into that class. They say the one class is in power, and the other class is outside, and out of power, and they warn the middle class against admitting the outsiders into partnership with them, for fear they should dethrone the middle class and set up an unintelligent, unreasoning, and selfish power of their own.That is the sort of argument which is used to the middle class to induce them to take no part in any measure that shall admit the working class to a participation in political power. I should be ashamed to stand on any platform and to employ such an argument as this. Is there to be found in the writings or the speaking of any public man connected with the Liberal or the Reform party so dangerous and so outrageous a policy as that which these men pursue? When separating the great body of the people into the middle and the working class, they set class against class, and ask you to join with the past and present monopolists of power in the miserable and perilous determination to exclude for ever the great body of your countrymen from the common rights of the glorious English constitution. There is no greater fallacy than this—that the middle classes are in possession of power. The real state of the case, if it were put in simple language, would be this—that the working-men are almost universally excluded, roughly and insolently, from political power, and that the middle class, whilst they have the semblance of it, are defrauded of the reality. The difference and the resemblance is this, that the working-men come to the hustings at an election, and when the returning-oflicer asks for the show of hands, every man can hold up his hand although his name is not upon the register of voters; every working-man can vote at that show of hands, but the show of hands is of no avail. The middle class have votes, but those votes are rendered harmless and nugatory by the unfair distribution of them, and there is placed in the voter’s hand a weapon which has neither temper nor edge, by which he can neither fight for further freedom, nor defend that which his ancestors have gained.
[67.] Howe, Anthony, ed. The Letters of Richard Cobden Volume 2 1848-1853 (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. xxx-xxxv.
[68.] Joseph, Rosara. 2013. The War Prerogative: History, Reform, and Constitutional Design. Oxford: Oxford University Press., p. 219.