Liberty Matters

Richard Cobden: Impact and Legacy

Anthony Howe’s justified cautionary note in relation to the somewhat negative tone of earlier contributions is well-timed and calls for further explanatory comment. Clearly, by his role in the successful anti-Corn Law campaign Cobden had much to live up to in later campaigns. The failure of many of the causes he advocated cannot be attributed solely to Cobden, just as the success of Corn Law repeal was not his alone. With the possible exception of the 1849 “National Budget,” which was primarily his own work, Cobden was only one member of many movements which had a highly variegated membership, and it was often the case that others assumed a leading role. Movements for financial reform and parliamentary reform were highly complex and involved a clash of a wide range of ideas and interests. Education was the classic example where the competing claims of the Established Church, Dissent, and secularism were only the most obvious fault lines in a fractious issue. Moreover, reform agitation surrounding these movements reflected this complexity inasmuch as the varied proposals and recommendations did not lend themselves to an easy or convenient identification of interests which encompassed a wider socioeconomic critique.
In terms of my previous comment regarding the extent of support for the League, I would add a qualification in the sense that a simple head count of the population with a majority in favor of repeal would not, given the political culture of the 1840s, have automatically justified or legitimized repeal. Despite the 1832 Reform Act, Britain was a very long way from a democratic model whereby parliamentary representatives acted as quasi-delegates and whose votes in the House of Commons were merely a reflection of public opinion in their constituencies.
In 1817, George Canning had stated:
When I am told that the House of Commons is not sufficiently identified with the people, to catch their every nascent wish and to act upon their every transient impression, — that it is not the immediate, passive, unreasoning organ of popular volition, — I answer, thank God that it is not! I answer, that according to no principle of our constitution, was it ever meant to be so; — and that it never pretended to be so, nor ever can pretend to be so, without bringing ruin and misery upon the kingdom.[79] 
By 1846 the position was not substantially different. Despite a small number of resignations by MPs whose opinions conflicted with majority opinion in their constituencies, the trustee model of representative democracy famously outlined by Edmund Burke on 3 November 1774 in his Speech to the Electors of Bristol remained dominant.
Burke said:
Parliament is not a Congress of Ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an Agent and Advocate, against other Agents and Advocates; but Parliament is a deliberative Assembly of one Nation, with one Interest, that of the whole; where, not local Purposes, not local Prejudices ought to guide, but the general Good, resulting from the general Reason of the whole. You chuse [sic] a Member indeed; but when you have chosen him he is not Member of Bristol, but he is a Member of Parliament.[80]
Schonhardt-Bailey has demonstrated how League activity, institutional reform, and changing economic interests at the constituency level were important variables influencing policy preferences in parliamentary votes on repeal.[81] Even if there was clearly no automatic mechanism for translating constituency opinion into parliamentary votes, bringing pressure to bear within constituencies and keeping the question alive was still vitally important. By utilizing a range of propaganda devices and instruments, the League’s “multimedia” approach, in speech, text, and illustration, was innovative in popularizing repeal, but quantifying its impact is extremely difficult. [See below for two examples of illustrations (45-46) conceived by Cobden for use by the ACLL.] In defending free trade from fair traders in the 1800s and Tariff Reformers in the 1900s, free traders adopted largely the same propagandist instruments and devices. However, aided by technological advances, the expansion of the press, and the growth of political democracy, late 19th-century and early 20th-century free traders arguably reached a wider and more-informed audience than had been possible in the 1840s.
Yet, while free trade was highly influential in British political culture well into the 20th century, it was never unanimously accepted. Dissenters from free-trade policies and the worldview they represented were fairly consistent in advocating an alternative conceptual framework for the role of commerce within the State. While protectionism languished in mid-Victorian Britain, the emergence of historical economists counterposing a “national” economic policy to the internationalism of free trade provided some theoretical ballast, vibrancy, and respectability. Nevertheless, the theoretical dominance of free-trade ideas is very apparent when we consider that Friedrich List’s National System of Political Economy was not translated into English until 1885, over 40 years after it was first published and circulated widely in Continental Europe.[82]
As we have seen, by the 20th century Free Trade was under threat from a more coherent collectivism and a more powerful rights-based socialist labor movement. Arguments for free trade were modulated and adjusted commensurately with these changes in political culture.[83] The economic case for free trade, on the basis of individual liberty, natural justice, and economic efficiency, was increasingly supplemented by a politically neutral consumerism for the benefit of working-class opinion. In the short-term the success of this approach led socialists to lament the consumer psychology which had subverted proletarian class consciousness. Theodore Rothstein described the shift from militant proletarian to petit bourgeois as characterized by workers’ interest “not so much in the income as in the expenditure side of his budget.”[84]
The social contract with the Victorian state, based on the primacy of the citizen-consumer and embodying a political guarantee of working-class material welfare, proved to be powerful in securing working-class support. The continuity of free-trade principles and the policy instruments it contained made it theoretically and practically mutable, and able to serve as the basis for liberal social democracy in the early 20th century.[85]
Cobden’s influence in this transformation was not lost on contemporaries. As one organ of provincial liberalism stated in the centenary year of his birth: 
Were there no fiscal revival to stimulate interest in his life and work he would nevertheless continue a living force, persisting powerfully in numerous directions.[86]
By 2004, with the passage of time and the revolution and reconfiguration of modern political ideas, appreciation of the political importance of Cobden was more the province of academics than of the popular press or popular political culture. While press comment in 2004 was limited (though not completely absent), it was the bicentenary essays in Rethinking Nineteenth-Century Liberalism, edited by Anthony Howe and Simon Morgan (2006), which has revived interest in the man and illustrated the contemporary relevance of his ideas.[87]
[79.] Canning;s "Address on the Prince Regent's Speech at the Opening of the Session" (19 Jan., 1817), Hansard HC Deb, 29 January 1817 vol. 35 cc. 130-31. .
[80.] Burke's Speech to the Electors of Bristol (3 November 1774) in Mr Edmund Burke’s Speeches at His Arrival at Bristol: and at the Conclusion of the Poll. (London: J. Dodsley, 1775), pp 28-29 ; and Select Works of Edmund Burke. A New Imprint of the Payne Edition. Foreword and Biographical Note by Francis Canavan (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999). Vol. 4. "Mr. Edmund Burke’s Speech to the Electors of Bristol" (3 Nov., 1774) </titles/659#Burke_0005-04_80>.
[81.] Schonhardt-Bailey, From the Corn Laws to Free Trade (2006), pp. 107-54.
[82.] Friedrich List's protectionist work National System of Political Economy was published in Stuttgart in 1841 with a second revised edition in 1844. It was translated into French in 1851 by Henri Richelot who was head of the Ministry of Commerce. It was first translated into English in 1856 in Philadelphia, with a London edition appearing in 1885. The 1909 edition of the London translation can be found on the OLL </titles/315>.
[83.] Howe, “Towards the ‘Hungry Forties’: Free Trade in Britain, c. 1880-1906,” pp. 193-95.
[84.]Rothstein, Theodore, From Chartism to Labourism: Historical Sketches of the English Working Class Movement (1929), p. 264.
[85.] Howe, “Towards the ‘Hungry Forties’: Free Trade in Britain, c. 1880-1906,” pp. 199-201.
[86.] “The Centenary of Cobden,” Dundee Advertiser, 3 June 1904.
[87.] Howe, Anthony and Morgan, Simon, eds.2006. Rethinking Nineteenth-Century Liberalism: Richard Cobden Bicentenary Essays. Aldershot; Ashgate.