Liberty Matters

What Cobden Has Wrought

The comments by the other participants in this conversation contain so many interesting points that I hardly know where to begin in reacting as well as making further points of my own. As such I will highlight what I see as the most important or insightful points, but this should not be taken to mean that other parts of what they have said are not worthy of attention.
I agree with Anthony Howe that perhaps in our focus upon the question of why it proved hard in several cases to repeat the success of the Anti-Corn Law campaign we adopted an excessively negative tone. What is important to remember, as he says, is just how extraordinary the success of the campaign was, given the obstacles it faced. It did take 10 years, as Gordon Bannerman points out, but I suspect that informed political opinion in Cobden’s own time would have thought it impossible that it would ever succeed. The many images and texts that David Hart has incorporated[88] remind us of just how varied and extensive the propaganda and activities of the League were. We are in need of a proper comparative study of 19th- and early 20th-century campaigns and pressure groups (Patricia Hollis’s edited collection[89] is still the best work on this) which would show, I suspect, that the League employed a far more varied range of techniques than most other campaigns. 
One interesting comparison is with Irish nationalism. If we compare Cobden’s campaign with the movement to repeal the Act of Union led by his contemporary (and ally) Daniel O’Connell, what becomes clear is the way that the latter was focused very closely on politics, with huge mass meetings the primary activity. The same point can be made a fortiori about Chartism or later Irish nationalism in the age of Parnell. All of these movements were about pressuring the political class to take certain measures, but beyond that, to mobilize a large group (the Irish or manual workers) so that they could gain political power. Both of these were present in the free trade campaign, particularly the former of course, but they were combined with something that was incidental in the contrasting movements, even Chartism. This was what Gordon Bannerman and Sarah Richardson allude to (particularly in the discussion of Cheryl Schonhardt-Bailey’s work) – a deliberate effort to shape public culture and outlook. This has much more profound and long-lasting effects arguably than political action and is much more likely to succeed, particularly when compared to an attempt to alter not just a particular government but the entire political regime. Unfortunately the kind of politics that Michael Davitt or Parnell practiced has a persistent fascination for the radical mind when the kind of cultural or institution-building politics of Cobden and others has more chance of lasting effect.
One particular point made by Anthony Howe is the way Cobden successfully brought about a radical shift in the popular perspective, from a focus on the interests of producers to those of consumers. This of course was strongly contested, and the idea that production takes place in order to create jobs rather than to produce goods for consumption is still very popular. However, polls and other tests of opinion in the United Kingdom repeatedly show that the majority of the British public continues to take the consumer-oriented position.  This is a simple change of thinking and perspective that has profound and extensive consequences. The interesting contrast is with the United States, where producerist arguments continue to have enormous popular purchase and there is an entire genre of popular economic writing that calls for protection and other measures to boost production at the expense of consumption. There is no counterpart to this in the United Kingdom.
One interesting question that Gordon Bannerman raises is that of Cobden’s view of international relations. Put simply, what would he make of supranationalism of the kind represented by the United Nations and other institutions and the growth of a body of international law in the form of binding treaties and covenants. This is a controversial topic, with some authors such as Razeen Sally[90] arguing that this kind of development is very much the realization of Cobden’s ideas. I personally disagree strongly with that. In my view the model of international relations that Cobden and many of his contemporaries espoused was very different, with two important elements not found in current internationalist thinking. The first was the idea that a stable order of commonly shared principles and rules would grow up piecemeal from the bottom up through repeated resort to arbitration and plebiscites to settle disputes between states. This is critically different from the top down model of sovereign states  (particularly the great powers) acting to impose an order on the world. In particular the content of the emergent world order was not prescribed for Cobden or derived from abstract principles; it was rather something that would emerge or be discovered. The second was the idea found in the writings of several of his contemporaries (notably French liberals such as Charles Dunoyer) and which Cobden himself alluded to, that of the “municipalization of the world.” This was the idea that as society progressed, large territorial states and empires would be replaced by a multiplicity of small self-governing communities organized collectively in voluntary confederations or leagues. In a speech Cobden gave in Manchester on January 15, 1846 he states:
I see in the Free-trade principle that which shall act on the moral world as the principle of gravitation in the universe,—drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonism of race, and creed, and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace. I have looked even farther. I have speculated, and probably dreamt, in the dim future—ay, a thousand years hence—I have speculated on what the effect of the triumph of this principle may be. I believe that the effect will be to change the face of the world, so as to introduce a system of government entirely distinct from that which now prevails. I believe that the desire and the motive for large and mighty empires; for gigantic armies and great navies—for those materials which are used for the destruction of life and the desolation of the rewards of labour—will die away; I believe that such things will cease to be necessary, or to be used, when man becomes one family, and freely exchanges the fruits of his labour with his brother man. I believe that, if we could be allowed to reappear on this sublunary scene, we should see, at a far distant period, the governing system of this world revert to something like the municipal system; and I believe that the speculative philosopher of a thousand years hence will date the greatest revolution that ever happened in the world's history from the triumph of the principle which we have met here to advocate.[91]
This is relevant for a point made by Sarah Richardson. She mentions Cobden’s involvement in the Peace Congress movement, as examined by my former colleague David Nicholls.  This was indeed much more successful and had a greater impact at the time and subsequently than we realize. One important part of this whole movement, which Cobden supported although it was most associated with his ally Joseph Sturge, was the notion of “peoples diplomacy.” This meant developing what we would now call civil-society connections between the inhabitants of different states, direct personal contacts and links between ordinary people as opposed to formal diplomatic relations between governments. (One reason for this was the explicit belief that diplomats reflected the interests of ruling classes rather than ordinary people.)  This kind of activity, as Sarah points out, did indeed bring about significant shifts in outlook. Unfortunately the later 19th and very early 20th centuries saw a sudden revival of the idea that relations between different national groups were zero-sum competitions and that war was actually a good, particularly as a character-building exercise.  This strikes most people today as simply bonkers, but it became an important part of both elite and popular culture by the 1890s and 1900s.
An important point that Gordon Bannerman makes is the enduring resistance to free trade and the later revival of economic nationalism. He mentions the crucial figure in this process, Friedrich List. As he says, List’s ides did not have an impact in Britain until a comparatively late date. In fact when List’s book The National System of Political Economy was first published in 1841, it had little success, and when he took his own life in 1846 due his having a terminal illness, he probably thought it had completely failed.  It was, however, always popular in the United States (where he had actually formed his theories under the influence of people such as Henry Charles Carey[92]) and was translated into English there as early as 1856.  However, the real breakthrough for List happened after 1870, particularly of course in his native Germany.  In the United States the last third of the 19th century saw a robust debate between supporters of List’s approach and advocates of free trade associated with the so-called Bourbon Democrats (such as Grover Cleveland) and the Mugwump faction of the Republicans. A key role in this was played by a network of Cobden Clubs as grassroots advocates of the free-trade position. In 1896, however, the protectionist side gained a crushing and decisive victory.  Meanwhile in Britain, there was a challenge to Cobden’s legacy with the appearance of the historical approach to economics by people such as William Cunningham. All this came to a head with the great debate over tariff reform between 1902 and 1906.[93] Both sides, as Gordon points out, employed the methods pioneered by Cobden in the 1840s but with much greater reach. The result at the time was a decisive victory for the free-trade side, even greater than the contrary outcome in the United States in 1896.
One final point is that of how to assess current technological developments and whether they make the kind of cultural politics Cobden pioneered more or less likely. I think it is fair to say that Sarah and I are more optimistic, Gordon less so. I think that Sarah and I would emphasize the mobilizing and connecting potential of social media and other developments, while Gordon is more struck by the frivolous and often ill-tempered and splenetic side of phenomena such as Twitter conversations. Certainly it can seem that all that social media have done so far is to provide a megaphone for popular ignorance and bile. However, what it also does is allow opportunity for the correcting and often the shaming or ridiculing of that ignorance (as we have seen a splendid example of recently in the case of the Fox News “terrorism expert” who thought that Birmingham was a majority Muslim city [94]). Clearly we will have to wait and see which of these perceptions is more correct. But I remain hopeful.
[88.] See, Images of Liberty: "Cobden and the Anti-Corn Law League " </pages/cobden-and-the-anti-corn-law-league>.
[89.] Hollis, Patricia (ed). Pressure From Without in Early Victorian England. Edward Arnold, 1974. London.
[90.]Razeen Sally, Classical Liberalism and International Order. Routledge, London 1998.
[91.] Cobden's quote comes from Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P., (1908), Vol. 1 Free Trade and Finance. Free Trade Speech XX. (Manchester, Jan. 15, 1846) </titles/927#Cobden_0129.01_579>. Charles Dunoyer (1786-1862) was a lawyer, social theorist, and president of the Political Economy Society. He wrote two books during the 1820s in which he showed how America provided the model for how liberty and industrialism would “municipaliser le monde” (municipalize the world). By this he meant that as industrial societies advanced, they would reach a point where all large political structures would break down into smaller municipalities of self-governing cities and their hinterlands. See, Charles Dunoyer, L'Industrie et la morale considérées dans leurs rapports avec la liberté (Paris: A. Sautelet et Cie, 1825), p. 366-7, fn 1.
[92.] Henry Charles Carey (1793-1879) was an American economist who was a strong critic of British free trade policies and a supporter of Alexander Hamilton's "American system" of high tariffs and government funded public works ("internal improvements"). His main works were Principles of Political Economy, in 4 vols. (Philadelphia: Carely, Lea & Blanchard, 1837-1840), and The Harmony of Interests: Agricultural, Manufacturing, and Commercial (Philadelphia: J.S. Skinner, 1851).
[93.] See Illustration 52: "Free Trade Shop vs. Protection Shop (c. 1905-10); Illustration 53: "An Eye Opener" (c.1905-10); Illustration 54: "How the Tories Have Increased the Cost of Living" (c.1905-10); Illustration 55: "Vote for Tariff Reform" (c.1905-10); Illustration 56: Imperial Tariff Committee: "A Free Trade Forecast" (c1905-10) in the collection "Cobden and the Anti-Corn Law League" </pages/cobden-and-the-anti-corn-law-league>.
[94.] Steven Emerson, "Fox News 'terrorism expert' apologises for calling Birmingham 'totally Muslim city'", The Independent, Friday 16 January, 2015 <>.