- William Cobbett: The Poor Man’s Friend by George Spater
Cambridge, 318 pp, £15.00, March 1982, ISBN 0 521 22216 8
When William Cobbett was about forty he brought out a weekly paper that has dictated the style and shape of British and American journalism ever since. Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register came out almost every week from 1802 until his death in 1835. According to George Spater, this once powerful paper is now largely forgotten ‘except by historians who occasionally take a hasty glance here and there into its vast bulk of some 42,000 pages’. The existence of that bulk represents part of the difficulty in writing a fullscale biography of this brilliant and influential journalist. One needs to know about all the things Cobbett wrote about.
George Spater aptly and readily cites and quotes from the Register. But even he can hardly have its contents at his fingertips. It is easier, really, to write about Cobbett’s career as a political agitator. One does not need to be very left-of-centre, not very democratic, to approve of the reforms which Cobbett set in motion. ‘Most of the major remedial legislation,’ says George Spater, ‘urged by Cobbett and opposed by the ministers of the day, except his proposals relating to the debt, were eventually enacted into law by parliament.’ He offers a list: Cobbett’s proposals about factory laws, labour unions, laws relating to the press, military discipline, poor laws, universal suffrage ... (We are reminded of Cobbett’s list of good things done by Bonaparte.) Every socialist will think of Cobbett as a man on his own wavelength, a pioneer of his own political theory: if Cobbett comes out with something illiberal, unscientific or backward-looking, he may be excused and the blame put on the primitive age in which he lived. There is, of course, something patronising about this.
He was ‘the last great tribune of the agrarians’, wrote G.D.H. Cole, and, ‘by force of circumstances, also the first great tribune of the industrial proletariat’. But that was in 1924, when it looked as if ‘the industrial proletariat’ was going to last for ever, and Cole had a socialist plan for their benefit. An ecologist might suspect that Cole’s theories and plans will prove to be outdated more rapidly than Cobbett’s pragmatic approach to the details of human life.
Cobbett was a regimental sergeant-major before he was thirty and his politics and journalism carry the marks of this rank and profession. One of the characteristics is an awareness of the need to keep an eye open for every danger: from rankers as well as officers, from American and French ‘democrats’ as well as Napoleonic or aristocratic despotism. He has often been attacked for inconsistency, but it is not inconsistent to recognise that an old enemy is no longer such a danger as an old ally. E.P. Thompson would like Cobbett to have a stricter political theory. He wrote in 1965: ‘Cobbett helped to create and nourish the anti-intellectualism and the theoretical opportunism (masked as “practical” empiricism) which has remained an important characteristic of the British labour movement.’ It is true that there are not many other -isms that apply neatly to Cobbett (or the Labour movement), not even ‘voluntarism’ or ‘populism’. I am not sorry, myself.
Cobbett’s appeal to more conservative, even reactionary people is not surprising. It was the mark of a ‘patriot’ in his time to be for ever praising the past. To be a patriot was to be a spokesman for the ‘old ways’ of the people against the bad modern king, lords and parliament. Hazlitt mildly criticised this tendency in Cobbett’s left-wing ally, Sir Francis Burdett, who was always ‘wanting to go back to the early times of our Constitution and history in search of the principles of law – liberty. Liberty, in our opinion, is but a modern invention (the growth of books and printing) – and whether new or old, is not the less desirable. A man may be a patriot without being an antiquary.’ But a genuine regard for the past, for old books and simple rustic ways, is a great advantage to a left-winger who wishes to reassure the timid and guard them from ‘future-shock’. Cobbett deliberately worked on his old-fashioned ‘image’: those who met him compared him with characters in Scott’s historical novels. Of course, he went too far. While Hazlitt was trying to persuade his middle-class readers that boxing was not too wicked really, Cobbett was assuring the masses that bull-baiting was a good old English sport, not to be banned by Methodists. Cobbett supported Roman Catholic emancipation with the argument that this was the old religion of the country, in better times, but he was venomous against the modern business practices of newfangled Quakers and Jews. (It is not surprising that Richard Ingrams of Private Eye should think G.K. Chesterton’s biography of Cobbett the best.) Hazlitt supported the Jews as much as the Catholics, and he rebuked Cobbett quite fiercely for being a ‘bullying antagonist’ to the Quakers. Though he admired and learned from Cobbett, Hazlitt more than once complained of his bullying tendency. It is a natural tendency for a sergeant-major to get his way by bullying – both the officers and the men.