Richard Cobden is not a man for all seasons, but his life, career and values have been interpreted in widely different ways at different times. When he died in 1865, he was mourned by many as a secular saint. The majority remembered his leadership of one of the most triumphantly successful pressure groups in British history, the Anti-Corn Law League; and a minority honoured his uncompromising and frequently unpopular opposition to war: ‘seldom has hero rested, stained by so superb a fault.’ A special train was laid on from London to take the great and the good to his funeral; William Gladstone helped to carry his coffin; statues were raised by public subscription; and the London and provincial presses enshrined his memory in laudatory poems and improving books for the young. But it was not to last.
When John Morley published his massive official biography in 1881, agricultural depression and industrial decline were beginning to erode the appeal of free trade in Britain. Morley’s book became both a vindication and an exercise in tact, and Cobden the extra-Parliamentary agitator and radical MP was transmuted into a responsible proponent of ‘wise, just and sedate government’. In 1918, J.A. Hobson, another Liberal politician and a committed anti-imperialist, chose – naturally enough – to celebrate Cobden’s rejection of armed intervention whatever the cause, his self-chosen role as an international man. But it was as a Manchester man that Cobden came to be most generally regarded. Before and after the Second World War, a succession of books presented him as a spokesman for the industrial North, as a prime exemplar of those middle classes which had been enfranchised and emboldened by the Reform Act of 1832. Now, in the late 1980s, we have two new biographics, both produced by American university presses, both claiming to be the first full-length modern study, and each written (apparently) in ignorance of the other. What price Cobden now?
Both books are good, scholarly and readable. Wendy Hinde’s study is the more accessible and better-written, while Nicholas Edsall writes more incisively and with a wider understanding of Cobden’s political and social context. But both suffer from the problem that hampered their predecessors. It is easy as well as correct for a biographer to make Cobden seem an admirable man, strong and resolute in his convictions, lucid and alert in his intelligence, genial and sympathetic in his relations with his family and his close friends, and a significant force in Parliamentary and extra-Parliamentary politics in Victorian Britain. But it is much less easy to rescue Cobden from his unrelenting worthiness, to re-create his appeal for large audiences, or to convey the vigour, forcefulness and sheer anger of his temperament. For this was a man who guarded his respectability as well as his radicalism.
He was born in 1804, the son of a small farmer adept only at failure, and one of 11 children. His education was minimal and miserable and by the mid-1820s he was working as a commercial traveller, experiencing directly the different regions of Britain through which he was to take the Anti-Corn Law agitation in the 1840s. His break came in 1828 when he established himself at Manchester, and with borrowed money set up a calico printing business; ten years later he employed six hundred men and women and was netting profits of over £20,000 per annum. It was seemingly a success story for Victorian values as Mrs Thatcher conceives them, but in this case it did not breed political conservatism. Cobden became an activist in Manchester politics, was elected MP for Stockport, and joined the Quaker John Bright and other manufacturers in forming a nationwide League against the Corn Laws which kept the price of home-produced grain artificially high by restricting imports. In 1846, the laws were finally repealed by Sir Robert Peel. The entrenched political, social and economic power of those who owned land had, it appeared, succumbed before the enterprise and exertions of those who did not.
Cobden did not lapse into complacency. The rest of his political life was devoted to good causes, to support of the secret ballot, to opposition to the Crimean War, and to the encouragement of free trade and peaceful co-existence between Britain and France. His private life was as worthy as his politics. He cherished his wife and children, though of necessity he was often absent from them; he attended Anglican church services regularly; and even his quirks and eccentricities were shared by many other earnest, middle-class autodidacts. He worried about the excessive stimulus red meat gave to the blood. He was a firm believer in phrenology, judging each man he met by the size of his skull, perhaps because his own was reassuringly large. When travelling abroad, he never forgot the standards of utility: the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was a ‘deplorable misapplication’ of Michelangelo’s time because looking at it strained the neck.
What often strains understanding is how this kind of personality became linked with radical activism. As all of his biographers have suggested, the mainspring of Cobden’s anger was hatred of Britain’s landed élite, which outraged his temperament as much as his politics. For Cobden, all of Britain’s evils stemmed from the fact that ‘we are a servile, aristocracy-loving, lord-ridden people,’ mesmerised and immiserated by ‘armorial hocus-pocus, primogeniture, and pageantry’. Cobden opposed war, and top Victorian generals and admirals were invariably patricians who profited from perpetuating conflict; he opposed British imperialism, and colonial employment, as John Bright remarked, supplied outdoor relief to aristocratic younger sons; and he opposed state intervention in the economy because the state was run by men of landed backgrounds, who relished the taxes and bureaucracies that supported them. Aristocrats, in short, were war-mongering parasites on the nation, while what was wanted was a polity free to pursue peace and trade abroad and unregulated industry at home.
Why did Cobden believe all this so vehemently? It is possible – and Hinde and Edsall might have explored this more – that his stay from the age of ten to 15 at a Yorkshire school of the Wackford Squeers variety marked him for life. He was certainly mistreated there. One wonders if he was also badly bullied, and if this shaped his hatred of overbearing aristocrats in his later years? What Edsall does emphasise – rightly – is that Cobden’s obsession with landed power stemmed in part from his own rural background. For Cobden was not a Manchester man or even a Northerner. He was born in a small Sussex village; he lived in Manchester for only 15 years; and after 1847 he returned to the farm of his childhood, where his father had failed so dismally. No one brought up so close to the land and its victims was likely to be unmoved by the lords of the earth.
But most of all Cobden feared landed power because it was indeed fearsome. Few historians now believe that the repeal of the Corn Laws symbolised the triumph of the British bourgeoisie: instead, the current emphasis is on the extent to which the great landowners retained their economic primacy up to the 1880s, and on the degree to which they swamped successive Parliaments, Cabinets, and top jobs at home and abroad with men of their own stamp. The corollary of this, however, is less frequently recognised. Since the landowners persisted, so did the fierce critique of landed power supplied by 18th-century Englishmen like Tom Paine and William Cobbett. Indeed, many of Cobden’s radical tenets – his dislike of standing armies, his belief in the constitutional virtues of the forty-shilling freeholder, his suspicion of an intrusive state – can be traced back to the 17th century. Cobden, then, was not so much the voice of triumphant new economic forces, as he was a spokesman for old resentments which would endure as long as the old power structures did.
The nature of Cobden’s political ideology shaped both his achievements and his limitations. Given his views, the Corn Laws were a sublimely appropriate issue on which to agitate: they seemed to epitomise the selfish class interests of a landed élite that placed agricultural profits before cheap food for the masses. But of course the fact that mid-19th-century British politics were designed primarily for landed participants extracted its own price from a manufacturing MP. In order to attend Parliament and travel at home and abroad preaching free trade, Cobden had to neglect his calico business. Only a public subscription of £75,000 in 1846 and a trust fund of £40,000 in 1860 saved him from financial ruin. And there were other, less tangible costs. As Hinde points out, Cobden believed that the House of Commons’ poor ventilation was responsible for his asthma (which finally killed him). But, since nervous stress also exacerbates asthma, one must wonder how much of his discomfort was due to his persistent sense of himself as ‘a gothic invader’ in a gentrified and Classically-educated assembly where few other people spoke, as he did, with a rural accent.
Increasingly, in fact, Cobden’s obsession with the aristocracy circumscribed the appeal and effectiveness of his radicalism. His suspicion of all state intervention (except in the field of education) made him ill-equipped to advocate the sort of social legislation that working-class groups were increasingly demanding. This could make him seem more conservative than a landed politician like Peel, who was willing to restrict hours of work in factories and to re-introduce an income tax – both measures which Cobden opposed. But it was his opposition to the Crimean War which most endangered his national status, and that of many of his fellow middle-class radicals.
Since the 18th century a succession of British dissidents had described themselves as patriots, by which they meant (among other things) that they cherished their country’s liberty, and opposed its corruption as well as its administration. It was because patriotism was so often a synonym for dissent that Samuel Johnson coined his crusty definition of it for his dictionary. But by the 1850s the meaning of patriotism for many Britons was what Lord Palmerston and not what Richard Cobden wanted it to be. Patriotism was no longer the last resort of the scoundrel: instead, one was increasingly likely to be thought a scoundrel if one’s own patriotism did not coincide with the Government’s interpretation of that ambiguous virtue. Cobden and his friends did their level best to insist that aversion to an arms race and a penchant for non-intervention did not add up to treason: ‘How indeed,’ John Bright told his Birmingham constituents, ‘can I any more than any of you be un-English and anti-national?’ But the fact that radicals had to argue in these terms showed just how far Palmerston and his kind had put them on the defensive.
Yet it would be wrong to conclude a survey of Cobden’s career – as Wendy Hinde seems to do – with an emphasis on his failures. Rather he can be presented as a man who was uniquely lucky in the time in which he was active. He was lucky because in the 19th century the North of England was prosperous and dynamic enough to serve as an alternative power-base to London’s Establishment. He was lucky in that two landed politicians – Sir Robert Peel and William Gladstone – sympathised, for their own purposes, with some of his most cherished policies. And he was lucky in that the Crimean War turned out to be such a dismal military experience that it helped to deter British governments from seriously contemplating armed intervention in Europe for the rest of the 19th century.
In 1885, 13 of Britain’s 16 cabinet ministers were members of the Cobden Club, founded to advance its namesake’s programme of free trade, peace, and good will among nations. How many cabinets in how many great powers today would be willing so to commit themselves?