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The Letters of Richard Cobden. Vol. I: 1815-47 
edited by Anthony Howe.
Oxford, 529 pp., £100, November 2007, 978 0 19 921195 1
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By the time Friedrich Engels arrived in England in the winter of 1842, the country already had a class warrior of its own. One of Engels’s new neighbours in downtown Manchester had spent the summer warning his countrymen of imminent social catastrophe. ‘It is my firm belief,’ Richard Cobden told the House of Commons in July, ‘that within six months we shall have populous districts in the north in a state of social dissolution.’ Privately, he was even less guarded. ‘The manufacturing classes’, he confided to a newspaper friend, now had, ‘like another Samson, the strength to pull down the entire fabric’. And as Engels settled into his new life as a clerk in Cottonopolis – counting thread by day and exploring the city’s slums and beer shops by night – Cobden’s reputation as the harbinger of middle-class revolution grew. His name lurked behind rumours of a tax revolt, of votes gerrymandered and signatures forged on petitions, and even an assassination attempt on Robert Peel, the prime minister. The young and impressionable Engels, whose daily walk to work took him past the Manchester offices of the Cobden brothers’ calico empire, was impressed. For the rest of his life, Engels was convinced that Cobden was the archetype of the English revolutionary bourgeois. So was Marx.

Nowadays, Cobden is revered as the father of free trade: one of those great Victorian achievements which, like sewers, public libraries and bicycles, seems to mark the dawn of civilised modernity. He led the crusade against the Corn Laws – the notorious ‘bread tax’ of 1815, a tariff on imports designed to subsidise the British farmer – and campaigned for peace and disarmament, cheap newspapers and the penny post. He is a worthy subject for canonisation. Anthony Howe’s comprehensive, erudite and superbly annotated edition of his correspondence will take its place alongside Gladstone’s diaries, the letters of Carlyle and Disraeli, and John Stuart Mill’s collected works as an indispensable resource for understanding the Victorians.

With the possible exception of Adam Smith, there can be few economic gurus who have been so vulnerable to sustained political hijacking by left and right. From the liberal luvvies who ran the Cobden clubs of the late 19th century through to the libertarian think-tanks of Chicago and London in the 1970s and 1980s, Cobden’s name has been used to authenticate most points across the ideological spectrum from state ownership of land to zero taxation. Hailed as a ‘little Englander’ before the First World War, by 1920 he had become an ‘international man’. In the 1950s, A.J.P. Taylor retrospectively enlisted him as a member of CND, but a decade later he was being pulled in the opposite direction by the free marketeers of the Mont Pélérin Society in Europe and the Foundation for Economic Education in the US.

This volume of letters – the first of four – offers relief, if not complete protection, from such appropriation. Cobden is revealed as a man of his time, absorbed by mesmerism, phrenology and zoos. We see him as a family man – around a third of the letters are to and from his father, his brothers and his wife, Catherine. We are drawn into a Buddenbrooks world of kith, kin and commerce, in which his role as patriarch after the death of his parents is clearly the incentive for much of his early business success. What we see here are his political skills rather than his vision. Although studies of the Anti-Corn Law League have always suggested as much, the letters to and from all corners of the British Isles confirm that it was Cobden who was the brains behind the organisation and its frequent changes of strategy. He pushed to exploit the loophole in the 1832 Reform Act which allowed the League to purchase freehold property in the counties and add thousands of its own supporters to the franchise. He helped pioneer the campaign mailshot, as street-numbered houses appeared for the first time across the cities of the UK. He took the League into the rural districts, shattering the cap-doffing deference of the small farmers, and turned an ordinary item on the breakfast table – the penny loaf – into the most arresting political icon since the Jacobins’ red cap of liberty. And he brought the League to the West End, as theatres in Covent Garden and Drury Lane were turned over to monster meetings for the men and genteel bazaars for the ladies. As MP for Stockport, he worked away in the House of Commons with relentless logic at the case against protection. Eventually, he earned the respect of Peel, who surprised some and alienated even more by paying public tribute to Cobden’s role when repeal became law in 1846.

By then, Cobden’s fame was assured. Ships were named after him, he posed for Madame Tussaud’s, made a cameo appearance in Pendennis and was proffered although not offered a place in the Whig cabinet – Queen Victoria thought him a little rough for the role. On the Continent he was lionised. One of the great discoveries of Howe’s edition is the number of French, Germans and Italians among Cobden’s correspondents. The final part of this volume chronicles his 14-month grand tour of Europe, which started out as a recuperative jaunt to the Pyrenees, but ended up taking him as far south as Cadiz and Rome, up through Vienna and Berlin, and all the way to Nizhny Novgorod, as he proselytised the free trade cause. Wondering what had happened to her holiday, his wife said goodbye to Berlin and returned home.

Above all, these letters provide a stunning social history of the boom and bust economy of the early Victorian age. As a young man Cobden made a lot of money, and even by the tigerish standards of the day made it very quickly. By the time he was 32 he was a millionaire at today’s prices, having cornered a large part of the Indian calico print market just as the duties on calico were being repealed. ‘Cobden prints’ entered the Victorian demotic as a trade brand a decade before ‘Cobden, prince of free trade’. For a season or so in the late 1830s, brightly coloured muslin fabrics from Cobden’s mill at Sabden were setting the fashion world alight as the young Queen Victoria and her court became customers. Although quick to criticise his elder brother and business partner, Fred, for ‘worshipping those magical symbols – £sd’, Cobden, born poor, was also anxious to become rich. To the mills at Sabden and Chorley were added a warehouse in Mosley Street in Manchester and, in Quay Street, one of the city’s largest and most elegant townhouses.

Although never as wealthy as some other Mancunians – the Potter brothers or Robert Gardner, for example – Cobden came to symbolise Manchester as the shock city of the era. He led the city’s campaign to get a town council; he was the moving force behind the Manchester Athenaeum; he helped put the Manchester Phrenological Society on the map, with its grisly collection of casts and skulls; he dipped his fingers into all sorts of local philanthropic pies, including educational reform. Contemporaries were quick to notice this man of Manchester. He was the cotton lord, Oswald Millbank, in Disraeli’s Coningsby and, along with John Bright (a carpet-maker from Rochdale), the embodiment of the ‘Manchester school of economics’, another memorable Disraelian epithet. No wonder Engels only had to look over his shoulder to find a perfect example of raw middle-class power when he came to write The Condition of the Working Class in England.

Cobden spoke the language of class as well. Never as abrasive or melodramatic as his fellow campaigner John Bright – he lacked the religious credentials for fire and brimstone – he nonetheless provided bourgeois Britain with its own version of the class struggle. Like Marx, he believed that the age of feudalism had given way to the age of manufacture. Competitive industry was the new power in the land yet it was shackled and fettered at every turn by the old aristocratic ways of doing business. ‘We practical people in this part of the world,’ he told his uncle in 1835, ‘shall not be satisfied unless the affairs of the state are managed upon the principles of profit & loss, more after the fashion of a merchant’s counting house.’ Like Marx, he thought the future was capital, and global. Unlike Marx, he had travelled extensively by his mid-thirties – in Europe and the Middle East, and to America – and was convinced of the large stall that British manufactured goods might occupy in the world market.

Cobden went public with his message in 1835. Styling himself the ‘Manchester Manufacturer’, he dashed off a couple of pamphlets and articles for the radical press in which he castigated aristocratic foreign policy. Over-reliant on embassies and diplomatic treaties, armed to the hilt with navies and colonial garrisons, the British ruling classes, he argued, were distracted by mistrust of France and a phobic fear of Russia and were missing the opportunity to lead Europe into a brave new world of civilised peace and commerce. Cobden’s promised land was not the one envisioned by Marx. What Carlyle dubbed the ‘calico millennium’ was far removed from the bleak equality of the proletarian utopia unveiled in the Communist Manifesto. But however different the destination, the two men plotted a similar route. Cobden put the ‘middling classes’ in the vanguard of change just as Marx would ten years later. Our manufacturers ‘must dig, hammer, spin, weave’, he complained in 1837, merely to keep the taxman at bay, leaving themselves at the mercy of a trade cycle which soared and dived at frequent intervals (he himself lost some £20,000 in the crisis of 1837). Like Marx, Cobden was confident that class consciousness would prevail – if only the business community would act in its own interest and throw off the incubus of the landed elite. Trade, however, turned men into Tories, Cobden observed on numerous occasions as he sat in clubs and carriages, noting how easily the mill-town MPs of Lancashire were enticed by the patronage of the Whig government. Even so, by 1838 he was convinced that the Corn Law question would be the pivot of the fight between aristocracy and the people. Two years later, the rhetoric was even stronger: the Whigs were ‘sowing the seeds of revolution’.

As John Vincent commented many years ago, Cobden’s pamphlets were a sort of Das Kapital for Victorian liberalism. Many of the letters collected here confirm the analogy. The imagery was not the same, of course. Cobden drew on Shakespeare, the Old Testament and even the Arabian Nights rather than on the radicalism of the Rhineland or the socialism of the faubourgs and quartiers of Paris. But the language of class warfare is there in Cobden as in Marx: the same sense of the protean power of new manufacturing wealth, the inevitability of violent struggle, and the tactical realisation that the middle-class bout with the aristocracy had to come before the working class entered the ring. Cobden poured scorn on the Chartist leaders, whom he saw as signed up for the wrong contest – sparring with the capitalists – when they should have been fighting the feudal aristocracy. ‘We must deal frankly with their deluded followers,’ he told Joseph Sturge, a Birmingham Quaker, corn-dealer and friend to the moderate Chartists, ‘by telling them on all occasions that they are powerless without the aid of the middle class.’ And this is how Cobden had come to be viewed by alarmed contemporaries in the summer of 1842. Not only as the front man of the League, the most persuasive and professional pressure group since the days of the Anti-Slavery Society, but also as the one figure standing between order and revolution. Turning the new penny post to his advantage, the home secretary ordered that Cobden’s mail be intercepted and monitored for evidence of involvement in the ‘Plug Plot’ conspiracy of industrial sabotage. None was found, but several months later, when an assassin’s bullet narrowly missed the prime minister, the finger of accusation was pointed once more.

At this moment in February 1843, Cobden did a remarkable thing. Having passed himself off to the world for eight years as the Manchester Manufacturer, he now came clean about who he really was: a farmer’s son, a yeoman of Midhurst in deepest Sussex, where Cobdens had tilled the soil and malted the barley for generations. Cobden had not exactly covered up his past – he was fiercely proud of his rural origins – and when he returned from the Continent in 1847 he used a large part of the public testimonial fund raised by grateful followers to purchase the original family home at Dunford, where he moved with his wife and children and remained for the rest of his life. Until 1843, however, Cobden had never tried to make political capital out of his farming background. A profound switch in League strategy required a new identity: ‘I shall now give up the towns, & give all the leisure I can get from Parlt to the agricultural Counties.’ It was a decisive move. Historians are still undecided about what really drove Peel to repeal the Corn Laws. The collapse of the Irish economy in 1845 probably tipped the balance for a prime minister who had the right policy in the wrong party. The League’s campaign in the countryside throughout 1843 and 1844 undoubtedly increased the pressure on Peel, revealing more than a furrow’s width of difference between the political allegiance of those farmers who could make ends meet without protection and those who could not. The revelation that Cobden knew his corn as well as his calico played its part in easing the League out of the boroughs and into the shires.

As for Marx and Engels, they never enjoyed a showdown with Cobden and Co, or indeed with any other capitalist at large in Britain or anywhere else. They came close. In The Condition of the Working Class in England, eventually published in Leipzig in 1845, Engels sniped away at the ‘big wig’ landlords in the vicinity of Cobden’s Manchester HQ, accusing them of flouting building regulations and creating the most ‘demoralised class of all Manchester’. And two years later Marx turned up at the Free Trade Congress in Brussels, armed with a speech that ironically welcomed the advent of perfect free trade, as it would bring the workers of the world up against their true enemy. The League had sent a delegation, but Cobden, in St Petersburg on the final leg of his grand tour, was unable to attend. Quite by coincidence, he was being shown around the naval base at Kronstadt, where seventy years later real revolution finally began.

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