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John Bright: Statesman, Orator, Agitator, By Bill Cash


The radical activist and politican John Bright (1811-1889) was a valiant man; valiant against established power, the power of land, together with its working partners: dear food, a minimal franchise and a diplomatic service that was "outdoor relief for the upper classes". The word "crusade" is used too lightly, but the Anti-Corn Law League of Bright and Richard Cobden was one. Landowners, enriched by the Napoleonic wars, had become comfortable with blockade prices, extended after Waterloo and endured by working families, especially in the wool, cotton, steel and engineering towns of the North.

Cobden and Bright, strategist and eloquent voice respectively, took to the road for vast meetings. Typically, in November 1845, they travelled 850 miles from Kent to inflame Reading, Liverpool, Bury, Oxford and Lancaster. Finall, the PM, Robert Peel, underwent rational conversion. They had beaten the landed interest which had commanded the service of government. Bread became cheap.

A new book on Bright is welcome, but Bill Cash MP makes an odd start. He tells us that "Bright is almost forgotten" and cites an American source dismissing "one of those innumerable earnest Victorians" whom we "can scarcely separate from the mass of his fellows". This is nonsense, parochial American nonsense at that. Among historians, David Brown's new life of Palmerston has 12 Bright references, Colin Matthew's Gladstone (stopping in 1876) 14, Robert Blake's Disraeli 19. If miserable repression in Ireland, the Crimean War, the second Reform Act and the future direction of the British Raj are matters for more than vague consciousness, Bright is not and will not be "almost forgotten".

Cash, who has worked hard, done solid reading and clearly reveres John Bright, has produced a thoughtful, intelligent book. But he starts from the wrong place for getting him right. Essentially, he wants Bright for the Tory camp. The great wrongs against which he campaigned were of course, very bad, but old England, sound at heart under Tory or patriotic Liberal leadership, would be equal to them. Bright's role was that of corrective irritant within the system which, in a splendid English way, responded and adjusted: a back-formation and rationalisation of retreat, if ever there was!

We get very little here of the rage, dumb greed and towering imperception with which mainstream Conservatism greeted Bright. The book misses the easy chance of being the exciting read Bright's life was. Hansard is online, the contemporary fulminating press available in research libraries. They make vivid reading, but do the soothing notion of a thoughtful Establishment response no favours.

This projection of essential decency at the British top shows up grievously over India. Bright, consistent advocate of reform and devolution, had a vision of an Indian India. Cash sees him as someone whose radical approach, though running ahead, reflected a wider governmental response to Indian emergence into nationhood.

He finds a useful link in the great wielder of colonial power, James FitzJames Stephen. In India, "Stephen like Bright, believed in temporary British rule geared to the interests of the governed." He did? Listen to Bright on Empire: "an absolute government founded not on consent but on conquest... implying at every point the superiority of the conquering race".

When, late in life, Bright's judgment did fail, over Irish Home Rule, Cash grows ardent. Almost, he murmurs, Bright was becoming a Tory. The old radical had "put patriotism and the sovereignty of Westminster ahead of his party".

No: he had fallen in with Joseph Chamberlain, enraged with, and envious of Gladstone, and also resentfully under-promoted. Bright was blind to Gladstone's understanding that only the most generous policy, with the Nationalist leader Parnell as full partner, would set Ireland and England (as Victorian Tories called it) on a sane course. Home Rule would certainly have prevented the blood and humiliation of 1922. Patriotism and the sovereignty of Westminster did for the Union.

Bright got that wrong, but he had got so much right. This grave Quaker gave the word "Dissent" a new, grand dimension. He had apostrophised the Crimean War with the Angel of Death. The Crimean dead anticipated those of the Somme. Bright speaks today for all opponents of the wars called up by patriotism.

Edward Pearce's 'Pitt the Elder: Man of War' is published by Pimlico