IB Tauris, £25, 328pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?