John Bright: Statesman, Orator, Agitator
I B Tauris, 352pp, £25
How often does one hear politicians and commentators idly refer to Westminster as "the Mother of all Parliaments"? It is a sign of John Bright's diminished reputation that few realise they are quoting him and even fewer that they are doing so incorrectly. It was England, not Westminster, that the great radical man of action honoured with this epithet.
In his annual address to his Birmingham constituents in 1865, the Liberal MP sought to draw attention to the irony that while fair representation was afforded to Englishmen in 35 different states elsewhere, it was only in England that they were denied this right. Not until the franchise was extended, he declared, could it "truly be said that England, the august mother of free nations, herself is free".
Bill Cash, the Conservative MP for Stone, begins this thoughtful and perceptive biography with a question that he observes would once have seemed absurd: "Who is John Bright?" It was Bright who, together with Richard Cobden, led the heroic struggle against the Corn Laws, the opposition to the Crimean war and the campaign for parliamentary reform.
Admired by Karl Marx (who hailed Bright as "one of the most gifted orators that England has ever produced") and Abraham Lincoln (who was carrying a cutting of one of Bright's speeches in his pocket when he was assassinated), he was universally acknowledged as one of the pre-eminent statesmen of his time. Yet this biography, timed to coincide with the bicentenary of Bright's birth in November 1811, is the first in more than 30 years.
Readers may be surprised that it is the Eurosceptic Cash, whose name rarely appears in the liberal press without the description "swivel-eyed", who has undertaken to rescue Bright from obscurity. But besides a family connection - Bright was Cash's great-grandfather's cousin - the pair share a commitment to parliamentary sovereignty, civil liberties and backbench independence.
Cash's assertion that Bright would have opposed "anything like a federal Europe" might seem convenient but it is also probably true. He ridiculed a proposal to transform the British empire into "a super-state under the democratic government of a central imperial parliament" as "a dream and an absurdity". Even though he was appalled by imperial oppression, his reverence for parliamentary sovereignty led him to argue against home rule for Ireland. As Cash phrases it, he believed it was "for Westminster itself to remedy past mistakes".
It was the iniquity of the Corn Laws and the apparent indifference of the political class that prompted Bright's first and greatest campaign. In a moving passage, Cash recalls the words with which Cobden, co-leader of the Anti-Corn Law League, consoled Bright on the death of his first wife: "There are thousands of homes in England at this moment where wives, mothers and children are dying of hunger. Now, when the first paroxysm of your grief is past I would advise you to come with me, and we will never rest till the Corn Law is repealed."
After the triumph of their cause in 1846, Bright threw himself into the struggle to extend the franchise. He stopped just short of support for universal male suffrage (he did not regard female suffrage as a priority), opposing the vote for those he lamentably referred to as the "residuum" - paupers, the unemployed and those without property. One is reminded of Burke's "swinish multitude". However, as Cash explains, Bright's use of the term owed more to his pragmatic gradualism than it did to any anti-democratic impulse.
It was to the United States that he looked as a moral and democratic exemplar, admiring its constitutionally limited government and its separation of religion from the state. He was a restless champion of the North during the civil war and a principled foe of slavery.
To this day, a bust of Bright, commissioned as a gift for Lincoln, sits in the White House. There is an instructive comparison to be made here with another great English radical, Thomas Paine, who supported the American Revolution and coined the term "United States of America". Like Bright, Paine was raised as a Quaker and was a committed humanitarian and fiscal conservative but, surprisingly, Cash ignores these suggestive parallels.
Bright's moral prescience was shown further in what the author describes as "his repugnance at the idea of capital punishment". He urged the Lincoln administration to show mercy to captured Confederate leaders (one is reminded of Paine's vote against the execution of Louis XVI) and unsuccessfully opposed the 1867 hanging of the Manchester Martyrs, three Irish republicans falsely convicted of a policeman's murder.
One senses that Bright would not have been troubled by his relative obscurity. A modest man with much to be immodest about, he declared himself against "biographies and portraits and statues". Yet he would surely have appreciated Cash's intellectually subtle and deftly written work. At last, his extraordinary life has the biography it deserves.
George Eaton is a staff writer for the New Statesman