Why have we forgotten John Bright? In his day he was a massive political celebrity. He could command audiences of 150,000, delivering thrilling impromptu speeches night after night. Perhaps, as Bill Cash suggests, Bright’s eclipse has to do with the decline of conviction politics and public alienation from parliament. Or perhaps, as the novelist Anthony Trollope remarked, the trouble with Bright was that he didn’t actually create anything — he spent a lifetime attacking evils: ‘It was his work to cut down forest trees, and he had nothing to do with the subsequent cultivation of the land’.
Bright was a Quaker, the son of a self-made businessman who established a successful cotton mill in Rochdale, Lancashire. Aged 15, Bright started work in the mill counting-house. His mother died when he was 19, and it was this that drove him to get involved with local radical politics. Quiet Quakers shunned politics, and Bright’s relationship with his faith was always ambivalent. Though he wore sober Quaker black and white, he was a natty dresser. Punch published cartoons of him wearing the obligatory Quaker hat but also a dandy’s monocle. When he was 30, Bright’s wife died. He gave up running the family business, and threw himself into the campaign to repeal the Corn Laws.
Along with his friend and collaborator, Richard Cobden, Bright stumped the country, calling for free trade in corn. This was class politics — attacking the landed aristocracy — and many saw it as a mill-owner’s dodge, as cheaper bread would allow employers to cut wages. But Bright’s brilliance as a speaker meant that he could raise the game, translating this economic issue into a moral campaign against the evils of aristocratic privilege.
Most historians would agree that the Anti-Corn Law League was only partly responsible for the decision by Robert Peel to repeal the Corn Laws, which was governed largely by the Irish famine. But the League claimed the credit. Bright’s name was made. Having entered parliament in 1843, he now embarked on a lifetime of crusading politics. He agitated for democracy and parliamentary reform, he attacked Britain’s foreign policy as a system of outdoor relief for the aristocracy, and he championed the North in the American Civil War, perceiving early on that this was a fight against slavery.
Bill Cash has a family connection with Bright, who was his great-grandfather’s cousin. The Cash family were also Quakers, and for several generations chairmen of the Abbey National Building Society. More importantly, perhaps, as an MP, Cash is heir to the John Bright tradition of parliamentary nonconformity and independence.
‘My life is in my speeches,’ Bright once grumpily remarked when pestered by would-be biographers. Cash’s book is structured thematically around Bright’s campaigns; it is a very political biography. This works well for Bright’s early battles for free trade or parliamentary reform, but it means that the book loses narrative pace during the sections on foreign policy or Ireland.
It is an oddly old-fashioned account. Cash is not interested in exploring Bright’s ideas about democracy, for example, in the context of the time. He makes little of Bright’s private life. Bright suffered a major breakdown in 1856, brought on by his unpopularity for opposing the Crimean War, and he retired from public speaking for two years; but the author makes no attempt to probe this puzzling episode. He barely mentions the strains in Bright’s second marriage, caused it seems by the conflict between his wife’s Quaker values and the demands of his political career. The notion that Bright was jealous of Cobden, and tried to undermine and upstage him, is dismissed.
Cash’s purpose is to restore Bright to his proper place as a politician who used his formidable speaking talents to campaign for progressive reform — an MP who had no ambition for office but just wanted to make the world a better place. In this, he succeeds.