JOHN BRIGHT: STATESMAN, ORATOR, AGITATOR by Bill Cash IB Tauris, Pounds 25, 328pp Pounds 22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
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! …