John Bright: A 19th Century Freedom Fighter

Article excerpt

John Bright: A 19th century freedom fighter

Richard Allsop on the life of one of the most prominent advocates of free trade.

John B right's fame was so high in the middle of the 19th century that early settlers in the village of Morse's Creek in north eastern Victoria decided to rename the place, Bright.

One imagines that few of the town's current population of 2,200 could tell you how it got its name.

They would not be alone. According to his new biographer, Bill Cash, Bright is 'almost forgotten in England as well. Cash implies that this forgetfulness is particular to Bright, but, with the possible exceptions of Gladstone and Disraeli, all 19th century British political figures have largely been forgotten by the general populace, as the teaching of political history has become less fashionable in recent decades.

In works of political history, however, Bright is still accorded a rightfully prominent role. And so he should be. Bright was a key figure in all the great debates of his time, many of which still resonate today. Along with his great friend Richard Cobden, he was one of the leaders of the Anti-Corn Law League, whose ultimate success in 1846 delivered cheaper food for generations of the British working class. It remains the iconic political triumph for free trade.

Blight's other great campaign was for parliamentary reform. His campaign began in the late 1850s and ultimately led to the Second Reform Act of 1867, which extended the franchise to include much of the working class. He was also a vigorous opponent of British participation in the Crimean War; an advocate of more humane policies towards India; and a key international supporter of the North in the American Civil War. To emphasise Blight's prominent standing in the United States, Cash relates how, when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, the items in his pockets included a letter from Bright.

There is no doubt that Bright is worthy of a new biography and Cash released his work to coincide with the bicentenary of Bright's birth last November. Cash brings to the task both a personal connection to his subject (Bright was his great-grandfather's cousin) and an understanding of politics, gleaned from being a Tory MP for 27 years.

Politicians often make very good political biographers and in England excellent examples include Roy Jenkins and William Hague. Cash's work does not quite have the polish of some others and also suffers a little from his decision to write issue - based, rather than chronological, chapters, necessitating some repetition and making the narrative occasionally feel disjointed. And, while Cash's assessment of Bright is generally sound, it is impossible to disagree with one British newspaper reviewer, who commented that the book 'starts from the wrong place' in repeated attempts to claim Bright for 'the Tory camp'. …