Statesman, Orator, Agitator
London: I.B. Tauris, 2012
Hardcover. xxx-328 p. ISBN 978-1848859968. £25.00
Reviewed by Charles V. Reed
Elizabeth City State University
In this biography of John Bright, the Conservative MP Bill Cash, most known for his Euroscepticism, seeks to rescue from obscurity the historical and political legacy of the Quaker MP and orator most known for his opposition to the Corn Laws during the 1830s and 40s. Cash examines Bright’s political career thematically, with chapters on his opposition to the Corn Laws, Parliamentary reform, slavery and the American Civil War, India and the Empire, foreign policy, Ireland and Home Rule. While highlighting the role of the Liberal Radical turned Unionist in the political transformations of the nineteenth century – particularly those involving Empire – is a worthy task, Cash imposes his own political worldview on his idol by claiming him as a “pathfinder for modern Conservatism” [xix], thereby casting the complicated and contradictory career of Bright into an entirely too neat and tidy trajectory connecting Cash to his distant relative.
For Cash, Bright was a towering figure of Victorian politics who ought to be recognised alongside the likes of Peel, Gladstone, Disraeli, Salisbury, and Lincoln. In what the reader becomes familiar with as Cash’s moralising style, he locates the origins of this historical “amnesia” “in the fact that [Bright’s] sense of purpose, conviction politics and accurate sense of certainty… was unsettling and simply became unfashionable as people became cynical of moral and political uncertainties” [xxiii]. To some degree, Cash is right to identify Bright as a Victorian worth revisiting. At the same time, Bright spent much of his career as an influential backbencher and voice of dissent with limited ministerial experience (Peel, Gladstone, Disraeli, and Salisbury had all been Prime Minister). Moreover, recent historiography has not been quite as neglectful of Bright as Cash suggests (see, for instance, Defining the Victorian Nation : Class, Race, Gender and the British Reform Act of 1867, edited by Catherine Hall, Keith McClelland & Jane Rendall and Patrick Joyce’s Democratic Subjects : The Self and the Social in Nineteenth-Century England).
Even more problematic is Cash’s assessment of Bright’s politics in relation to both his contemporaries and modern politicians. Countering Anthony Trollope’s criticism that Bright spent his career cutting down the trees but not cultivating the land, Cash argues that
far from not being not engaged in the cultivation of the land, it was indeed Bright who created the circumstances for modern democracy, ploughing the furrows of England and Ireland from one end to the other in an interminable quest for justice for the working class and their right to engage in the government of the country. 
For Cash, Bright the independent and democrat who valued country over party spent his career fighting the entrenched and inherited power of the aristocracy and the Church and sowed the seeds of the modern Conservative Party. While much of Cash’s assessment of Bright’s political independence has a truth to it, his understanding of Bright’s politics and legacy oversimplifies and obfuscates a far more complex reality.
Much like Bright’s anointed successor in Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain, Bright’s politics defy categorisation into any party platform, Victorian or modern. On one hand, he was profoundly conservative, defending constitutional processes and law and order against any political movement that might promote public disorder or threaten violence. As a factory owner representing manufacturing interests, his politics were intensely bourgeois. He professed no sympathy to striking workers at his factory, opposed factory reform, and rejected the Chartist platform as extreme. Fearing the enfranchisement of the “residuum” of society, he embraced household suffrage rather than universal manhood suffrage. On the other hand, as a Liberal Radical and representative of a progressive Quaker tradition, he took early inspiration from the radical “Orator” Henry Hunt, opposed the Crimean War, supported the Northern cause in the American Civil War against his own economic interests, and agitated for Parliamentary reform. While some of these contrasts can be explained as the evolving politics of a life-long politician (he grew increasingly accepting of working-class enfranchisement, for instance), they also demonstrate the complexity of Bright’s politics.
His views on Empire are a case in point. While Cash places Bright’s imperialism in the tradition of the conservative Edmund Burke, respecting the traditions and rights of indigenous people, he better fits the mould of the nineteenth-century liberal imperialist, believing in the necessity of Empire to the political, economic, and social development of subject peoples (this reminds me more of Marx than of Burke). He resigned from Gladstone’s cabinet over British intervention in Egypt but supported the suppression of the Indian Mutiny and the Coercion Act in Ireland. While he advocated for land reform in Ireland, he also opposed Charles Stewart Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party because of their obstructionist methods and association with the Fenians. He was against imperial federation but staunchly defended the Union and the sovereignty of the “Mother of Parliaments” against Irish Home Rule, breaking with Gladstone and joining the Conservatives in the 1880s. In sum, while Bright did at times eloquently defend the rights of indigenous people in accordance with a liberal-humanitarian Quaker tradition, he also aligned himself with a brand of imperial politics that epitomised the violence that underlay the liberal empire.
Moreover, Bright’s career is a fascinating case study in the intersection of domestic, foreign, and imperial politics, an opportunity not properly seized upon by Cash. Bright’s career might be used to help us understand how these divergent strains of political history could be more successfully integrated. Even as the scholars of the New Imperial History have made efforts to understand the relationship between British society and the Empire (particularly in the realm of culture), historians might more carefully consider how Britain’s domestic politics were informed by relationships with both the Empire and the rest of the world. For instance, Cash’s chapter on the American Civil War and Bright’s correspondence with Abraham Lincoln demonstrate a shared belief in the political and cultural bonds of “Greater Britain” in both Britain and the United States after the formal bonds of Empire had ceased.
In sum, the story that Cash tells is an engaging one but lacks the detachment and analytical rigour of good history. Bright is certainly a worthy subject of study, but Cash has trouble separating his personal narrative from that of his nineteenth-century subject.
Cercles © 2012
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