Balfour on Cobden and Manchester Liberalism
Balfour’s essay is entitled Cobden and the Manchester School. It is a review of an 1879 biography by John Morley. The book is now almost forgotten, though anyone interested can read it for free at the ‘Online Library of Liberty’. I omit the very long first paragraph of Balfour’s essay, which gives details of Morley’s books and other writings about Cobden.
Richard Cobden lived from 1804 to 1865. He was an English industrialist who rose from middle-class beginnings to be moderately rich. A Radical and Liberal statesman, he was associated with two major free trade campaigns, the Anti-Corn Law League and a major Free Trade treaty with France. He still has his fans, and Corn Law abolition is still praised.
Morley was a major Liberal politician. He opposed imperialism and the Boer War. In 1914, he resigned in protest at Britain’s entry into the First World War as an ally of Russia.
Balfour on Cobden remains relevant, because Thatcherism revived much of the creed of Radical Liberalism. It had entered the Tory Party when the Liberal Party disintegrated. Disintegrated after losing credibility from the way they fought the First World War.
Cobden’s career, if interesting for no other reason, would be so for this, that it differs in outline — is framed, so to speak, on a different plan — from that of every other man who has risen to eminence in English political life. It was unusual in its commencement, in its course, and in its culmination. Most men desirous of a share in the direction of public affairs regard a Parliamentary seat as the first, and a certain measure of Parliamentary success as the second, requisite for giving practical effect to their political creed; while they look to office as the most effective instrument for turning the power which they may so obtain to the best account.
If this be the normal course of an English statesman, Cobden’s course was abnormal in every particular. His political importance depended upon causes among which position in the House of Commons was the smallest. The most triumphant moment of his public life — the day on which the Bill repealing the Corn Laws received the Royal assent — occurred before he had sat through a whole Parliament; and it is doubtful whether it would have occurred a day later, or if he would have had a title to a smaller share in the result, had he never been a member of Parliament at all. Similar observations, though with considerable qualification, might be made respecting his career generally. Throughout his life he was always more concerned in advancing some special object or in enforcing some single idea than in taking a varied part in the complex business of government; and therefore it was that he did not regard either Parliament or office as essential instruments for carrying out his purposes. Office might too easily become a restraint; Parliament could not be more than a superior “stump” from which the favourite opinion might be advocated.
Cobden therefore must be looked on rather as a political missionary than as a statesman, as an agitator rather than as an administrator. But he was, for the particular objects he had in view, and for the particular audiences he had to address, the most effective of missionaries and the greatest of agitators. Mr. Morley puts him in this respect second to O’Connell, but in truth it is impossible to draw a comparison between them. O’Connell would have been as powerless among the middle class of Lancashire and the West Riding as Cobden would have been among the excitable peasantry of Ireland. All large audiences are moved more through their feelings than their reason. But an English multitude differs from an Irish one in preferring that appeals to its feelings should at least have the external appearance of argument; and in the art of making such appeals – Cobden was a master who has never been surpassed.
The most superficially striking fact about this career of political propagandism is the very different measure of success which it met with in its first and in its second part. It is not too much perhaps to say that the Cobden of 1850-60 owed the greater part of his authority in the national councils to the reputation acquired by the Cobden of 1841-46. Men listened with respect to the untiring advocate of peace and disarmament because he was the same man who had so effectually preached against “monopolies.” But they listened without conviction, and he preached without success. In 1845 Sir Louis Malet is able to describe him, not very accurately indeed, but without any glaring absurdity, as the “tribune of the people.” Ten years had not elapsed before he sank from being the tribune of the people to being the unpopular adherent of a small and powerless sect, wholly unable to influence the course of events, and scarcely able to obtain a hearing except in the House of Commons, an assembly which Cobden ungratefully declared to be “packed” in the interests of that class whom he regarded it as his special mission to oppose.
This striking change, which reached its dramatic climax in 1857, when the so-called Manchester School was for an instant deprived of political existence, deserves explanation. It cannot be said that the general arguments in favour of peace and disarmament were either more difficult to understand or appealed to feebler motives than the arguments in favour of cheap bread. Both the one and the other were primarily (I do not say exclusively) directed to plain and obvious feelings of self-interest — a mode of persuasion of which Cobden always had the highest opinion. Neither is it the fact that the advocates showed less zeal and less courage on the second occasion than on the first; for the zeal of the “Peace Party” was great, and their courage beyond all praise. Nor yet can it be alleged that their criticism on the prevailing policy was right between 1840 and 1850, and wholly wrong between 1850 and 1860, since few will, I suppose, be found prepared to defend in its entirety the foreign policy of the Liberal and Coalition Ministries during those years.
Mr. Bright, in 1857, when his party collapsed, offered an explanation — indeed, two explanations — of the problem. The first he saw in the “ignorance, scurrility, selfishness, ingratitude, and all the unpleasant qualities that every honest politician must meet with” when he “does his duty;” while the second is given in the following sentence, which I extract from a letter to Cobden of that date: “In the sudden break-up of ‘the school’ of which we have been the chief professors, we may learn how far we have been, and are, ahead of the public opinion of our time. We purpose not to make a trade of politics;” and so on.
Some less simple explanation, however, seems to be required than that “the school” was honest and enlightened, while other people were “ignorant, scurrilous, selfish, and ungrateful.” Politicians, following this example, need never find any difficulty in placing their conduct in an interesting light, whatever view the public may happen to take of it. Are they the popular favourites? Then are they the representatives, the tribunes, of the people, and speak almost with the voice of inspiration. Does the people burn them in effigy? It is a sign and measure of the extent to which they are ahead of the public opinion of their time.
The people’s voice is odd,
It is, and it is not, the voice of God.
With all deference, then, to the high authorities on the other side, it appears to me that the principal causes of the profound divergence between the general feeling and the opinions of Cobden and his colleagues during the last fourteen years of his life, are to be found in the peculiar conditions of the period in which they began their public life — conditions which, themselves transient and exceptional, have yet profoundly and perhaps permanently affected the course of English politics.
In ordinary times and under ordinary circumstances there is no reason why the line of political “cleavage” should in any way coincide with the difference between the manufacturing and the agricultural interest. The fact that one man has his property invested in land and farm-buildings, and another in plant and machinery, does not in the nature of things supply a sufficient reason for their belonging to different political parties. The period, however, when Cobden first took interest in public affairs, was in this respect not ordinary. The very imperfect representation of the great manufacturing centres, which it was the chief and perhaps the only merit of the first Reform Bill to have remedied, left a certain soreness even after it had disappeared. When to the memory of this former grievance was added the consciousness of an existing wrong — when it was shown that in the interests of the class who had too long retained an undue share of political power, laws were in force which favoured their material prosperity at the expense of those very persons who had just been admitted to a full share of Parliamentary influence — it is evident that the conditions existed under which ordinary party warfare might be complicated by a struggle between the manufacturers and agriculturalists, or, as Cobden chose to put it, between the middle classes and the aristocracy. These were facts which the philosophic Radicals (who to a certain extent prepared the way for their more robust brethren of the Manchester School) were perfectly ready to demonstrate. Their politics made them dislike the landlords, their political economy made them dislike the Corn Laws, and they were ready to supply any amount of abstract reasoning in favour of a policy which might impoverish the one by destroying the other. Abstract reasoning, however, though not to be despised as an ally, is by itself the feeblest of political forces. If Protection had embraced the whole circle of our industries, or if it had been used to keep up the price of anything but the necessaries of life, fragments of it might have survived to this day, in spite of all the demonstrations in the world. But it so happened that the great change in our fiscal system in the direction of Free Trade had already begun in the pre-Reform period under Lord Liverpool, and had not begun with agriculture. It was inevitable, therefore, that the manufacturers should ask why Parliament in dealing with the articles they produced should legislate in favour of the consumer, while in dealing with the articles they consumed it should legislate in favour of the producer; and this question, though not more difficult to answer, became much more difficult to ignore when commerce was declining, poor-rates rising, and wheat cost seventy-seven shillings a quarter.
The interest of all this, so far as Cobden is concerned, lies in the fact that instead of entering into political life merely as a member of one of the two great political parties, he entered it to fight a manufacturer’s, or as he called it, a middle-class battle, against “aristocratic monopolists,” with arguments drawn from an abstract science. These circumstances modified profoundly, and, as I think, perniciously, the whole course of his public life. They fostered the habit of regarding all political controversies as controversies between classes; so that (among other evil effects) to all the bitternesses which arise from political disagreement was added all the bitternesses which arise from real or imaginary social divisions. They induced him to rate too highly the importance of purely economic considerations in deciding questions of general policy, and to misinterpret or ignore some of the most powerful and by no means the most contemptible, motives by which the history of nations is influenced. They were, perhaps, the real causes of the un-English character attributed to his school of statesmanship by Mr. Disraeli, and which Mr. Bright, while he confessed to it, characteristically claimed as an indication of its superior honesty and public spirit.
Those who are desirous to observe how these causes conspired together to warp Cobden’s political speculations, may note his theory of “the aristocracy,” a theory almost as important in his political system as is the law of gravitation in astronomy. Mr. Morley appears entirely to share his hero’s views on this subject, and his two volumes throughout presuppose a version of the drama of English history, according to which a selfish, unscrupulous, and feudal aristocracy figures sometimes as the villain, and sometimes as the fool of the piece, alternately coercing, robbing, and corrupting a weak but estimable middle class. “Selfish,” “insolent,” “corrupt,” “depraved,” “prejudiced,” “stupid,” “virulent,” “unscrupulous,” “hypocritical,” “unprincipled,” are some of the expressions Mr. Morley is impelled to employ, in order to do justice to his own and his friend’s views of landlords and aristocrats, protectionist or otherwise; and though Cobden is more moderate in his language, he is scarcely more reasonable in his opinions. We are not, it must be remembered, dealing now with the rhetorical devices— the “violations of good taste and kind feeling” — which Cobden said he found necessary in order that audiences which declined to come merely to be instructed might be “excited, flattered, and pleased “; nor yet with the outbursts of that irritable intolerance, which, as displayed by one member of the school, so strangely remind Mr. Morley of the “wrath of an ancient prophet.” We are concerned with a theory which was gravely held by the leaders of the “Manchester School,” which modified all their political judgments and supplied them with a key to all the mysteries of contemporary politics. According to this the population of England might be divided, not only socially but for all political purposes, into three classes — upper, middle, and lower. The interests of the middle and lower classes were identical, and were both opposed to the interests of the upper class. Nevertheless it was the upper class which governed the country. It refused to admit any members of the other classes to a share in the direction of affairs. It liked large armaments, because they supported the younger children of landlords. It liked war, because war justifies large armaments. It liked an active foreign policy, because that always conduces to war. Its very existence was a standing violation of the “principles of political economy.”
This singular theory was probably derived in part from the doctrinaire school of political economists, who having divided the produce of agriculture into rent, profit, and wages, and having asserted, truly enough, that rent as defined by them was not earned either by labour or abstinence, were apt to regard its existence as an economic accident, unfortunately taken advantage of by a small and not very useful portion of the community. It is evident, also, that Cobden’s views on this subject were largely influenced by his own strong class feeling. He chose to regard the manufacturers as a distinct “order” in the State, and he chose to regard “the aristocracy” as another and rival “order.” One of his early aspirations was to see the commercial classes “become the De Medicis, Fuggers, and De Witts of England, instead of glorying in being the toadies of a clodpole aristocracy only less enlightened than themselves.” And many years later he expressed, in not less polished language, vehement indignation against the manufacturers of Manchester, who declined to be represented by so valiant a defender of their “order” as Mr. John Bright.
The principal cause, however, of Cobden’s “class theory” of English politics is, I believe, to be found in the Corn Law controversy; — and at first sight the circumstances of this struggle might seem to supply not only a sufficient motive, but an adequate justification of it. For while there could be no doubt that the leaders of the Protectionists were landlords, it was also true that their interests were involved in maintaining the protective system, while the interests of the urban portion of the community lay on the whole in its abolition. Here, if anywhere, might seem to exist a state of things which would justify the epithets of which I gave above an imperfect, though sufficient catalogue.
In truth, however, a sober examination of the facts of English politics, between the formation of the League and the abolition of the Corn Laws, is quite sufficient to show that the government of England was not then, any more than at previous periods of our history, aristocratic in any proper sense of that term, and that the class whom Cobden chose to describe as the aristocracy, were not open to the charges of unscrupulous selfishness which it pleased him and his school frequently to bring against them.
It is absurd to ascribe corrupt motives to large bodies of men, merely because the economic theories they adopt are in accordance with their own interests. No one doubts the purity of Cobden’s motives in promoting the Corn Law agitation. Yet Cobden not only believed that the profits of his ordinary business would be greatly augmented by the changes he advocated, but went out of his way to speculate in town land, on the ground that its value must rise as soon as the tax on bread was abolished. It may be said that the motives of the Protectionists were liable to suspicion because their theories were not only favourable to themselves, but were manifestly false. But at this moment the vast majority of the civilised world advocate false economic theories of precisely the same kind; and of that majority, the great majority imagine those theories to be to their own advantage. The civilised world may possibly be foolish: but not, surely, unscrupulous and hypocritical. Why are the English landlords of 1845 to be described in harsher language than the English manufacturers of 1821, or the French, American, German, Russian, Canadian, and Australian manufacturers of 1881. Their error may be a proof of stupidity, but if it be, the stupidity is too general to excite either surprise or indignation.
In truth, however, it was hardly open to Cobden to charge the Protectionists with stupidity. Though not, so far as appears, a very profound political economist himself, he was of opinion that political economy was more difficult of comprehension than any of the “exact sciences.” Which of the exact sciences he had mastered (unless phrenology be one) Mr. Morley does not, so far as I recollect, inform us. But at all events the majority of mankind cannot be expected to understand the exact sciences, and are not to be described as selfishly foolish when they fail to do so.
But Cobden committed a much more serious error than that of merely misjudging the motives of his political opponents: — he misjudged their political position. When he represented the Corn Laws as examples of the pernicious class legislation, which, together with wars and armaments, we owed to the fact that we have long been governed by a “feudal aristocracy,” he used language admirably suited indeed to further his agitation, but not at all fitted to encourage, either in himself or his hearers, a true perception of the facts.
In the first place it is as certain as anything in hypothetical history can be, that Corn Laws would have existed in England, however property in land had happened to be distributed. If the soil had been owned in small lots, protection would have been demanded, and given, as surely as it was under the actual circumstances; but it would not have been so easily removed. Cobden, as we have seen, shared to the full the dislike of his school to large landed properties. In this he was ungrateful. It was the existence of large landed properties that ensured and accelerated the great triumph of his life. Does any one imagine that any important minority of a peasant proprietary would have been converted to the doctrine of Free Trade? Or that any minority at all would have supported a bill calculated to reduce them by thousands to beggary and ruin? Owing to the existence of a “feudal aristocracy” those most permanently, if not most deeply, interested in the continuance of a tax on bread were few; they were not united; and the question to them was not one of life and death. Had the soil been parcelled out among small owners, all these conditions would have been reversed. The country would have been arrayed against the towns, powerful, perhaps overwhelming in numbers, entirely of one mind, undisturbed by any knowledge of the “exact sciences,” and determined by hard necessity to fight to the last. How, and at what cost, would such a struggle have ended?
In the second place, it cannot be doubted that the Protectionist landlords, so far from fighting, as Cobden would say, solely for their “order,” represented the middle classes of the counties as faithfully as did Cobden and the leaders of the League the middle classes of the towns. That the landlords have ever in English history constituted, in any accurate sense of the term, a political aristocracy, is indeed a pure illusion. An aristocracy is a class which governs independently of, and if need be in opposition to, public opinion. There has never been any such government in this country. It is not of course denied that in England the owners of the soil have been a powerful body; nor should I dispute the fact that the same public opinion from which, in the main, they derived their power may possibly have in some cases permitted it to be used, consciously or unconsciously, for purposes more to their advantage than to that of the community at large. It can hardly be otherwise. The government which does not occasionally sacrifice a general advantage feebly coveted to the wishes of a class powerfully expressed, has yet to be discovered. But this disease is incident to all forms of government by public opinion. Whatever the nominal form of such government may be, whether it be called republican or monarchical, whether it has a less or a more restricted suffrage, there will always be classes in it whose members have greater power than any equal number of its other citizens taken at random. These classes may consist of landowners or millowners, journalists or wirepullers. Their power may be exercised on the whole for good, or on the whole for evil. It may arise from temporary or from enduring causes. It may be obtained by historical accident, by intrigue, by merit, by utility to a faction or by obsequiousness to a mob. But however it be acquired, or however it be used, it is certain to exist. It must be observed, indeed, that this class power is of very different kinds. It may belong to a class in its corporate capacity, acting as a united body. Such is the power of the railway “interest” or of the “Irish vote.” It may belong to a class because the individuals composing that class, or many of them, are possessed of special sources of influence, as, for example, editors of newspapers or large employers of labour; for it may belong to a class, because its members, possessing leisure, local position, or some other quality which commends them as fitting candidates to the constituencies, are largely chosen as the exponents of public opinion, or of some important section of public opinion. Cobden too often forgot the extent to which the class whom he chose to describe as “the aristocracy” obtained their power in this third or derivative manner. He was by this initial mistake constantly led into errors of judgment – regarding the nature of the political forces with which he had to deal. During the continuance of the Corn Law controversy, this was of small moment. It added greatly to the force and point of his rhetoric to represent the hated “monopoly” as imposed by the power, and retained in the interests, of a small, a selfish, and a wealthy minority; and the opinion, though absurd, led to no practical inconveniences. But when this question was disposed of, his theory led him sometimes into strange mistakes. In 1848 he feared a war with France owing to the “natural repugnance on the part of our Government, composed as it is entirely of the aristocracy, to go on cordially with a republic.” In the next year we find him writing to Mr. Bright, “I wish to abate the power of the aristocracy in their strongholds. Our enemy is subtle and powerful,” etc. By 1852, however, a propos of the Militia Bill, he began somewhat more clearly to recognise that wickedness and folly were not confined entirely to high places. “All the aristocratic parties,” he says, “are in favour of more armaments. Our business is to try and make the people of a different opinion. I am more and more convinced that we have much to do with the public, before we can, with any sense or usefulness, quarrel with this or that aristocratic party.” The next year, this not very recondite fact seems to be clearly apprehended. “Before you and I,” he writes, “find fault with the Whig chiefs, let us ask ourselves candidly whether the country at large is in favour of any other policy than that which has been pursued by the aristocracy, Whig and Tory, for the last century and a half.” Yet when the crash came in 1857, the hardly learnt truth is forgotten. Cobden was unable to believe that the middle classes and “the aristocracy” could honestly agree to differ with him. Some other explanation had to be sought for the total collapse of the Manchester School, and that explanation he found in the degradation of the class in whom he had been accustomed to put his trust. Prompted by the same spirit of enlightened charity which suggested the statement that the wickedness and folly of unnecessary wars could not be avoided, because without the expenditure on “wars and armaments” the “aristocracy could not endure,” he suggests a not less wicked but even more contemptible reason for the adherence of the “middle classes” to the policy of the “upper.” As the latter are, according to Cobden’s theory, influenced by greed of money, so the former are influenced by subservience to rank. The manufacturers of Manchester who presumed to turn out Mr. Bright are “base snobs,” who “kick away the ladder” by which they have risen to prosperity, and their action is characterised as “a display of snobbishness and ingratitude.” A friend makes a failure in seconding the Address. Upon which Cobden writes: “I have never known a manufacturing representative put into a cocked hat and breeches and ruffles, with a sword by his side, to make a speech for Government, without having his head turned by the feathers and frippery. Generally they give way to a paroxysm of snobbery, and go down on their bellies, and throw dust on their heads, and fling dirt at the prominent men of their own order.”
[This long paragraph also includes the only note in the essay I think worth reproducing:
[In reference to this favourite accusation of the Manchester School, it may interest the reader to note (1) that Mr. Morley tells us … that in 1864 “the supreme control of peace and war was finally taken out of the hands of the old territorial oligarchy; “ (2) that he is of opinion … that the “Liberal awakening” which “placed Mr. Gladstone in power, with Mr. Bright himself for the most popular and influential of his colleagues,” put the country in a condition to deal properly with the expenditure on armaments, which could not be done in 1862 owing to “the ignorance and flunkeyism of the middle classes; “ (3) that the army and navy estimates are now (1882) bigger than ever. I may confess that I used to believe that the stupid calumny to which I allude in the text was an invention unscrupulously used for party purposes. I must sincerely apologise for this silent injustice, which had its origin in the fact that the theory in question seemed to be too foolish to be credited by men of sense and education. I gladly yield to the conclusive evidence to the contrary which is furnished by the private correspondence of Mr. Cobden.]
It is some comfort to think that in this dark picture of the meanness of “the only class (as Cobden said) from whose action in his time any beneficial changes were to be expected,” some brighter spots are to be found. Prone as the middle classes are to be “timid and servile” to the “feudal governing class,” yet in one favoured spot more masculine qualities are still to be found among them. In August 1857, shortly after his rejection for Manchester, Mr. Bright was elected for Birmingham. The people of Birmingham, it is reassuring to learn, are “honest and independent,” and “free from aristocratic snobbery.”
We could have, I think, no more striking example than this of the extent to which Cobden’s judgment of men was perverted by his inveterate habit of looking at every question from the point of view of class divisions. Making all allowance for the irritation caused by a crushing defeat not very philosophically endured, is there not something very foolish, and I had almost said a little vulgar, in thus attributing the catastrophe to the overmastering influence of the meanest and vulgarest of motives? Grant that Lord Palmerston was entirely in the wrong about the China War [the Second Opium War]; grant that the combination of parties which forced him to dissolve was entirely in the right; is the theory credible, is it even plausible, which represents the political forces which sent him back to office after the general election, as being the infamous cupidity of one section of the community and the contemptible meanness of another? Is it impossible that for some, even for most political purposes, social divisions should be neglected? Is it impossible that the general opinion of all classes should be swayed by one set of motives? Is it impossible that those motives should be respectable?
In all this the influence of the fact that Cobden’s early political battles really were class contests is sufficiently apparent. The other circumstance I pointed out, namely, that those battles were fought for commercial objects and on economic grounds, had even more effect on the character and influence of the opinions which he spent the latter portion of his life in advocating.
Some lady, in 1852, remarked that Cobden’s policy never rose beyond a “bagman’s millennium.” This observation, uttered in private, and in the freedom of conversation, was not untrue for an epigram, and was both more just and more charitable than some of the judgments (by no means epigrammatic) which in these volumes Mr. Morley has written down, printed, corrected for the press, and published. His comments on the observation are in these terms
“This was the clever way among the selfish and insolent of saying, that the ideal which Cobden cherished was comfort for the mass, not luxury for the few. He knew much better than they (i.e. the class “whose lives are one long course of indolence, dilettantism, and sensuality“) that material comfort is, as little as luxury, the highest satisfaction of man’s highest capacities, but he could well afford to scorn the demand for fine ideals of life on the lips of a class who were starving the workers of the country in order to save their own rents.”
Mr. Morley is angry but confused. The second sentence of his criticism shows that he understands the nature of the complaint urged by the “insolent and selfish” against Cobden’s views of national policy; so that the first sentence must be regarded as a deliberate perversion of it. As for the last clause, it is as impossible to see why Cobden should scorn a demand which he knew to be just because he objected to the lips which uttered it, as to discover how, in 1852, six years after the abolition of the Corn Laws, it was possible “to save rents by starving the workers of the country.”
What, then, was the policy of which it is so dangerous to hint disapprobation? Cobden’s admirers sometimes talk as if he was the discoverer of the fact that war is expensive, that when it is unnecessary it is not only expensive but wicked, and that the nation which does that which is expensive and wicked is certain to suffer both in purse and morals. His opponents, on the other hand, sometimes represent him as advocating peace under all circumstances and under every provocation; or, as it is called, “peace at any price.” As a matter of fact he did something more important than preach the commonplaces for which the first applaud him, and something less absurd than support the paradox which the second lay to his charge. It is true that these last seem almost justified by the impartial and universal disapproval with which Cobden regarded everything which could by any possibility promote what he called “the military spirit”. He not only thought that every modern war which this country has ever been engaged was wholly indefensible, but he regarded with the darkest suspicion every instrument by which war, whether offensive or defensive, could by any possibility be carried on. He wished to cut down the army and the navy; he objected to the militia; he attacked the volunteers; and he vehemently disapproved of every fortification scheme that was proposed.
But behind all this criticism of war and warlike expenditure there lay a theory of the British Empire which, if accepted, would go far to account for Cobden’s views respecting armaments, but which the English people did not accept in Cobden’s lifetime, and do not accept now. It was this fundamental divergence which rendered it inevitable that his reiterated attacks on the military policy of successive governments should fail of their effect, and made the best-founded objections liable to a natural suspicion that they rested on presuppositions with which his hearers could not agree. Cobden’s view of the external relations of our Empire was purely commercial and economic; in the language of the “selfish and insolent,” the view of a bagman. “He delighted,” says Mr. Morley, “in such businesslike as that the cost of the Mediterranean Squadron, in proportion to the amount of trade which it was professedly employed to protect, was as though a merchant should find that his traveller’s expenses for escort alone were to amount to 6s. 8d. in the pound on the amount of his sales.” In something of the same spirit he estimated the value of our foreign possessions. In order to be worth keeping they must pay, and pay in a manner as easily demonstrable as the profits of a bank or the yield of a mine. Not only must they pay, but it must be shown that they would not pay as well if they belonged to somebody else; and on this point Cobden was not easy to convince. The author of the Commercial Treaty with France was of opinion that the manufacturers of Manchester exhibited a melancholy ignorance of the principles of Free Trade when they viewed with alarm the possibility of India passing to another, and, as he must have known, a protectionist power. “Now that the trade of Hindostan,” he says, “is thrown open to all the world on equal terms, what exclusive advantage can we derive to compensate for all the trouble, cost, and risk of ruling over such a people?” And again: “Under the regime of Free Trade Canada is not a whit more ours than the United States.” Inspired by these opinions, he would have seen India go with pleasure, the colonies without regret. They cost money to defend; and we got nothing for the privilege of defending them but commercial advantages which we should equally possess if they had to defend themselves.
Now I do not mean to discuss the effect which the loss of our Indian and colonial possessions would have on our trade, though I think Cobden underrated and greatly underrated it; nor yet the evil consequences of severance to the dependencies themselves, which Cobden denied or left out of account The interesting point is to note how apt he was to ignore for himself, and to misinterpret in others, every view of the Empire which was not exclusively commercial. To him our vast and scattered dominions appeared to be an ill-constructed fabric, built at the cost of much innocent blood and much ill-spent treasure, and which, having been originally contrived in obedience to a mistaken theory of trade, was not worth the trouble of keeping in repair now that that theory had been finally exploded. The same deficient sympathy and insight which prevented him seeing any cause for the Napoleonic wars but the selfish ambition of the “ruling class,” or any result of them but continental complications and a crushing debt, made him regard the motives which induce ordinary Englishmen obstinately to cling to the responsibilities of Empire as consisting of an uninstructed love of gain or a vulgar greed of territory. He may have been right in thinking that the weight of imperial responsibilities will become a burden too heavy to be borne. It may be true that the sceptre of dominion is doomed at no distant date to slide from our failing grasp. We may be destined, from choice or from necessity, to shut ourselves up within the four seas; and it is not absolutely impossible, though in the highest degree improbable, that even under these conditions our Board of Trade Returns may be such as to delight the heart of a Chancellor of the Exchequer. But no man is fit to estimate the consequences of these changes who attempts to estimate them solely and exclusively by figures. The sentiments with which an Englishman regards the English Empire are neither a small nor an ignoble part of the feelings which belong to him as a member of the commonwealth. If therefore that Empire is destined to dissolve, and with it all the associations by which it is surrounded; if we in these islands are henceforth to turn our gaze solely inwards upon ourselves and our local affairs; if we are to have no relations with foreigners, or with men of our own race living on other continents, except those which may be adequately expressed by double entry and exhibited in a ledger; — we may be richer or poorer for the change, but it is folly to suppose that we shall be richer or poorer only. An element will be withdrawn from our national life which, if not wholly free from base alloy, we can yet ill afford to spare; and which none, at all events, can be competent to criticise unless, unlike Mr. Cobden, they first show themselves capable of understanding it. If Cobden’s views on questions of foreign and colonial policy were somewhat narrowed by his too strictly economic view of our external relations, it was only natural that his views on all questions connected with land should be somewhat warped by his aversion to the class who owned so much of it. One of the most amusing instances of this is a proposal he makes for settling the Irish land difficulty by applying to it the law of succession as it exists in France. Many strange remedies have been proposed for the agrarian ills of that unhappy country: some strange ones have been adopted; but surely no one before or since has professed to see the salvation of Ireland in the slow but indefinite multiplication of squireens. It was not, however, to large landlords in Ireland only that he objected. He professed to think that a “feudal governing class” (as by a bold misuse of terms he was accustomed to describe them) “exists only in violation of sound principles of political economy.” But he left no very clear account of what he meant by the statement. If, as might be conjectured, he was alluding to the restrictions (for the most part imaginary) on the sale and transfer of land, which are due to settlement and entail, it is sufficient to remark that no class owes its existence or its power to the continuance of these restrictions: if he meant anything else, it is difficult to see what political economy has to do with the matter. The inquiry, however, is not very important. Cobden was not the first, nor will he be the last statesman who imagines that in yielding to his political or social dislikes he does honour to political economy; and the particular form which the process of self-deception took in his case is not now of much interest even from a purely biographical point of view.
Much, then, as there is to admire in his hero, a perusal of the new material Mr. Morley has provided us with does not, I think, dissipate the impression that the eulogies of some of his disciples are excessive and overstrained. Cobden was an honest, an able, and a useful public man, but not, I think, as his admirers claim for him, either a great politician or a great political philosopher. He was prevented from being the first by the mental peculiarity which made him a serviceable ally only when (as he says himself) he was advancing some “defined and simple principle; a limitation which, whatever its compensating advantages may be, is an effectual bar to the highest success in a career which requires in those who pursue it a power of dealing not only with principles, but likewise with an infinity of practical problems which are neither “defined” nor “simple.” He was, on the other hand, prevented from being a great political philosopher, if by no other causes, still by the circumstances of his early life. His education, pursued with admirable energy while he was immersed in the business of clerk and commercial traveller, was not, and perhaps could not be, of the kind best suited to counteract the somewhat narrowing influences which, as I have pointed out, surrounded his early political career. His radicalism from the first was the radicalism of a class, and such in all essentials it remained to the end. His lack of the historic sense was not compensated by any great scientific or speculative power. Much as he saw to disapprove of in the existing condition of England, he never framed a large and consistent theory of the methods by which it was to be improved. Outside the narrow bounds of the economics of trade he had political projects, but no coherent political system; so that if he was too theoretical to make a good minister of state, he was too fragmentary and inconsistent to make a really important theorist. For example, there was no expectation which he more confidently cherished than the amiable one that Free Trade would lead, and lead soon, to general peace. Yet there was no practical reform which, towards the end of his life, he more desired to see carried into effect than an alteration in international law which should free private property from liability to capture at sea. This was (need I say?) resisted, in his opinion, only by a “selfish aristocracy.” Yet had it been adopted, Free Trade would, for this country at least, have lost its most pacific virtues. These obviously consist in the fact that Free Trade enormously increases the indirect cost of hostilities: and it is plain that if the proposed alteration in the laws of maritime warfare is to be recommended at all, it is to be recommended on the ground that, in the case of a maritime power, it destroys the indirect cost altogether. Again, he was shocked to see the English peasant “divorced” as the phrase is, “from the soil,” or, in plain English, tilling the land for weekly wages. But he bore with the greatest composure the not less painful fact that the pitman is divorced from the mine, and the operative from the mill. He had plenty of schemes for getting rid of large landowners, but none, so far as I know, for abolishing large manufacturers. He seems to have been sensitive — morbidly sensitive — to the more or less imaginary social distinctions which, as he thought, separated the landowner from the capitalist; yet never to have perceived the very real and substantial differences by which the capitalist is divided from the operative. We can hardly regret these theoretical imperfections in a system which probably would not have been better for being more logical. In any case, the only accusation that could be brought against him is that he did not rise superior to the ordinary radicalism of the day. Let those who are inclined to take a severer view of the narrowness, prejudice, and inconsistency which in some degree marred his career as a whole, not only call to mind the great qualities by which these shortcomings were accompanied, but also recollect how happily his defects conspired with his merits to render him a fitting instrument for carrying out the inevitable change in our fiscal policy which was the most important work of his public life, and with which his name will for ever be connected.