Cobden, Corn Laws and World War One

Radicalism Beyond Cobden

by Gwydion M. Williams

Balfour says:

“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.”

This was almost certainly true.  Enclosure in England had replaced the mediaeval Three Fields system[1] with the modern system of fields with fences or hedges.  But it was also legalised theft that took land away from families that had a customary right to land in the old system, but no legal documents.  It also shifted the burden of making hedges from the rich and onto the ordinary peasants.  England’s peasants or yeomen almost vanished, though there was a small recovery with soldiers demobilised after the Napoleonic Wars buying some land.

Balfour naturally would not mention this.  But he does note that the lack of small farmers had made it easier for the liberals to attack agriculture in general.

As I said in the Introduction, Balfour helped create a mass of small farmers in Ireland, buying out the notoriously-bad absentee landlords.  He hoped this might end Home Rule.  Had it not been for the extreme strains of a prolonged and costly World War, he might have been right.  He’d certainly have known that similar people in France were conservative and often monarchist

Balfour also notes what was obvious by the 1880s – socialist demands by or on behalf of the working class were undermining the radical-liberal politics of Cobden and Morley:

“[Cobden] 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.”

Before the rise of socialism, radicalism in Britain and the USA included a Radical Rich who attacked the privileges of landowners and aristocrats.  Who assumed that their own privileges would never be questioned.  I noticed this from Barack Obama’s Team of Rivals, with rich northerners often the most radical and tried to give Afro-Americans equality.

In the USA, the 1860s and 1870s were the twilight of the Radical Rich.  They soon noticed what Balfour observes here – that industrialists and workers had very different interests.  They had been radical when thought the new world would be dominated by people like them.  They moved to the centre or centre-right when they realised that it might not.

This also applies to Morley, author of the Cobden book.  In 1914 he resigned in protest at Britain’s entry into the First World War as an ally of Russia.   From the little I know of him, he looks like a man stranded by history: stranded because of the weaknesses in 19th century Liberalism that Balfour notes.  Among other things, he opposed legal protection for workers, thinking that Market Forces would fix it all.  It had been the Tories who had impose limits on the working day, first to twelve hours and then to something closer to modern standards:

 “From 1889 onwards, Morley resisted the pressure from labour leaders in Newcastle to support a maximum working day of eight hours enforced by law. Morley objected to this because it would interfere in natural economic processes. It would be ‘thrusting an Act of Parliament like a ramrod into all the delicate and complex machinery of British industry’. For example, an Eight Hours Bill for miners would impose on an industry with great diversity in local and natural conditions a universal regulation. He further argued that it would be wrong to ‘enable the Legislature, which is ignorant of these things, which is biased in these things—to give the Legislature the power of saying how many hours a day a man shall or shall not work’.

“Morley told trade unionists that the only right way to limit working hours was through voluntary action from them. His outspokenness against any eight hours bill, rare among politicians, brought him the hostility of labour leaders. In September 1891, two mass meetings saw labour leaders such as John Burns, Keir Hardie and Robert Blatchford all called for action against Morley. In the election of 1892, Morley did not face a labour candidate but the Eight Hours League and the Social Democratic Federation supported the Unionist candidate. Morley kept his seat but came second to the Unionist candidate. When Morley was appointed to the government and the necessary by-election ensued, Hardie and other socialists advised working men to vote for the Unionist candidate (who supported an Eight Hours Bill for miners), but the Irish vote in Newcastle rallied to Morley and he comfortably kept his seat.”[2]

The ‘Unionist’ would have been a Liberal Unionist This was a break-away from the main Liberals that was led by Joseph Chamberlain.  It was against Irish Home Rule, but also for social reform, and had formed a coalition with the Conservatives.  Newcastle was a two-member constituency.  But the Wiki entry calls the 1892 candidate a Conservative, with a different and Liberal Unionist candidate for 1893.[3]

Morely came third and lost his seat in the general election of 1895, which was a big success for the Conservative / Liberal Unionist alliance.  Morley got back into parliament in 1896 in the safe Scottish seat of Montrose Burghs, whose sitting MP resigned in his favour.  Held it till 1898, when he got a peerage.

The Eight-Hour Day might seem very basic, but you still have people against it.  Morley’s heirs ended up as part of the Conservative Party, which also in time absorbed the Liberal Unionists.  But before Thatcher, dogmatic belief in Market Forces never dominated Toryism:

“Robert Owen had raised the demand for a ten-hour day in 1810, and instituted it in his socialist enterprise at New Lanark. By 1817 he had formulated the goal of the eight-hour day and coined the slogan: ‘Eight hours’ labour, Eight hours’ recreation, Eight hours’ rest’. Women and children in England were granted the ten-hour day in 1847. French workers won the 12-hour day after the February Revolution of 1848. A shorter working day and improved working conditions were part of the general protests and agitation for Chartist reforms and the early organisation of trade unions.”[4]

Owen had begun as a Tory, before becoming too radical for most of them.[5]  This was part of the general emergence of socialism.  Tories saw state-enforced social controls as a necessary part of life, while non-socialist radicals were generally against them.  But socialists were also determined enemies of hierarchy and inherited inequality.  This helped the process whereby they were attached to British Liberalism before founding the Labour Party.

British politics has always been vastly more complex than the Tory / Liberal and then Tory / Labour divisions that most people know about.  Bright and Cobden led a free-trade and anti-Imperialist faction within Liberalism.  Balfour notes how this was damaged by Bright’s unpopular opposition to the Crimean War:

“Mr. Bright, in 1857, when his party collapsed, offered an explanation…  ‘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.’

Misleading: Bright lost his seat in Manchester, but got re-elected for Birmingham.  Rejecting imperialism took another hundred years, but dropping it sooner might have avoided much grief for many, including hundreds of thousands of ordinary Britons who died in the two World Wars.

While Morley stuck with the Liberal Party, Bright opposed Irish Home Rule and became a Liberals Unionist in his final years, dying in 1889.[6]  Morley lingered on to be one of the few Liberals to flatly opposed World War One.  I found myself being reminded of Marley from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  He became the Ghost of Liberalism Past, while the more Scrooge-like characters took over.

Bright, Cobden and Morley represented a blind alley within British politics.  Free Trade was always unrealistic without a powerful state to support business people.  Britain had not tried it until British industry was strong enough to win open competition.  It remained a general view among Britons that ‘trade follows the flag.

Some of the elite, including Balfour, began rethinking when it became clear that United Germany was overtaking Britain as an industrial power.  Joseph Chamberlain in his final years favoured Imperial Preference:

“The idea was associated particularly with Joseph Chamberlain, who resigned from the government of Arthur Balfour in September 1903 in order to be free to campaign for Tariff Reform. Among those opposing Chamberlain was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Thomson Ritchie, who, guided by the free-trade ideas of the leading economists of the time, such as Sir William Ashley, was vigorously opposed to any scheme of Imperial Preference. This ultimately resulted in a damaging rift within Balfour’s Conservative-Unionist coalition government, contributing to its defeat in the 1906 elections.”[7]

Imperial Preference has been surprisingly neglected by British historians, as has the whole Liberal Unionist development.  It was a Road Not Taken, and one which might well have avoided World War One, which without Britain would have been won easily by Germany if it had even happened.[8]

It is embarrassing now to admit that a section of the British ruling class openly said that a preventative war against the rising power of Germany would be a good idea.  No less embarrassing that the cause of the war was the Serbian claim to what was then Bosnia and Herzegovina.  That there was a very reasonable suspicion that the Serbian intelligence services were behind the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  He was heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and wanted to raise the status of Slavs.  He could be expected to undermine Bosnian-Serb desires to join the Serbian Kingdom when the elderly Emperor died.  (This actually happened in 1916, when all had changed utterly.)

Serbia’s monarchy had been installed in 1903 by a coup that murdered a King from a rival Serbian dynasty.[9]  The men behind that were running Serbian intelligence within a government that wanted Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of Serbia.  Austria-Hungary blaming Serbia for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was very reasonable.  Serbia held out against the key demand for outside investigation of the role of Serbian intelligence.  Austria-Hungary threatened war, but Tsarist Russia was ready to go to war to defend Serbia.  France was committed to backing Russia, and anyway wanted Alsace-Loraine even though it had a pro-German majority.

Germany had a long-standing plan to win a quick and fairly bloodless victory by attacking France via neutral Belgium before Russia could mobilise its massive manpower.  They would have avoided this if it had seemed likely to bring Britain into the war, and in fact they held off and defeated Tsarist Russia despite Britain being against them.  But consultations during the prolonged crisis before the war led them to believe that the British Empire would not be bothered so long as Germany did not try to hold onto Belgium.  Only when it was actually happening did it suddenly become the official line that this was an outrage that required Britain to join a war that might just coincidentally destroy Germany’s threatening trade rivalry.

No one has ever found an innocent explanation: the standard line is that it was a baffling error by Sir Edward Grey, one of the longest-serving Foreign Secretaries in British history.  This matters, because the march through Belgium is now the only usable excuse.  British histories once talked of ‘gallant little Serbia’, but this was dropped when Britain found it convenient to demonise Serbia in the break-up of Former Yugoslavia.

During World War One, the foolishness of repealing the Corn Laws was shown.  Britain could not feed itself and depended on imported food.  So did Germany, having copied many of Britain’s errors.  A British blockade tried to starve Germany into submission and did indeed succeed in 1918, with a hungry population rebelling and accepting an armistice which left Germany open to the grossly unfair Treaty of Versailles.  Balfour was very much part of this historic error: but at least understood the basics of politics.  He had a long-term strategy that might have worked.  Cobden and similar did not, though much of their foolishness has been inherited by the New Right.








[8] For details, see Britain’s Great War on Turkey, from an Irish Perspective, by Pat Walsh