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Richard Cobden: hero of the Left or Right?

This year marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the death of the great Victorian politician and ‘sage’, Richard Cobden, born in 1804, who died on 2 April 1865. Once a name familiar to every school-child, the prophet of ‘free trade, peace, and goodwill’ is now all but forgotten save among professional historians but he has spawned a diverse political legacy. On the one hand, his name, so strongly associated with free trade and the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, can be vicariously linked with any subsequent free trade movement, for he loudly proclaimed the virtues of the free market, and ‘the unsoundness of any & every action that is incompatible with the most perfect freedom of trade’. From this it is a short step to Cobden’s becoming the prophet of globalization, and linking him with the full panoply of neo-liberal values enshrined in today’s institutional structure of world trade.

Similarly, his negotiation of the fabled ‘free trade’ Anglo-French (‘Cobden-Chevalier’) commercial treaty of 1860 proved a step towards the Victorian ‘Common Market’, so it is not implausible to link Cobden with moves towards the creation of a European Union; indeed in the 1930s, his old home Dunford House in Sussex was the venue for the first conference in Britain to advocate a ‘United States of Europe’ while the ‘father of Europe’, Jean Monnet, significantly perhaps, grew up in rue Cobden in Cognac. Cobden’s economic beliefs have also often been linked with ‘sound money’, ‘balanced budgets’, minimal state expenditure, and the retreat of the state from all areas of the economy, from which perspective he looks a paragon of Thatcherism, and is still admired by the free market Right in the Conservative party and among libertarians in the United States. There too his name survives in protectionist circles, where critics of freer trade policies in the 1990s asked ‘Is Clinton Cobden?’ Cobden may also in this context be seen as the advocate of looser economic arrangements in Europe, favouring economic but not federal links between European states of the sort the 1860 treaty fostered, and as were embodied more widely in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade after the Second World War.

Richard Cobden by Anne E. Keeling. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Richard Cobden by Anne E. Keeling. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

On the other hand, among those who gathered at Cobden’s statue in Camden Town to commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of his birth in 2004 were not only Bruce Kent, leader of CND but also the new leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn. For on the Left, Cobden is still fittingly remembered as an opponent of unnecessary arms expenditure based on inflated dangers of war but used to boost the interests of the arms establishment, what the American sociologist Wright Mills called ‘the military-industrial complex’. In the context of the 1860s, when Britain’s aristocratically-officered armed services claimed the biggest slice of public expenditure and ‘welfare’ was devolved to poor law authorites, this puts a different perspective on Cobden’s desire to ‘shrink the state’.

Cobden was also a profound opponent of intervention abroad, the prime antagonist of his contemporary proponent of liberal interventionism, Lord Palmerston; he would, we might plausibly surmise, have been in the leading ranks of opponents of intervention in Iraq and Syria as he was in his own day against involvement in the Crimean War (1853-56), and, more successsfully, intervention in the American Civil War (1861-65). Hence after his death generations of pacifists and internationalists looked back to Cobden’s example for inspiration in their search for a ‘moral’ foreign policy. Beyond this, Cobden opposed Britain’s imperial aggrandisement, including British rule in India, which he believed to be both undesirable and unsustainable.

Nevertheless, between Right and Left, we might also expect to find Cobden still reckoned among the great carriers of those ‘liberal values’ which have inspired the centre of British politics. Like John Stuart Mill, Cobden favoured women’s rights; he spoke consistently in favour of public welfare as the advocate of the ‘People’ against, in his day, the ‘Aristocracy’; as his creation of the Anti-Corn Law League showed, he put his faith in popular activism outside traditional political parties; while for some a ‘Little Englander’ he was also the ‘International Man’, who favoured a global civil society, based on the peaceful interactions of peoples rather than the intrigues of state diplomacy; he remains, in this context, an archetype for liberals of all political varieties, and none.

Headline image: Photo by Henry Hemming. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Gordon Bannerman

    A very good read.
    I wonder where Cobden would stand on the issue of EU membership? Would he approve of the ideal of the comity of nations albeit by institutional and governmental means or would he oppose the excessively bureaucratic practices and processes?

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