IN MY brief visit to last October’s Conservative conference, while the Tory elite partied inside their secure zone, my wife and I found ourselves alone as we made the brief pilgrimage to a statue on Albert Square. The small huddle of protestors nearby weren’t paying the Victorian stone figure any attention either, nor were the police who looked askance at their placards from across the square. But we were in the presence of a hero, a parliamentary giant, born two hundred years ago last November, from whose principle and passion Cameron’s current crop could learn a great deal: John Bright.
Thanks to the efforts of Bill Cash MP, you don’t have to go to Manchester to commune with Bright’s forgotten brilliance. Cash’s excellent new biography, released to celebrate Bright’s bicentenary, made stirring Christmas reading, and I recommend it to anyone looking for a heroic example of achievement to take into the new year.
Bright’s star may have dimmed now, but in his day he was seen as the most likely, in an age with whole constellations of great men, to be remembered. Journalists owe him a special debt, as he broke the monopoly owned by the Times as a result of three taxes on newspapers; he helped to revoke the taxes and usher in a new flowering of cheap, regional papers where fresher thoughts could flourish and information could flow more freely. But Bright is more widely revered for his role in the repeal of the Corn Laws and the passing of the Reform Act. He was, in all his campaigns, a devoted champion of the power of liberty and democracy to emancipate and raise up the common man and woman. The finest orator of his day, Bright helped to stir a nation to the cause of free trade. To put it in his own words:
“The principles of free trade are so simple that the mind of no unbiased man who hears them will have any hesitation in receiving them as true… We ask that the world should be our workshop, and the wide world our market.”
A Quaker, Bright knew that his co-religionists were powerful forces in banking and insurance in the City, as well as housing and manufacture. Through their productivity, relying not on cronyism or special treatment but asking only for a level playing field, the greatness of nineteenth-century Britain was being established. By breaking down the rules on trade and later on parliamentary representation, held in place by a narrow group of the rich and powerful, Bright sought to make life better for all, and he convinced large swathes of the general population to support his battles.
Today, when liberals are too often dismissed as heartless for wanting goods to cross borders freely, when parliament is again in need of urgent reform to restore more direct forms of democracy (the Direct Democracy campaign has a comprehensive roadmap as to why and how this could be done), and politicians sit on the lowest rung of our contempt, we need to remember a man like Bright. He showed that living by the maxim “be just and fear not” is enough for vast achievement without cost to the soul, even for MPs. He showed too, that rightly understood the pursuit of liberty is anything but selfish. It is the common path of humanity.
John Bright: Statesman, Orator, Agitator by Bill Cash is published by I.B. Tauris.
Marc Sidwell is City A.M.’s business features editor