A high-profile Staffordshire politician is keeping the memory of one of Birmingham’s greatest MPs alive with a new book celebrating the life and achievements of John Bright.
Parliament has commemorated the 200th anniversary of Bright’s birth, on November 16, 1811, with an exhibition in the House of Commons estate.
But the great statesman, who represented Birmingham as an MP from 1858 until his death in 1889, has languished in relative obscurity compared with contemporaries such as Gladstone, Disraeli and Joseph Chamberlain.
Staffordshire MP Bill Cash (Con Stone) has set out to change that, with the publication of a biography of Bright called John Bright: Statesman, Orator, Agitator – a labour of love which has taken him 20 years to write.
Mr Cash has a family link, as his great-grandfather was John Bright’s cousin. The connection doesn’t end there. Bright was “the quintessential backbencher”, according to Mr Cash – always prepared to speak his mind and stand up for what he believed was right, even if it meant disagreeing with his party or going against the grain of fashionable opinion.
For Mr Cash, a backbench MP who has defied his own party leaders on occasion, Bright has been an inspiration. The Staffordshire MP is well-known for speaking out in defence of the sovereignty of the UK against encroachment by the European Union, both when his views are fashionable, as perhaps they are today, and when they were not.
Speaking to the Birmingham Post, Mr Cash said: “People need to know more about John Bright because he is such an inspiration to our democratic system. He was a founder of democracy at Westminster through the Reform Act.
“It was altogether a remarkable career. He changed the face of British politics. And he has been largely forgotten, if not in Birmingham then elsewhere.
“He is an inspiration to any aspiring politician and the question we have to face now is whether we are living up to the standards he set. I think we have some way to go.”
Bright was a Quaker and member for most of his political career of the Liberal Party. Although originally a Manchester MP, he became part of Birmingham’s great reforming tradition.
One of his earliest campaigns was against the Corn Laws, which were designed to protect British farmers by prohibiting cheap foreign imports. Critics claimed they pushed up the price of bread, causing poverty and starvation.
He also spoke out against the Crimean War – the conflict which saw the charge of the Light Brigade – and his words reduced the boisterous Commons to silence, as he told MPs: “The angel of death has been abroad throughout the land. You may almost hear the beating of his wings.”
But his stance was not popular, and cost him his Manchester seat, although historians would probably say that Bright was right.
Bright also joined the successful campaigns against stamp duty on newspapers and paper duty – paving the way, among other things, for the launch of The Birmingham Post in 1857.
As a Birmingham MP he played a leading role in the campaign to reform the election laws and widen the franchise to working class people, and bought together rival wings of the Chartist movement to form a united campaign.
During the American Civil War he backed the North and was vehement in his opposition to slavery.
When US President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated after leading the North to victory, a clipping of a speech delivered by Bright, praising Lincoln’s leadership, was found in his pocket.
Towards the end of his life, Bright joined forces with Joseph Chamberlain, a fellow Liberal and Birmingham MP 25 years his junior, to form the Liberal Unionists, which many years later was to merge with the Conservative Party.
Mr Cash said: “He was a radical. A conviction politician who, except for some brief periods in his career, would not accept government office.
“He was a champion of the poor and oppressed. A champion of the working classes. Most people would say he was unquestionably the Parliamentarian of his time.’’
But Bright might be dismayed by British politics today, and in particular by the way that Parliament has ceded its independence to party managers – and to the EU.
“In terms of our Parliamentary system, he would have been dismayed with the way business is conducted these days, with the whipping system and the use of Parliamentary procedure to curtail debates.
‘‘He would have been profoundly hostile to the encroachment of Parliamentary sovereignty by the European Union,” Mr Cash said.
John Bright: Statesman, Orator, Agitator by Bill Cash
Published by I B Tauris
ISBN 13: 9781848859968
ISBN 10: 1848859961