John Bright is inextricably bound up with the history of Birmingham and the nation. He was described by Philip Henry Muntz as “something more than the member for Birmingham – he was the member for Great Britain”.
As Gladstone said in the House of Commons following Bright’s death, “He has lived to witness the triumph of almost every great cause – perhaps I might say of every great cause – to which he had especially devoted his heart and mind …”
He was driven by conscience and conviction first, his country second and, only then, his party. He was not the remotest degree interested in office or the establishment.
Bright was the Member of Parliament for Birmingham from 1857 until his death in 1889. When he arrived in Birmingham, he had recently been ejected from his parliamentary seat in Manchester over his opposition towards the Crimean War.
At that time there was, to put it mildly, a strong jingoistic approach to war in the Crimea, against which Bright stood almost alone in the House of Commons.
Bright lost his seat in the ensuing election, although he was later vindicated. There are powerful analogies between the Crimean War and many of the protests against Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bright’s political career had started in Manchester. He was a key member of the Anti-Corn Law League which, with the Manchester School, drove the greatest economic change in 19th century British history.
Bright was its greatest orator and worked intimately in tandem with his greatest friend, Richard Cobden, to spread the campaign for free trade throughout the north and then across the land, culminating in the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. Its legacy remains today through its justified insistence on free trade and freedom of choice in the marketplace.
By 1858, however, Bright was ready to begin his next great campaign – for parliamentary reform – and Birmingham with its hive of industrial activity was the perfect base for this.
From his new seat in Birmingham, Bright led the campaign for the vote for the working class and household suffrage which culminated in his driving Disraeli to the Reform Act of 1867, no less than he had driven Peel to the repeal of the Corn Laws. Throughout his entire career, he also fought on behalf of the oppressed in Ireland, the Empire and the colonies.
Bright’s campaigns were legendary and he would address as many as 200,000 people with an energy and an oratory which had no equal. On the night of his first address to his constituents in Birmingham, 5,000 people crammed into the Town Hall and reporters came from throughout the land.
This gift of oratory was also put to use during the American Civil War, with Bright steadfast in his support for Abraham Lincoln and the North. Pitted against those such as Gladstone and Russell whose sympathy with the Southern States threatened to bring Britain into the conflict, his arguments centred on the moral repugnance of slavery.
He had the support of his Birmingham constituents and also the workers at his own cotton mill in Rochdale who, even when impoverished during the cotton famine caused by the war, refused to accept Southern slave-grown cotton.
For this, Bright was greatly admired by Abraham Lincoln After his assassination, a newspaper clipping of a testimonial by Bright was found in Lincoln’s pocket and, of the two portraits hanging in Lincoln’s office, one was of Bright.
This esteem for Bright was shared by the people of Birmingham. In June 1883, Birmingham hosted a week of banquets and festivities to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Bright’s first election to the city.
At his side was Joseph Chamberlain, a devoted admirer who frequently bowed to Bright’s judgement. Bright was ironically a Radical but also with a strong strain of conservatism.
He was in the then Liberal party but not always part of it. Indeed, he and Chamberlain broke with Gladstone over Home Rule in Ireland and over Westminster sovereignty. After all, it was Bright who coined the phrase “England is the mother of parliaments.”
Bright’s legacy has been largely forgotten – although the present city fathers, to their great credit, have restored the statue of Bright and placed it in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery – but there is now a greater than ever need to reconnect with the vibrancy of the real democracy that he strove successfully to achieve for this country.
The biography I have written John Bright: Statesman, Orator, Agitator sets out to remedy this amnesia. John Bright was, and remains, a man for our own times.
* Bill Cash is Member of Parliament for Stone