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The politics of Richard Cobden
Cobden's early life
From an impoverished farming family, Cobden served a commercial apprenticeship as a clerk and commercial traveller in London before becoming a partner in a calico-printing business near Burnley, Lancashire in 1828. Cobden’s formal schooling ended at the age of fifteen but he read widely during early adulthood, and tours of Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and the United States broadened his historical and political knowledge and his intellectual horizons. Underpinning Cobden’s political philosophy was an ardent belief in Adam Smith’s free-market capitalist political economy but Cobden integrated laissez-faire economics into a broader system of thought, with the aim of promoting international peace and commercial development.
Cobden first came to public prominence as the author of two pamphlets, England, Ireland, and America (1835) and Russia (1836) under the pseudonym ‘A Manchester Manufacturer’. Cobden criticized the morality of British foreign policy, and ridiculed Britain’s obsession with maintaining the European ‘balance of power’. He called for an end to wasteful British military expenditure and damaging political and diplomatic alliances, and advocated a liberal commercial policy of free trade which would foster economic development, promote British exports, and encourage international commercial exchange. This highly articulate and cogent programme, with the interlinking components of free trade, reduced military expenditure, and a non-interventionist foreign policy, remained central to Cobden’s political thought throughout his life.
With the formation of the Anti-Corn-Law League in 1838, predominantly by urban industrialists and manufacturers, Cobden embarked on a new front of political activity. The Corn Laws were laws which by levying protective tariffs on foreign grain imports, raised bread prices for British consumers, while protecting British farmers and landowners. As a speaker and writer, Cobden played an important role in the movement, which successfully achieved its aims with the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. Along with other manufacturers Cobden was accused of seeking repeal as a means of enabling manufacturers to reduce the wages of workers but it seems unlikely that this was his prime motivation.
Cobden believed commerce should not be subject to any artificial impediments, like tariffs, and in 1846-7 he toured Europe, hoping to promote a wider acceptance of free-trade doctrines. As he viewed political and economic progress in terms of the harmonious economic development of nations, Cobden tied the promotion of free trade with a reduction of armaments. In his view, commerce was a civilizing and pacific influence. As free trade forged closer international commercial links, the aggressive instincts of men and nations would decline, and as the prospect of wealth arising from productive employment and manufacturing increased, the likelihood of war would diminish. Cobden therefore called for cuts in military expenditure, whilst promoting international disarmament and arbitration as ways of curbing militarism and eradicating war. In this activity Cobden cooperated with peace societies and Quakers, and contributed towards an influential pacifist strain of thought in liberal politics.
Ultimately, Cobden’s aim was the establishment of a new, peaceful form of international relations based on commercial and industrial activity rather diplomatic and military alliances and rivalries. However, in the 1850s this vision was continually undermined by British colonial wars and territorial expansion in India and China. In Europe, the Crimean war (1854-6) pitting Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire against Russia, unleashed a wave of British patriotic fervour. Cobden’s opposition to the war was unpopular, and he lost his parliamentary seat in 1857. He returned to political prominence in 1860 when, acting for the British government, he negotiated an Anglo-French commercial treaty, which by a mutual reduction of tariffs defused the threat of war. By doing so, the treaty validated Cobden’s belief in commerce as a force for international peace.
In his later years, Cobden increasingly focussed on reductions in government expenditure and non-intervention in foreign policy, issues which had first propelled him into political life. Although sympathetic to the North during the American Civil War, Cobden persistently urged British neutrality, and he continued to oppose what he regarded as the increasing militarization of British society. During his lifetime, Cobden was considered a leading figure of the advanced radicals within the Liberal Party, and after his death his ideas remained influential, especially under the Liberal governments of William Gladstone. The emergence of socialism and collectivist politics in the twentieth century led to a decline in Cobden’s direct influence but many of his ideas, especially those relating to the conduct of an ethical foreign policy, retain contemporary relevance for policy-makers throughout the world and he remains a much-respected figure.