John Bright has been described as one of the great Victorian moralists, standing at the confluence of the mid-nineteenth century working class movement and of the political wing of nonconformist dissent. By providing leadership to these two movements he made a major contribution to the creed of Liberalism, and a major legacy to William Gladstone, who reaped the rewards of Bright’s work in the form of the alliance between the middle and working classes on which the Liberal Party prospered in the late nineteenth century. But in many ways, Bright was not by origin or predisposition a member of either group; rather, he was more inclined to the Manchester School of the Anti-Corn Law League, and his leadership role was more a product of compromise by both the working class and radical nonconformists.
John Bright was born on 16 November 1811, the son of a Quaker textile manufacturer. He worked for his father in his Rochdale mill after leaving school, and soon became involved in local political causes favoured by nonconformists, notably the opposition to compulsory church rates. Bright first met Richard Cobden in 1835, and after the death of his wife, in 1841, he became closely involved with Cobden in the Anti-Corn Law League (he had become treasurer of the Rochdale branch of the League in 1840). Bright was a noted public orator, speaking against the Corn Laws across the country during the years leading up to their repeal in 1846.
Bright had a long career as an MP, although he held ministerial office for only a short period. He was elected MP for Durham in 1843, and then for Manchester in 1847 and 1852. He was defeated in Manchester in 1857, but after a short absence from Parliament he became MP for Birmingham at a byelection later in that year. He held that seat until in the five subsequent elections until 1885 when, following the Third Reform Act, he became MP for Birmingham Central. Bright voted against the second reading of the Home Rule Bill in 1886, and fought the ensuing election as a Liberal Unionist. He retained his seat until his death in 1889.
Bright joined Gladstone’s Cabinet in 1868 as President of the Board of Trade (and became a privy councillor), but he resigned in 1870 pleading ill-health (although this was to some extent a cover for his dislike of the realpolitik of government). During 1873-74 and 1880-82 he held the sinecure post of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, but he resigned in 1882 in opposition to the bombardment of Alexandria in defence of the Suez Canal.
Bright is probably best known for his contribution to the campaign against the Corn Laws, leading up to their repeal in 1846. He was a noted public orator, who spoke across the country against protection for agriculture, and later for other causes that he espoused. He opposed the Crimean War, not only because (like Cobden) he advocated the cause of peace and internationalism, but also for the burden that military expenditure imposed on the taxpayer. It was this stance that cost him his seat in 1857, again like Cobden. Bright’s Radical opposition to the European balance-of-power policy was typified by his description of it as a gigantic system of outdoor relief for the aristocracy of Great Britain.
Bright continued to champion the cause of free trade after the repeal of the Corn Laws. He supported Cobden in pushing for a commercial treaty with France; indeed, he, rather than Cobden, is credited with originating the idea. The 1860 Cobden-Chevalier Treaty substantially lowered duties between the two countries and formed a coherent part of his advocacy of internationalism, with free trade and peace as its main planks. But as well as his support for free trade, Bright is perhaps most associated with campaigns for parliamentary reform. He began this campaign after 1858, largely out of his hostility to Palmerston’s form of aristocratic government, in a parliament that he regarded as a sham dominated by class prejudices and vested interests.
Bright advocated many other causes, including the abolition of newspaper taxes; he challenged the powers of the House of Lords over tax bills, and opposed local government measures such as the Highways Bills of the early 1860s (which created new boards that he regarded as controlled by local magistrates who were in the grip of the aristocracy). He was also prominent in debates over the reforms in Indian cotton cultivation and government and Irish land reform, and he supported the Northern cause in the American Civil War.
In 1880 Bright served as Lord Rector of Glasgow University, and in 1886 Oxford University awarded him an honorary doctorate. He died on 27 March 1889. He had married, in 1839, Elizabeth Priestman, who bore him a daughter and died in 1841; he then married Margaret Elizabeth Leathman in 1847, and had three daughters and four sons, two of whom later became MPs.
Volumes of Bright’s speeches and addresses were published in 1868 and 1879. The most recent biographies are Keith Robbins, John Bright (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979) and Bill Cash, John Bright: Statesman, Orator, Agitator (I.B. Tauris, 2012).
Cheryl Schondhardt-Bailey was a Lecturer in Government and Elizabeth Flanagan Prueher a candidate for the Public Administration and Public Policy MSc at the LSE, at the time of writing this piece.