John Bright: A Liberal Politician
John Bright was an influential nineteenth century politician who supported liberal causes such as universal suffrage and opposed the Corn Laws. Although his opinions led to the loss of his seat in Parliament in 1857, he won a by-election in Birmingham five months later and returned to Parliament. During the second half of the century, Bright found himself one of the leading Parliamentary reformers, accepted alike by those who demanded universal suffrage and those who wanted more limited reform. In 1868, Bright entered Gladstone’s Liberal Cabinet and remained an important force in politics until his death in 1889.
The Anti-Corn Law Association
After leaving his Quaker school, Bright became involved in local politics, joining the campaign to end compulsory tax support of the Anglican Church in Rochdale. In 1838, Bright was invited to join the recently formed Anti-Corn Law Association by his friend Richard Cobden and soon became an important member touring the country giving speeches on the need for Corn Law reform. In these speeches, Bright attacked the privileged position of the selfish landed aristocracy and appealed to the working and middle classes to combine and fight together for free trade and cheaper food.
MP for Durham
Elected as MP for Durham in 1843, Bright continued his campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws and also supported the liberal Whigs who were calling for universal suffrage and the secret ballot. However, unlike most radicals, Bright was opposed to Parliamentary regulation of the hours of factory workers fearing that factory legislation would lower wages and threaten Britain’s export trade.
The Irish Potato Famine
Bright’s position was vindicated by the failure of the Irish potato crop in 1845 and the mass starvation that followed, an event which also ensured the support of Irish nationalist MPs for his campaign. The Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel was gradually won over and a new Corn Law was passed in January 1846 that reduced the duty on cereals to an derisory level.
The Crimean War
In the 1850s, Bright campaigned against the Crimean War in conjunction with Richard Cobden, using the popularity which he had obtained from his earlier success to help him. However, Bright’s antagonism to Lord Palmerston’s foreign policy was ill-received - the British public supported their government over the war and in the 1857 General Election, both Bright and Cobden lost their seats in the House of Commons. However, five months later, Bright won the Birmingham by-election despite refusing to change his stance over Britain’s foreign policy.
Now one of the leading advocates for universal suffrage, Bright made a speech in 1858 in which he pointed out the problems with the current, restricted electoral franchise and called for an end to all rotten boroughs and the introduction of the secret ballot. In 1865 Lord John Russell, leader of the Liberals in Parliament, became Prime Minister and together with William Gladstone, his leader in the House of Commons, tried to introduce universal suffrage despite the continued opposition of many Liberal MPs. Bright toured the country and used his considerable oratorical skills to drum up support for the measure but in the end, Russell's government found it impossible to get the bill passed by the House of Commons. When Russell resigned in 1866, he was replaced by the Earl of Derby, previously Lord Stanley, and with the support of Benjamin Disraeli the government managed to pass the 1867 Reform Act.
After William Gladstone became Prime Minister in 1868 he appointed Bright President of the Board of Trade and gave him the opportunity to see the Liberal government pass several measures that he had advocated for many years including the opening of the universities to Nonconformists, the secret ballot and governmental funding for education. In December 1870, ill-health forced him to retire from the Cabinet and after losing the 1874 General Election, the Liberals did not return to power until 1880 when Bright was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. However, Bright considered that the aggressive Liberal foreign policy was too similar to that which he had opposed in the 1850s and when a British fleet attacked Egypt in 1882, Bright resigned from the Cabinet over both this issue and his opposition to Irish Home Rule. John Bright remained MP for Birmingham until his death on 27th March, 1889.