2 MAY 1987, Page 34

Truths which do not date

J. Enoch Powell


Yale, £14.95

The life of Richard Cobden (1804- 1865), which it is a pleasure to be able to study again in a thoroughly competent and readable new biography, is a phenomenon which does not grow less remarkable with the lapse of time. In the preface to his classic biography (1879) John Morley wrote that his book 'appears at a moment when there is a certain disposition in men's minds to subject his [Cobden's] work and his principles to a more hostile criticism than they have hitherto encountered.' Had Morley but known it, the faith which Morley and Cobden shared in the sovran virtue of free trade was destined to be effaced from `men's minds' by the middle of the next century and only laboriously re-discovered and re-promulgated in this last third of that century.

Nevertheless, viewed across the expanse of the years, the Cobden event has an undiminished power to astonish. There must have been a remarkable personal charisma about a man for whom political opponents as diverse and unlikely as Peel and Palmerston could entertain an un- feigned affection. There seems no other way of accounting for the phenomenon. Here was a man who became a successful calico-printer almost by accident and disco- vered in Lancashire that he had both the power to expound in speech and in debate the economic theory of free trade and the gift of stimulating and organising a vast political movement while himself remain- ing virtually a stranger to party politics and averse to all that is fascinating about the House of Commons.

Refusing office more than once and reluctantly elected to Parliament, he be- came a figure which everywhere in the Old World and the New attracted attentions of the sort usually reserved for crowned heads and national leaders. At the height of English francophobia and French anglophobia and while himself occupying the station of a private citizen, he was the person who could persuade the France of Napoleon III and the England of Lord Palmerston to inaugurate through a treaty of free trade between them a movement towards freedom of trade generally which spread outwards across an unpropitious Europe. John Bright's was a name and a personality to conjure with. But Bright, always more a politician's politician than Cobden and eventually not immune to the seductions of office, never exercised, and knew that he never exercised, the same magnetic power as his friend Cobden. Humbug is close to the heart of the English and of English politics, and bright, good Quaker as he was -- Cobden was staunchly Church of England — had his full ration of it. In Cobden not a particle of humbug is to be detected; and it was perhaps this quality that carried him scathelessly through 'a cloud not of war only but detraction rude'. Cobden was indeed, as Milton wrote of Cromwell, 'guided by faith and matchless fortitude'. Yet his faith was in a fallacy — not an economic, but a political, not to say a philosophical fallacy — the fallacy that freedom of trade and intercourse among the nations ensures peace among the na- tions.

It was in its optimism and its materialism a typically mid-Victorian fallacy which Cobden's destiny was to personify. For him the propagation of free trade was subordin- ate to the proclamation of non- intervention, and he aligned himself with Bright in denouncing the Crimean War as absurd and futile. In the age on which Cobden had happened, Britain could in- deed practise free trade in isolation if need he and profit triumphantly by it; but it was an age in which to practise non- intervention would have been, for many of the same reasons, unimaginable. Cobden, taking nations for granted, was content to understand them as mere aggregations of individual producers and consumers, with- out suspecting or enquiring whether they were not also something besides. Resolutely middle-class, Cobden, with- out snobbery or inverted snobbery, de- tested what he called 'aristocracy' with a distaste which helped to make Parliament an uncongenial place for him. The absence of it from the United States aroused his almost lyrical enthusiasm for that country and blinded him, even on the eve of the Civil War, to its latent conflicts. Ruined as a calico-printer by the distractions of the Anti-Corn Law campaign, he was ruined again, to be again rescued by spontaneous Public generosity, through starry-eyed in- vestment in the Illinois Central Railway. Much about Cobden seems now heavily dated, and comes across to us uncom- mended by the attraction of an exceptional personality; but there were truths he enunciated which do not date. It is a curiously chastening exercise to read his biography in a Britain that is bent on forcing free trade upon Japan by retalia- tory restrictionism and in a Britain which is also determined, at American behest, to regard the hostility and the military invinci- bility of Russia as axiomatic.