Bill Cash: A salute to a great Victorian radical

Roundup: Talking About History

[Bill Cash is Conservative MP for Stone.]

Today, 150 years ago, John Bright launched in Birmingham Town Hall his historic campaign for parliamentary reform and the vote for working men. The Liberal MP wrote to his wife that “The Times reporter called this morning to ask when I thought the meeting would be over that he might arrange for their special engine! Other men, I mean our public men, must be very little if I am so great.” The meeting ran late but The Times's special train still ensured the journalist met his deadline.

Bright, with Richard Cobden, his fellow believer in free trade, had in 1846 saved the masses from starvation by forcing Peel to repeal the Corn Laws. He turned his attention on October 27, 1858, to reducing “the fabric of privilege” by campaigning for the vote for all working men.

As G.M. Trevelyan noted: “That great audience swayed, like a cornfield beneath the wind, under the gusts of cheering and laughter that shook them as he spoke... And the magic that swayed them was not some hard appeal to the lower part of their nature, but drew its compelling virtue from the simplest invocation of moral principles in words which survive the speaker as part of the wealth of our mother tongue. No class ever had nobler teaching than the working men of this island during the years while Bright was their champion.”

Bright's speech culminated in the 1867 Reform Act which greatly expanded male suffrage. He had changed Britain so that unlike much of Europe we avoided revolution.

So if Bright were alive today what would he be fighting for? His absolute priority would be to restore respect and authority to the Commons. The man who coined the phrase “the Mother of Parliaments” believed that the most precious thing that a person possessed was the right to vote for the laws that governed him and his country. He would be our foremost euro-realist railing against the imposition of European laws...

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