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John Bright And The Manchester School

Jonathan Schofield marks the 200 year anniversary of a remarkable man

Written by . Published on November 18th 2011.

John Bright And The Manchester School

This weeks marks the 200th anniversary of John Bright's birth. The Rochdale born mill-owning Quaker stood at the centre of Britain's nineteenth centruy radical politics. What he's chiefly associated with is his work in the Anti-Corn Law League, his efforts to spread the vote to working people and his leadership of the Manchester School. It's about the latter aspect of his work with which this article is concerned.

IN the house where I grew up there was a niche and in the niche was the bust of a politician: John Bright MP, free trader and one of the fathers of the Manchester School.

The bust, still there, dates back to the nineteenth century, when a belief in progress and the steady improvement of mankind, morally and materially, was part of the Victorian credo. 

So this is the strangeness of the Manchester School: its popular notoriety, as with so much political theory, bears only a passing resemblance to how its founders thought. 

Politics was clearly the principal method by which this improvement would be delivered – especially in a country that had historically stopped short of revolution.

Thus local figures with a national and international profile were celebrated with alabaster busts and other bric-a-brac produced for general sale. The nature of celebrity having changed, in the early twenty-first century, a bust of footballer Wayne Rooney on a mantelpiece seems more likely than that of David Cameron. 

Not that it's likely Cameron will leave a legacy to rival John Bright's. After all it was Bright and his ally Richard Cobden who in the 1840s were the architects of the Manchester School, a line of thought which still influences the way we live. 

The definition of the Manchester School goes like this. Take away government interference in the economy, let business and trade look after itself and free enterprise will flourish. Thus by encouraging entrepreneurship and rewarding hard work everyone will benefit.

Regulate the economy and society will become mired, clogged by a lack of enterprise and limited ambitions. Bright himself said, “all legislative interference with the labour market [is] unjustifiable in principle and mischievous in [its] results”.

The nick-name, Manchester school, incidentally, comes via a political opponent, Benjamin Disreali.

Free Trade Hall - Named For The Manchester SchoolFree Trade Hall (now part of the Radisson Edwardian) - Named For The Manchester School

For Manchester businessmen the delivery method would be free trade, where states removed all tariff barriers to the flow of goods and services between nations.

The impetus behind the idea came from Britain's Corn Laws, which, by taxing imported corn, impeded business, kept the necessities of life for the poor (in this case bread) expensive and along with other tariffs caused strife between nations which in turn got in the way of wealth creation for all society from top to bottom.

The influence of the philosophy was important through much of the mid and late nineteenth century as free trade was increasingly adopted by nations. It withered in the twentieth as governments again raised tariff barriers and nationalism re-established itself.

But the idea still had legs. Christened neo-liberalism, the Manchester School sprung up again in the 1980s with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan twisting it. The underlying morality of the original idea had been lost, and its symbol became the movie Wall Street

Then the Berlin Wall fell and the political economist Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History (1992) which declared that Western liberalism had won the final battle in the war of world doctrines. The future was bright, the future was private enterprise, trade between nations would replace conflict.

The Manchester School had come a long way. Fukuyama's simplistic idea was flawed of course, but the truth is that many developing nations have, with varying degrees of success, adopted the liberal ideal. The free trade movement, morphed into globalisation, has cast its net wide. 

It's not surprising then that for the left the Manchester School has always been suspect. It represents the harsh, inequitable side of a cold careless economy: a system where the rich get richer and social justice is scorned as an impediment to personal gain. This is the Manchester School as articulated by Gordon Gekko in Wall Street: Greed is Good. In Germany, Manchestertum, as it is called, is a term of open abuse. 

Bright and Cobden would have been astonished by this turn of events. But they might have half expected it.

Manchester, as a city and a concept, carries potency. Opposite orthodoxies have always found common ground in condemning the city and way it developed. 


For the left the city was created purely by capitalism and therefore its philosophy and ambitions must be wrong. For conservatives and aristocrats the city threatened the established relationship between the propertied and the poor, whilst free trade threatened the concept of the nation state.

As John Bright said in Manchester in 1849 after the last vestige of the Corn Laws had ceased to exist, “As a people we have found that we have some power. We have discovered that we were not born with saddles on our backs, and that country gentlemen were not born with spurs”. No wonder the Establishment was worried. 

Detmar Doering, keen on redressing the balance, wrote in 2004, “Even today, popular conceptions of “Manchesterism” are shaped by the view projected by this unholy alliance [between left and right]. It has managed to convince people that nationalism and an authoritarian state are more human than cosmopolitanism and liberty”.

Yet according to Doering, “the Manchester Liberals created a far freer internal marked in Europe than the Eurocrats in Brussels have achieved today.” Similarly although the neo-liberals of the 1980s approved of a dose of Manchesterism, for them it was all about the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself. 

So this is the strangeness of the Manchester School: its popular notoriety, as with so much political theory, bears only a passing resemblance to how its founders thought.

Free trade unencumbered by governmental meddling might have been an aspect of the Manchester school but it went much deeper than that. 

For instance, both Bright (who was a Quaker) and Cobden were anti-war and anti-imperialist, opposing the Crimean War in 1854 - and their seats in Parliament over it.

In their version of the doctrine, free trade would ensure world peace, no less. Inevitably this would result in higher living standards for everybody with the ultimate goal of ending conflicts between individuals, groups and nations. In this way and with these freedoms the human spirit would be raised up.

Cobden speaking in Manchester in 1846 said, “I believe that the motive for large and mighty empires, for gigantic armies and great navies, for those materials that are used for the destruction of life, and the destruction of the rewards of labour, will die anyway.”

So this is the strangeness of the Manchester School: its popular notoriety, as with so much political theory, bears only a passing resemblance to how its founders thought.

Much later John Bright, in 1877 when the application of free trade as a policy had made itself felt, said, “The workman of England is no longer a human machine. He is a man into whom, by these changes has been infused a new life, and to whom is given a new and wholesome responsibility”. 

But the myth of the Manchester School, the leftist and the rightist one, has overcome the reality. And like the myth of ceaseless rain in Manchester it shows no sign of losing its force. 

Yet a more accurate reading of the Manchester School reveals why people across Britain would buy alabaster busts of key campaigners such as John Bright and put them in places of honour. These were heroes, great men, leading the country and the world with integrity towards a brighter, more equitable future. 

Bright's Statue In Albert SquareBright's Statue In Albert Square

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Jonathan SchofieldNovember 18th 2011.

I love this quote from Bright after the repeal of the Corn Laws. ' The Anti-Corn Law League will henceforth stand before the world as a sign of the new order of things. Until now this country has been ruled by the class of great proprietors of the soil. Every one must have foreseen that, as trade and manufactures extended, the balance of power would, at some time or other, be thrown into another scale. We have been living through a revolution without knowing it.'

AnonymousNovember 18th 2011.

Great Great article but I dont agree that these men were leading us to a more equitable future. The unregulated, barrier free economy they favoured was and would reamin full of inequality.

They did lead this country out of one of the last vestiges of a fudal system where control of land was key to power and wealth. However it was Gladstone and Disreali's electoral reforms which moved this country further forward and then ultimately the birth of the labour movement and emancipation following the great war that led us to a more equitable society.

While on the subject of busts Gladstone kept a bust of Disraeli in his private study, presumably to keep an eye on him.


JoanNovember 18th 2011.

Great article Jonathan, with pertinent points about how a clearly stated principle can be interpreted differently when circumstances change. Good and beautifully short meeting at The Radisson, site of the Free Trade Hall, last night to celebrate John Bright. Chaired by Council Leader Sir Richard Leese, Tory MP Bill Cash, a distant relative of Bright who’s recently published a Bright biography, fleshed out more detail of a determined and successful man who entered the world of politics in order to change the world. Apparently Abraham Lincoln carried a copy of one of his speeches in his pocket.

the Whalley RangerNovember 18th 2011.

'Manchester capitalism' has a firm place in the history books and that is exactly where it should remain.

Trusting the markets to regulate themselves for a greater good is - not unlike Marxism on the opposite side of the spectrum - a lovely theory.

But all this was not really thought through properly, was it?

What we have ended up with in Britain is the aspiration of a free trade economy, failing to realise that there are notorious MONOPOLIES right in front of our eyes, negating just that.

Public (i.e. private) transport monopolies in our cities, the rigged UK energy market and this unbelievable clustering in the banking sector - all blatantly ignored by the likes of our local councils, Ofgem, the FSA et al and with obvious impact on the lives of Everyman.

John Bright would turn in his grave...

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