COBDEN AND BRIGHT
While Lord Ashley *) worked to improve the conditions of the working population by legal regulations, a different school of. thought ascribed the misery of the people to a superfluity rather than to a lack of legislative interference. We mean the Manchester Liberals, of whom Richard Cobden and John Bright were the most representative leaders. With these men a new class made itself a force in English politics. Ashley, Earl of Shaftesbury as he was to be on the death of his father, belonged to the landed aristocracy who had now governed England for centuries and who were still, even in spite of the Reform Bill, all-powerful. Cobden and Bright were manufacturers.
The great cause, through the promotion of which these men came to the very front rank among the politicians of their age, was that of free trade. They attacked the Corn Laws, that is to say the import duties by which the price of homegrown corn was artificially kept up, to the great and obvious advantage of the land-owning class, but to the no less obvious misery of the wage-earning proletariat. For them dear bread meant a difficult life. There is no doubt that Cobden and Bright and many of their co-workers in the cause were inspired by as pure a zeal for the welfare of the people as were Lord Ashley and his friends in their activities. Unfortunatety these two groups of reformers did not always see eye to eye, and while the philanthropic landowners imputed to the anti-corn-law agitators as their real motive the desire for even cheaper labour, the manufacturers taunted the Tories who were for ever speaking about the long working hours and insanitary conditions in mines and mills with the misery, the low wages and the bad housing conditions by which the agricultural labourer was afflicted.
1. Lord Ashley was cal led a lord by courtesy only. He could theref ore be a member of the House of Commons. When his father died he became Lord Shaftesbury, and a member of the House of Lords.