This term’s programme for our ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar concluded with a fascinating paper from Dr. John Stevenson, of Worcester College, Oxford, on William Cobbett (1763-1835), marking the 250th anniversary of his birth. This renowned political journalist, social commentator and campaigner for parliamentary reform was elected MP for Oldham in 1832, and served until his death in 1835.
Dr. Stevenson is the president of the William Cobbett Society and the co-editor (with James Grande and Richard Thomas) of a forthcoming book on The opinions of William Cobbett. Cobbett was, in Dr. Stevenson’s words, a man with an opinion ‘on everything from growing melons to choosing a wife’! During his lengthy journalistic and literary career, he is estimated to have published 20 million words, many of them in his influential and widely-read weekly Political Register, which appeared even when he was in prison and in exile in America. He was also a prolific parliamentary speaker: although he sat in the Commons for only two and a half years, he made around 250 contributions to debate.
Dr. Stevenson’s paper examined these two strands of Cobbett’s career: as political agitator and journalist, and as parliamentarian. He considered how Cobbett’s political views evolved, from his patriotic defence of William Pitt the Younger in the 1790s to his growing disillusionment with misgovernment and corruption, and his eventual support for annual parliaments and universal suffrage as a means to improving the condition of the people. In 1803 Cobbett began publishing his Parliamentary Debates, which established itself as the most comprehensive record of parliamentary proceedings, and was the forerunner of Hansard.
Cobbett’s election as MP for the newly enfranchised northern manufacturing town of Oldham in 1832, aged almost 70, came after earlier failed attempts to enter Parliament, including at Honiton in 1806 and Coventry in 1820. On the latter occasion Cobbett was forced to defend himself against an unruly mob at the polling booths armed only with a snuff-box! Convinced of the importance of purity of elections, Cobbett was proud to have spent no money on his Oldham contest in 1832. His radical platform included the reduction of taxation, the abolition of sinecures and pensions, the replacement of the standing army with a militia, and the sale of church and government property in order to pay off the national debt.
Historians’ assessments of Cobbett’s brief parliamentary career, during which he was a persistent and increasingly intemperate critic of the Whig government, have been mixed. While his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography characterises it as ‘distinguished’, a harsher view portrays Cobbett as ‘a pathetic figure whom time had outrun’. Dr. Stevenson emphasised the importance of understanding the context within which Cobbett took his seat in a Parliament still dominated by the landed interest. He was profoundly affected by the events of 1831, and in particular the conviction and execution of agricultural labourers involved in the Swing Riots, and had himself been (unsuccessfully) prosecuted that year for sedition. It was hardly surprising that he was frustrated with the lack of sympathy expressed for the plight of the poor in the king’s speech of 1833, or that he found parliamentary procedure ‘irksome’. Yet despite being in increasingly poor health, virtually bankrupt and estranged from his family, he continued to lobby for reductions in taxation, and was a fervent opponent of the 1834 new poor law, which he believed – accurately – would prove unworkable in northern industrial districts such as Oldham. He also found time to visit Ireland to investigate poverty there. Cobbett’s disappointment with the lack of support he found in Parliament for his radical agenda was encapsulated in his description of the 1834 fire which destroyed large parts of the Palace of Westminster as a ‘great event’, seeing it as a judgment on Parliament’s failings.
Our seminar programme resumes in 2014.
And do watch this space for news of next term’s ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminars!