One of the great English parliamentarians of the 19th
century has now been largely forgotten in his own country,
although his name in his own time was as well-known as
Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, Robert Peel and
Lord Palmerston, each of them significant prime ministers
in Great Britain’s most globally powerful era. His name
was John Bright, and he was the most important British
politician to take the side of the North in the U.S. Civil War.
He importantly helped keep England from assisting the
South, which might have led to an early Confederate victory
and the destruction of the American republic.
Abraham Lincoln admired John Bright greatly, and
communicated with him through an intermediary. The
night Lincoln was assassinated, a speech of Bright’s was
found in Lincoln’s vest pocket.
While the association with Lincoln and the U.S. Civil War
might give Americans today reason to take note of him,
Bright was also deeply involved with most of the important
British legislation of the mid-1800‘s, including English
economic and civil rights. When he died in 1885, the
prime minister, numerous former prime ministers,
cabinet officers, many of the top figures of English politics,
and a special representative of Queen Victoria (who was
then out of the country) were in attendance. He was
eulogized as one of the great men of his age.
Today, there is a statue of him in the House of Commons,
but only a relatively few Britons could tell you who he was
or what he accomplished.
Like so many important political figures in history who are
temporarily put on a forgotten shelf, Bright is now being
recalled for his role in English parliamentary history, and
part of this has been due to a biography in 2012 (John Bright:
Statesman, Orator and Agitator) by Bill Cash. What makes
this biography particularly interesting is that Mr. Cash is
both a descendant of Bright, and himself a senior Conservative
member of parliament. The EU referendum, many would argue,
is one of the most important British votes of the 21st century.
Even more than that, Sir Bill (he was recently knighted by the
Queen) was a protege of Margaret Thatcher and an early
opponent (euroskeptic) of the 1993 Maastricht Treaty which
redefined the United Kingdom role in the European Union (EU)
which it had originally joined in 1973. Making this all the more
timely, the voters of the United Kingdom are now only days
away from a June 23 referendum on whether the island nation
is to remain in the EU or withdraw from it. The leader
of those who want to withdraw (“Leave”) is Conservative Boris
Johnson, former mayor of London and currently a Tory M.P.
Leader of those who want to stay in (“Remain”) is Conservative
Prime Minister David Cameron. If the Leave voters prevail,
Mr. Cameron will almost certainly have to resign, and Mr.
Johnson would likely succeed him. Sir Bill Cash continues to be
a top spokesman for Leave voters.
In full disclosure, I have known Sir Bill Cash since 1991 when he
was my official guest in Minnesota under the U.S. State
Department’s International Visitor Program. A euroskeptic
even then, Sir Bill’s ideas were not warmly received on this side
of the Pond (primarily because most Americans were not really
aware of the issues involved). The EU had been formed after
World War II on the continent as an economic union that would
prevent another round of European wars. The intention was
laudable, and as primarily an economic program, it worked.
But EU leaders had more ambitious goals, First, they wanted to
establish a European common currency which they finally did
with the euro. Great Britain wisely decided to opt out of the euro,
and kept the British pound. The next step for the EU was political
union, removing the national sovereignty of its member states,
even though each of these states had centuries of their own
cultures, spoke different languages, and had different ethnic and
religious histories. (not to mention the countless and violent
wars they had fought against each other).
As this goal of political union approached, economic problems
beset the EU which had become more and more dominated by
its most successful member nation economy in Germany. The
number of member nations was expanded, and the instability
of several smaller ones, created more and more skepticism
about political union, especially in Great Britain.
I visited London in 2010, just after the elections which brought
Mr. Cameron to power, and had a reunion with Bill Cash after
almost twenty years. He had, I thought, grown from being mostly
a backbench agitator to become a statesman. He was still a
euroskeptic, but recognized that the UK was a part of Europe,
and would always be a major trading partner with it. Yet he also
understood the critical danger, after a thousand years of national
identity, of losing British sovereignty.
This is where he continues to be today. While I was visiting the
House of Parliament, Sir Bill took me from his office there to see
the statue of his cousin John Bright. He told me he was going to
write a book about him to remind his countrymen and
countrywomen how much they owed to Bright and his 19th
He did write it, and it’s a terrific read about a key period in
British history, and about someone who led the efforts to
expand British democracy. John Bright was indeed a statesman,
agitator and orator who felt passionately about his country.
It is fitting that his descendant and biographer is one, too.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.