Hard by Mornington Crescent Tube station in north London stands a statue, its limestone stained with the grime of time, its face much eroded, its base speckled with the usual rain of pigeon droppings. Despite these indignities, Richard Cobden, Victorian liberal reformer and MP, stands four-square against the oncoming traffic, his right hand clutching a rolled up document — the treaty that prompted the erection of this modest monument.
Remembered principally as one of the two patriarchs (the other being John Bright of Rochdale) of the Anti-Corn Law League, a cause that grew under their evangelical zeal into a crusade for the future of Britain, Cobden has been memorialised all over the country but principally in the manufacturing north, which was his and Bright’s parish. There’s a Cobden statue in Stockport; another in St Ann’s Square, Manchester.
But the Camden Cobden is different and the inscription tells us why. This was a tribute to the maker of the first free-trade agreement of the industrial era: the 1860 Cobden-Chevalier Treaty, which sharply reduced duties on goods flowing between those ancient enemies, Britain and France. Accordingly, although the statue was erected “by public subscription” (as was the case for most Victorian monuments), the inscription announces that the “principal contributor” was none other than Emperor Napoleon III.
So as we hurtle, or stagger, towards our national moment of truth in just a few scant weeks, we could do worse than remember that for the likes of Cobden — the embodiment of entrepreneurial energy, political decency and high Victorian morality — British patriotism meant not turning away from Europe but embracing it. His conviction that trade liberalisation was not just a mutually beneficial commercial proposition but a commitment to cross-Channel peace and goodwill — the harbinger, perhaps, of a European future free of tariffs and bristling armaments — was not, of course, uncontroversial. The overture to France raised eyebrows in Whitehall where, despite the shock of the great sepoy uprising in India three years earlier, the future of Britain was thought to lie with empire.
Cobden’s liberalism of peace, mutual disarmament and free commercial intercourse was smiled (or frowned) at as somehow both quaintly old-fashioned and naively utopian. But in France he was known as the pamphleteer who had courageously poured scorn on the perennial paranoia circulating in British governing circles (and notwithstanding the Crimean war alliance) that a second Napoleonic empire was intent on accomplishing what had been denied to the first: nothing less than the invasion of Great Britain.
Palmerston himself had claimed more than once that these insidious ambitions had been made possible by modern steamships, which had “turned the Channel into a river” and “thrown a bridge across it”. Thrice — in 1847-48, 1851-53 and 1859-61 — a press campaign drummed up a Gallic threat, vast armadas massing at the Channel ports; panics aggravated by news that the French were building ironclad battleships at Cherbourg. Cobden thought — and proved — that fears of imminent French invasion (a pretext for a naval arms race) were ludicrous; he said so in speeches and print and then collected the whole risible history as The Three Panics: An Historical Episode.
The antidote to imaginary enmity was business; transacted freely without tariff barriers or mutual suspicions. In 1859, Cobden had been visited by the French technocrat Michel Chevalier, with whom he discussed the possibility of a path-breaking commercial alliance. It remained, however, for Napoleon III and the more hawkish of his ministers to be persuaded that open commercial borders would not harm French national interests.
In October 1859, Cobden had a long interview with the emperor and brought him round. The deal was sealed and Franco-British trade entered a golden age; British exports surged, including the printed calicos that Cobden’s factory near Manchester was manufacturing. French silks and wines crossed the Channel in the other direction. Dover-Calais had never been so busy. The cornucopias ornamenting the sides of the statue were not an empty boast. Still more important, the old adversaries would never go to war again; the closest they came was the pumped-up “Fashoda crisis” over claims to the Upper Nile at the end of the century. Cobden’s prophecies — including his insistence that only imperialism could artificially generate enmity (he was bitterly critical of the “sanguinary” history of British colonialism and its part in the abomination of slavery) — were all vindicated.
Just what the principled Cobden would have made of the tragical-farcical proceedings in which Britain is now embroiled, right up to the point of inflicting on itself the most spectacular act of economic and cultural self-strangulation in its history, is not hard to imagine. Some of the standard rhetoric of All-For-Englanders would have seemed depressingly familiar to him: the imputation to the continentals of devious, quasi-despotic plots; the blandishments of trade some sort of cover for invasion, if not by ironclads, then by commercial conspiracy.
In Jacob Rees-Mogg he would have heard again the insular arrogance and contempt for reality of the aged Lord Lyndhurst, who made speeches in the Lords on the defencelessness of the realm and the perennial enmity of France. The bluster of Boris Johnson would have reminded him of the cynical jingoism of Palmerston. As the most coruscating critic of the two opium wars, Cobden might have been amused by the desperate manoeuvrings of the west to cosy up to the China of Emperor Xi Jinping. But fatuously deluded visions of “global Britain” would have seemed like the terminal vapours of the imperialism he had always thought brought no one — not the conquerors, still less the conquered — anything but blight, damage, delusion and death.
Nor would he have been surprised by the long reach of the past into the affairs of the present and future; the heavy brake they put on the ability to re-envision a British future; nor the way in which ostensibly rational calculations of economic benefits and costs have been swallowed up by visceral outpourings about sovereignty, upheld or compromised, and the heavy inheritance of national history. He would have heard all that before — in the backbench polemics of Benjamin Disraeli, whose application for a position in Sir Robert Peel’s government had been turned down and who repaid the offence, not just by attacking Peel’s belated conversion to the repeal of the Corn Laws protecting British agriculture from imports, but, in a withering speech at the third reading of the Repeal Bill on the eve of its passage, May 15 1846, pilloried the sudden convert to free trade as a “burglar of others’ intellect”.
Until recently, Disraeli’s speech would have stood as the unsurpassed masterpiece of self-promoting disingenuousness: his pretence to have the interests of the agricultural labouring classes at heart (a clever counter-attack on the Repealers’ concern with lowering bread prices, thus raising real wages of factory workers and urban artisans); the peroration in which he wrapped himself in the flag as the knight-errant champion of “the cause of England”.
Just a third of Tory MPs joined the Whigs to pass Repeal. But the bitter division between apostles of free trade and those who declared themselves the protectors of “the cause of England” broke the party. It would be 28 years before it could form a government again. The age of Cobden and Bright and the great flourishing of industrial Britain came to pass. Instead of Repeal acting as a pretext for employers to force wages down, it had the opposite effect. Chartism failed; liberal Britain succeeded. But Cobden would have been unsurprised, though probably depressed, to discover that the partisan political lessons of 1846 had not been lost on today’s self-appointed champions of fortress Britain: a prime minister resolved not to let herself or her party go the way of Peel; clinging to a cause artificially engineered to manage the future of Conservatism; obstinately resolved, as Cobden would see it, to put party before country.
“History never repeats itself, but sometimes it rhymes,” Mark Twain is alleged to have said, and right now Britain is choking in a fog of its most dismal doggerel. Forty years after the repeal of the Corn Laws, the failure of Irish Home Rule nearly broke the Liberals. Today, Ireland is still the bone in the throat of British convenience masked as self-righteousness — and Theresa May’s weekly peregrinations to Brussels in ever more pitiful search of amending the backstop to something that can command a majority in Parliament betray the tinniest of ears to what is truly at stake.
At which point — of course — cue William Ewart Gladstone, and his heroic speech to Parliament on June 7 1886, right before Home Rule was sabotaged by the defection of Joseph Chamberlain and his “Liberal Unionists” (who, not coincidentally, would also become the champions of tariffs two decades later). As Gladstone understood it, Home Rule was the necessity which, through granting a large measure of self-government to Ireland, would pre-empt the lethal sectarian violence that threatened to engulf the country, and keep it within the ambit of Great Britain. What, asked Gladstone rhetorically, were the alternatives: the endless cycle of violence met by the Tory preference for coercion, which would re-charge the violence? Instead, Home Rule could set the business of government, its necessary compromises, above the totalising war of historically inherited grievances, requiring mutual destruction rather than daily engagement.
The Good Friday Agreement of April 1998 succeeded where Home Rule failed: a living truce, if not a complete peace, enabling those who could barely share the same room to countenance sharing a government. It not only parked the imperatives of victimhood and paranoia; it actually pacified a war that stretched back all the way to the Tudor colonisation.
The flags and drums have not, of course, gone away — but for two decades shopping, working and loving have had the better of bombing and kneecapping. It has been what Gladstone beseeched Parliament to grant: “a blessed oblivion of the past” — adding, wisely, “and in that oblivion, our interest is deeper even than hers [Ireland’s]”.
“She asks also a boon for the future; and that boon for the future . . . will be a boon to us in respect of honour, no less than a boon to her in respect of happiness, prosperity and peace”. This tantalising prospect was what went down with the defeat of Irish Home Rule, and much heartache and bloodshed followed until Good Friday 1998.
That great achievement, the melting of the border, ratified (lest that be forgotten) by referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, was always critically conditional on common membership of the European Union, which stands as its co-guarantor. Now, all that is imperilled by the magical thinking that somehow Brexit Britain can have, simultaneously, a borderless Ireland; and the maintenance of Northern Ireland within a United Kingdom cut away from the single market and customs union that was the sustaining condition of the agreement.
The fatal delusion is fed by the insulting assumption that somehow the loyalty of Ireland, north and south, is principally to Britain rather than to the rest of Europe. Just as Brexiter arrogance assumes that the EU’s business with Britain would ensure that it never cuts its nose to spite its face and so will make it bend and crack at the last moment, the same conceit discounts Irish national self-respect as a luxury that at some point will yield to economic pragmatism.
But Britain is about to find out the hard way that neither of these prudential assumptions are what, in the end, moves history. If they were, Brexit, the economic case for which was always based on fairytales of the future, would never have taken off as a serious cause. History is moved instead by stories of identity, sovereignty and self-respect, and the very rhapsodies of “independence” that sustain the Brexit crusade harden into the rock of resistance on the other side of the Irish Sea — and I predict, sooner or later, north of the Tweed as well, where the Scots will have something to say to the bloviators of English “independence” about their own nation being marched, against their millions of votes, out of the EU.
There is, in fact, simply no way that a hard Brexit, much less a no-deal Brexit, can be accomplished without an intra-national upheaval that will result, sooner or later, in a disunited kingdom.
But there is also another old historical elephant in the Brexit room that barely seems to get noticed, an Afro-Indian tusker with a pachydermal memory and a short fuse: imperial aftermath. And it is at the root of populist rage against immigration, not just in Britain but in all the former imperial powers which — as a parting gift (as they imagined) and fully convinced that their “civilising mission” (to use the favoured French phrase) had succeeded — offered to absorb former colonial subjects into their metropolitan homes.
The complacent assumption — be it Dutch, French, Belgian, British or even Italian (for the impact of the colonisation of Libya, Somalia and Eritrea was much deeper than the brevity of that empire suggests) — was that natives who had drunk at the well of European culture could be unproblematically integrated back home, and would, moreover, provide cheap labour for the hard graft of postwar rebuilding. Unsurprisingly, hundreds of thousands of former colonial subjects took up the offer — but without necessarily signing on to an assimilation so total that it amounted to a forfeiture of their inherited identity, especially when that identity was embedded in language and religion.
On the contrary (and this can’t be emphasised enough) following the precedent of almost all immigrant communities in Britain — from the German steelyard workers of the 16th century to the Spitalfields Huguenots to the Ashkenazi Jews of east London, Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere — it was perfectly natural for south Asians and Afro-Caribbeans to cluster in communities where food, language and faith softened the shock of uprooting. The astonishing miracle, generations on, is that this experiment has been so successful, with south Asian and Afro-Caribbean Britons prominent in every walk of life from education to broadcasting, sport and the professions, as well as business and technology.
The colouring of Britain has been one of the great achievements of postwar Britain. Half a century on, the notorious “rivers of blood” speech of Enoch Powell looks more like rabid paranoia than prescient prophecy.
The Great Recession and, more to the point, the grossly unequal distribution of the recovery, has put all this in jeopardy, not just in Britain but everywhere. Suddenly disparities between regions, sectors of the economy (manufacturing vs services) and social groups seemed brutally intolerable. Many of the problems are rooted in long-term structural shifts: automation; weak demand for non-Asian assembled manufactures. But raw fury needs someone rather than something to blame, and thus was born the mythical enemy: the unassimilable, crime-prone, slave-wage hungry immigrant, and their manipulative masters, the rootless, cosmopolitan “elite”, be they “faceless” Brussels bureaucrat or the international villain George Soros.
And so the dreamers fall back into the arms, not of the true history of our country — with its endless successive waves of immigrants, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, its tenuous union of four nations in one kingdom (minus, not so long ago, Scotland), reigned over by immigrant dynasties, Scots and German — but instead of an imaginary, sempiternal, unchanging ur-Albion, unnaturally indentured to alien continental masters and groaning to be returned to its own true sovereign self. It’s not surprising that there has been an abysmal failure on the part of Brexiters to offer a clear and credible sense of Britain’s eventual destination, because the ecstasy of departure was always more important than any sort of eventual arrival. As attempts to conclude trade deals with major trading partners such as Japan and China (rather than the Faroe Islands and Liechtenstein) freeze in failure, the “Global Britain” vision promised by Brexit is laid bare as the pathetic fantasy it always was.
Of all delusions, the one that has most poisoned a true discussion of Britain’s past and future, the most unforgivable — especially for future generations who are to be robbed of the kind of priceless educational opportunity represented by the Erasmus fellowships — is the false dichotomy peddled by Brexiters between national identity and common engagement in the wider European community. Years of tabloid malevolence have cast Europe as the enemy of Britishness. But does anyone seriously believe that over the past 40 years Britain has somehow become less like itself? Less English, less Irish, less Scottish, less Welsh, any more than Italy has become less Italian or the Netherlands less Dutch? And that somehow the presence of Polish construction workers, Romanian fruit pickers, Danish students, Italian chefs, French scientists, German engineers and Spanish nurses has actually turned our beautiful, headstrong, poetry-rich, sports-mad, baking and gardening country into Nowhereland?
Cobden would have roared with laughter at the idea; before getting very angry at the false choice between nationalism and internationalism, worse at the crass epithet coined by a prime minister not fit to wipe the boots of Peel or Gladstone, that those whose affinities do not stop at the white cliffs of Dover are to be maligned as “citizens of nowhere”. To be British, he would have said, is to be confident enough to embrace that bigger identity, not to scurry away from it, pretending that the world will once again be your imperial oyster. That history, he would have said, is over, but the story of Britain has many more chapters to be written. And the next one ought not, and need not, be a sorry tale of blind flight.
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor