If any one person deserves a statue at Westminster, it is William Cobbett (1763-1835): a journalist whom the essayist William Hazlitt dubbed a one-man ‘fourth estate in the politics of the country’. Indeed, it was in writing of Cobbett that Hazlitt helped coin the term ‘Fourth Estate’. This underlines his essential importance. It was Cobbett, the so-called ‘Tory radical’, who made dissent a patriotic duty.

Cobbett bestrode the great age of revolution and reform, from the French Revolution to the 1832 Reform Act. He was a raging John Bull, railing against rotten boroughs, flogging, the Corn Laws and restrictions on the press. Indeed, he was very much unlike the modern English male we know today in that he had an inherent urge to make a scene. Cobbett, always the pugilist, simply couldn’t help himself. He was biased, but only in the sense that, as a writer, he was biased towards truth and justice. He was radical because he raged against the vested interest that Toryism had seemingly become.

Protesting against the general deprivations of the Industrial Revolution, as well as objecting to the general criminality of the political class, Cobbett’s characteristic belligerence and bluntness were clear to see. He was an angry man, but also a man infused with a longing for social justice – before the term was dishonoured by a modern-day generation weaned on the abstract fancies of the Left.

The self-educated son of a lowly farmer, Cobbett was not, we should note, an intellectual, which is reason enough to commend him to a democratic audience. Hazlitt applauded him for his ‘plain, broad, downright English’. Indeed, Cobbett spoke a language of common sense, not the obscurantist nonsense employed by academia today. His trade, he declared, was to communicate ‘truth in clear language’. We need more Cobbetts.

Clearly, Cobbett also possessed a true concern for the common man, though he was no ordinary Tommy Atkins himself. For at one point he was a soldier too; one who actually exposed the corruption of the officer class. This was the first instance of his noted indignation at injustice. This was a fervency that was to underscore his career as a polemicist. His 1792 tract The Soldier’s Friend, bemoaning the blatant pilfering of soldiers’ wages, was also the first time Cobbett risked reprisal for supposed sedition. Not for the last time, he was forced to flee to the United States – though he would spend two years in Newgate Prison for objecting to the flogging of soldiers by foreign mercenaries.

The last representative of a now spectral class of independent yeomen whose lives were rooted in the soil, Cobbett was also a farmer. A native of Surrey, the reality of the land, of the glorious substance of dirt, struck home. Perhaps this was one reason why he maintained that ‘nothing is so well calculated to produce a death-like torpor in the country as an extended system of taxation and a great national debt’. Two centuries ago, Cobbett cautioned against an economy that seemingly relied more on metaphysics than it did on material substance.
His occupation as a self-sufficient farmer was also manifest in his output as an independent man of the press. Cobbett’s newspaper the Political Register, lasting from 1802 to his death in 1835, made a point of savaging corrupt politicians. In fact, this was his true calling. Although he was elected to serve as MP for Oldham in 1832, his vast talent for making a nuisance of himself was best directed in combating political dereliction from without. In this sense, he would certainly have relished the internet, particularly for its reach, immediacy and nonconformist nature.

If Cobbett appears universal, it is because he tackled inherent problems. He identified the link between massive state debt and the pursuit of foreign wars; he recognised, in his famous work Rural Rides (1830), the existence of a world beyond the capital city; he saw politicians for the roguish characters that they were, necessitating a press merciless in its defence of free speech, liberty and good governance; he had the perception to see that at the heart of history and politics was a common people deserving of a voice. Evidently, Cobbett is still a pertinent figure today.

Our political system is decidedly eccentric insofar as we elect to elevate the worst persons in the country to the level of an actual executive and legislature. This is democracy, apparently – but only in part. Some manner of accountability, enforced from without, is also required here. For culpability is not, I daresay, a defining quality of that sorry agglomeration of spiritless miscreants we call politicians. Cobbett knew this well. This was a man who, if living today, would surely see that if Jeremy Corbyn were handed the keys to a city he’d likely complain that he wasn’t given the city. Theresa May, on the other hand, would probably lose the keys. When we remember William Cobbett, then, we recognise the true value of a press willing to oppose, rather than merely assent to, the arrogance and incompetence of the presiding elite.


  1. I wonder if the existence of Cobbett ever gets even a passing mention within our state education system. I suspect it doesn’t, and that any proposal to honour his memory would be met with a bemused chorus of “William who?”

    No doubt followed by a rapid leap to the conclusion that he was “pale, male and stale” which is more than enough to have him dismissed as of no interest or consequence.

  2. But Cobbett was a white man.
    Received political wisdom current in today’s Britain holds that only ‘people of colour’ have made any worthwhile contribution to this country.
    The sole contribution acceptable from the white population is cash to atone for their past hate-crimes.

  3. This article really gets my goat. Who the hell is William Cobbett? I’m sorry but I went to secondary modern, I’m not part of the elite and I’ve worked bloody hard for everything I have. So don’t ask me to like statues of people I’ve never heard of. There is only one person who should be considered. We all owe him a debt and his speaks for the vast majority of ordinary Englishmen, saying the things we all think. Nigel Farage.

    • Yes, William Cobbett is largely forgotten. That’s partly why he should be remembered in stone. I think that’s part of the reason for this series.

      I, too, have suggested Nigel Farage. That was somewhat tongue in cheek, for two reason: first, we haven’t yet had Brexit, secondly, Farage isn’t dead yet, and will be with us in the flesh for many years, yet, God willing.

    • You should publish a list on the internet of the people you have heard of, to help those who have to decide these things.
      Incidentally one of the excellent “English Fix” programmes on Radio 4 was about William Cobbett. They are all worth listening to, provided you remember to skip over the contributions by Billy Bragg, “songwriter and campaigner” (what is a campaigner?).

    • I suspect he has not featured on many history curriculums – which is shameful – he did not at my grammar school either. More shame on the political and educational establishments.

    • Bully for you, I did two year at a state university in engineering in the US midwest, and I know perfectly well who he is. Nobody’s fault but your that your education was faulty. Instead of ranting on, you might fix your deficiencies.

  4. He was certainly a major figure in his time, but not of the Left as we now know, it but of a different school in English thought of reform and society. Given that the rural England he described in “Rural Rides” is part of the ancestry of so many of us and the reality of their lives, it is sad that it is entirely ignored in favour of later theorists.

  5. I would like to see a statue of CS Lewis:

    ‘Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.’

  6. Ah! Thank you!

    I seem to remember Richard Ingrams banging on about Cobbett and I intended to pick up a copy of his biography of said chap. Being somewhat ancient and rather short of spare grey matter I simply forgot all about it. I shall rectify that error.

  7. Cobbett is a fine choice. A real countryman and a fearless opponent of the establishment of the day and of any day come to that. His only concern was the wellbeing of his countrymen and of the land itself. Good husbandry in all things.
    He has his foibles. Hated well if he thought it necessary. So Quakers in particular roused him to anger. He did not much like Jews either because he thought both Quakers and Jews profited from the labour of working men . Not acceptable a view today but of it’s time .He loathed St Pauls because it looked like a bank . His hatred of Hindhead was to our eyes rather extreme. He loathed Canada but found in the USA a people who embodied his view of what a man should be and how he should live.
    He often contradicts himself which is no bad thing and frequently finds one valley, river or view of England to be the finest forgetting the last part he praised.
    Above all else he writes so well and reading him is like being on horseback alongside him .
    My direct ancestors share his yeoman background but from another county so naturally I like him.
    If you want to know what an Englishman is then read him and you will.

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