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.