Labour under Liberal Rule

What the Workers owe the “Great Liberal Party”

L. T. Hobhouse, M. A., Professor of Sociology at London University, is the author of a book on Liberalism (Home University Library). The book coming from a well-known supporter of the Libnal parly, many not turn to it expecting to find a serious examination of the aims and methods of Liberalism. The capitalist Press has been profuse in its praise, but those who seek a knowledge of Liberalism will get little direct information therein.

Our Liberal apologist indulges in a long academic dissertation upon Manchesterism, Benthanism, abstract ideas, and absolute rights, and throughout the book there runs the hypocritical plea that Liberalism, from its inception to the present day, has carefully guarded


and made his lot better and brighter.

The real position and interest of rising Liberalism is not dwelt upon, but an understanding of it is essential.

The Liberal Party represented the developing manufacturing class, the merchants, etc., who found the progress of their order hindered by the old forms that had survived from feudal days. The landowners, the nobility and the clergy had placed various restrictions upon the trading class—the bourgeoisie. It had imposed taxes and tariffs, and made the trader and the manufacturer bear the greatest part of the expenses of carrying on the various wars.

The Liberal Party arose an a protest against the prevailing semi-feudal institutions. Representing, as it did, the manufacturers and middlemen, it objected to any interference by the landowning legislature. In its battle against them it was aided by the workers, but when the Liberals had won their battle they spurned and betrayed those whom they had beguiled into helping them.

Laissez-faire, the gospel of the Liberals, was a policy conceived in the direct interest of the industrial capitalists.

It believed that no limits or restraints should be put by the State to the rate at which they could pile up wealth and


and their children in the process. Our author says:

“The condition produced by the new factory system shocked the public conscience and as early as 1802 we find the first of a long series of laws out of which has grown an industrial code that year by year follows the life of the operative in his relations with his employer into more minute detail. The first stages of this movement were contemplated with doubt and distrust by many men of Liberal sympathies.”

Thus cowardly and cunningly does the Professor of Liberalism hide the savage ferocity with which the members of the “Great Liberal Party” opposed all attempts to improve the conditions of the Capitalism’s insatiable greed.

The Legislature had enclosed the land, driven the labourer from the soil, and confiscated his cottage. The artizan found his simple tools and plant superseded by the giant machinery and factories that had arisen all around him. These propertyless workers were forced to seek work from the Liberal manufacturers, who took a fearful advantage of their outcast condition. These manufacturers piled up huge wealth by the unlimited toil of men, women, girls and tiny children. They used every subterfuge to prevent any legal limits being placed to the crushing slavery even of tender little ones. In the forefront of this great army of industrial murderers stood the champions of Liberalism, John Bright, Richard Cobden, C. P. Villiers, W. R. Greg, and W. J. Fox. Bright and Cobden are the revered pioneers of the present Lilberal party, and the book under review is lavish in its praise of these


Hobhouse says to the Liberals: “Rather we want to learn our supreme lesson from the school of Cobden.” The history of the attitude of the Liberal party toward the awful sufferings of the working class in those early days has more than a passing interest for workmen. Their record in opposing factory legislation, trade unionism, manhood suffrage, etc., is pregnant with significance. For insight into their actions then, helps to show the true nature of their motives and methods in the present.

We have the following admission grudgingly made (p. 88):

“It is true that in the beginning factory legislation enjoyed a large measure of Conservative support. It was at that stage in accordance with the best traditions of paternal rule, and it commended itself to the religious convictions of men of whom Lord Shaftesbury was the typical example. It is true also that it was bitterly opposed by Cobden and Bright.

But our Liberal apologist seeks to water down their opposition and lead the workers to believe that it was a very transient one.

No more damning indictment of Liberalism could be penned than a bare description of the awful condition of the workers in the days when the Liberal manufacturers were uncontrolled by factory laws. The toilers’ Inferno has been truly described in the pages of Engels’s “Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844.”

Richard Cobden owned print and cotton works at Manchester (R. Cobden & Co.), and his life, written by that Czar of India, Morley, is replete with


Speaking of Cobden’s opposition to the legal shortening of the working day, Morley says, p. 68,

“What he maintained was that all restrictions, however desirable, ought to be secured by the resolute demands and independent, action of the workmen themselves, and not by the intervention of the law.”

But when the workmen did try to obtain shorter hours and better conditions, what did Cobden say ? Listen to Morley (p. 68) :

“Singularly enough, while he thus trusted to the independence of the workmen, he objected to workmen’s ccmbinatios. ‘Depend upon it,’ he wrote to his brother, F. W. Cobden (Ang. 16, 1842), ‘nothing can be got from fraternising with trade unions. They are founded upon principles of brutal tyranny and monopoly. 1 would rather live under a Dey of Algiers than a Trades Committee.’”

Cobdcn’s co-worker, John Bright, was a Rochdale cotton manufacturer (John Bright and Bros.) He was highly esteemed by the Liberal party, was a member of their Cabinet, and acted as their champion against the struggling wage-slaves. His biographer, C. A. Vince, the leader of the Birmingham Liberals, says of one occasion (“John Bright,” p. 19) :

“In August 1842, a general strike or, as it was then called, a turn out, was organised in Lancashire. Bright issued a long address


urging them to return to their employment. ‘Neither act of Parliament nor act of a multitude can keep up wages. You know that trade has long been bad, and with a bad trade wages cannot rise. If you are resolved to compel an advance of wages you cannot compel manufacturers to give you employment. Such attempts must always fail in the end and yours must fail.’ ”

This was always the cry : “Bad trade !” Yet they were running their mills day and night, and gaining huge profits. These were truly the days when “Capital celebrated its bacchanalia.”

Yet present-day Liberals delight to talk of the “Hungry Forties,” and identify the landlords alone with the horrible sufferings of the people. Vince, speaking of Fielden’s (M.P. for Oldham) Bill to limit the labour of women and young persons to 60 hours per week, says :

“This Bill was opposed by Peel, Cobden, Bright, and Mr. Villiers, and rejected by a small minority. . . . Bright had already successfully resisted a proposal made by Lord Ashley (afterwards Lord Sbaftesbury) two years earlier. His speech on that occassion had of necessity been acrimonious.”

The method of the Liberals was to claim that the condition of their workpeople was better


But it wasn’t true, as was easily proved.

Bright urged against the Bill of 1844 for limiting the labour of children under 13, that it would mean shortening the hours of adults too. And Viuce says (p. 33)

“That this was the intention, as well as the effect, of the Bill, was proved by the refusal to accept an amendment of Bright’s to allow the women to work in relays

He declared that if the Bill passed they would have to close their factories ! This was the cunning way of these past masters in trickery. They opposed the reduction of children’s hours by talking of its effect upon men’s hours. ” ‘Most of our evils,’ says Bright” (quoted Vince, p. 34) “‘arise from legislative interference,’ and this maxim, eminently characteristic of the Manchester school, continued to approve itself to him to the remainder of his career. . . . The same principle led Bright a few years later to throw cold water over Sir G. Forster’s Bill to strengthen the Truck Act. ‘Under the present condition of labour in the country there can be no permanent, continuous and irritating tyranny such as has been described by the promoters of the Bill, which the working classes are not perfectly well able to correct without coming to the House of Commons for a new measure !’ Finally, in 1855 he successfully resisted an attempt of J. M. Cobbett to improve the Factory Act.”

Thus did the Free Trade leader look after his pocket interests. He was not above raising the good old cry : “I’ll take my capital out of the country !” On page 36 Vince quotes Bright as saying :

“If I thought the elements of discord were again to be stirred up, I should myself be glad to leave the country and to


where Capital and Labour are allowed to fight out their battles on their own ground without legislative interference.” Vince further tells us that Bright “was also an enemy of any possible scheme of national education.”

The history of the fight for the Factory Acts is a record of the war of Liberal manufacturers against the slightest reduction of their enormous profits. The children—boys and girls—were semi-starved, flogged and brutally ill-treated for the slightest slackening of their terrible toil. Lord Shaftesbury, the Dorsetshire landlord, after long and bitter straggles, succeeded in getting a Bill passed duriug the Liberal administration of 1833. Bat it was such a hollow fraud that the battle continued for over 20 years longer. The Act of 1833 and other Acts were passed as a result of protracted warfare, but it was many years bsfore the Government would vote a halfpenny to provide inspectors to see them carried out. The Acts long remained a dead letter. Even afterwards Leonard Hornerer and Alexander Redgrave—the best factory inspectors the workers ever knew—bitterly complained that when they brought cases into court they found the magistrate was the


and, of course the workers lost.

The Act of 1834 permitted 8 hours to be worked by children under 13, and young persons between 13 and 18 were allowed 12 hours actual work per day, but these regulations were not to come fully into operation till 1836. The Liberal Government with a majority of 307 refused Shaftesbury’s amendment to improve the Bill.

Shaftesbury introduced his 10 hours Bill (for young persons) in 1838, and the Parliament with a Liberal majority of 51 threw out the measure. Lord Melbourne was Prime Minister, and “The Times” (June 25, 1838) said :

“The public attention cannot be too forcibly directed to the scandalous conduct of the Melbourne Ministry with regard to the factory question. It was not that Lord Shaftesbury had been mocked and deluded by the broken promises and callous fealing of a mercenary and jobbing clique, but that laws of our making have been left unenfored and the unfortunate children unprotected, and that all the representations and remonstrances made to the members upon the subject had been treated with total neglect and contempt.”

It shows the unspeakable hypocrisy of the Liberals when we recall that it was this same Parliament with the largest majority of any in the 19th. century, that allowed children under 13 for years after to be employed for


while in the “Emancipation” Act it limited the hours which adult Negro slaves could be worked by the planters to 45 per week !

The 10 Hours Bill came into force (partly) on May 1st., 1848, but the manufacturers rose up in a body against it. Karl Marx well says (“Capital,” chap. 8):

“The working class was everywhere placed under a ban, under a virtual law of suspects. The manufacturers had no need any longer to restrain themselves. They broke out in open revolt, not only against the 10 Hour Bill, but against the whole of the legislation that since 1833 had aimed at restricting in some measure the “free” exploitation of labour-power.
“It was a pro-slavery rebellion in miniature, carried on for over two years with a cynical recklessness and terrorist energy all the cheaper because the rebel capitalist risked nothing but the skin of his ‘hands.'”

The methods they pursued are beyond description, but they can be read in the factory inspectors’ reports for the years that followed. Sufficient to say here that they practically nullified the Acts. How well they carried out the nefarious work may be gathered from the speech of Mr. Ferrand in the House of Commons (27th. April, 1863):

“The cotton trade has existed for 90 years. It has existed for three generations of the English race, and I believe I may safely say that during that period it has


of English operatives.”

In urging the claim of the Liberal party to working class support, Mr. Hobhouse says (p. 84): “Trade Unions gained the first step in emancipation through the action of Place and the Radicals in 1824.”

The fact is that the workers found the chief opponents of trade union combination in the Liberal-Radical party. The ferocity with which the workers were treated by the Liberal Government reminds one of the worst incidents of Russian rule. In 1824 Francis Place, the tailor, and Joseph Hume “smuggled” a law through Parliament annulling the Anti-Combination laws. But directly the workers sought to actually combine for defensive purposes the law pounced upon them. The presence of more than two workmen together laid them open to the charge of conspiracy, and in the reign of the strongest Liberal Government (1834) six Dorchester labourers were sentenced to seven years transportation for the “crime of combination.”

And again, under Liberal rale in 1838, five Glasgow spinners were condemned for the same term under the charge of illegal combination and conspiracy. Lord Melbourne and “the historian,” Lord Macaulay, were members of the Cabinet, and they did ail they could to support those who were coining millions out of the blood and tears of women and children. They acted as in a panic and appointed numerous commissions to enquire into tmethods to


Bright, Cobden and Gladstone in their day were prominent enemies of working-class combination.

After long years of strife and suffering the workers got the Liberals to pass the Trade Union Act of 1871. This was proclaimed the “charter of the trade unions.” But it was so futile that the masters and the Courts still carried on a bitter war against the workmen. The following year (1872) some London firemen engaged at gasworks were charged with striking and sentenced to 12 months imprisonment.

Of Gladstone Mr. Hobhouse says (p. 103):

“He was not sympathetically disposed towards the ‘New Unionism’ and semi-Socialistic ideas that came at the end of the ’80’s, which, in fact, constituted a powerful cross-current to the work he had in hand.”

Right up to the present day the same class legislation in trade union matters continues. The Liberals claim to have legalised peaceful picketing by their Act of 1906, but it lies with the carefully selected judge to interpret this clause.

Hundreds of convictions have occurred since the Act was passed. The London polishers, the Newport dockers, the Hull seamen, the Belfast dockers and the agricultural labourers of Norwich—all have been fined or imprisoned for picketing amongst possible strike-breakers.

The Liberals, despite our author’s claim, in fact acted just as fraudulently


as on other issues. No mention is made of the long, terrible struggle on the part of the workers for a share in the franchise under Liberal Governments. Nothing is aaid about the ferocious fight the Liberals waged against the Chartist pioneers for simply advocating Manhood Suffrage. The trickery and treachery of the Liberals over “Household Franchise” in 1867 is completely passed over.

“The most striking victory of Liberal ideas,” Mr. Hobhouse tells us, “is the establishment of Free Trade,” and he points out that “the battle is one Liberalism is prepared to fight over again.” This shows the essentially capitalist character of Liberalism, for Free Trade is the manufacturer’s panacea, though it was obtained by deluding the working class and winning them away from Chartism by telling them, in the words of Cobden (Morley) : “Is it not clear that if capitalists were free to exchange their productions for the corn of other countries, the workmen would have abundant employment at enhanced wages ?”

Listen to Cobden’s appeal to his capitalist brethren (Morley’s “Cobden,” p. 74) : “Let us,” he said, “invest part of our property to save the rest from confiscation.” And he further says:

“At one meeting in Manchester one man after another called out’in quick succession, ‘A thousand pounds for me,’ ‘A thousand pounds for me,’ until 60 thousand pounds had been subscribed on the spot. They were spending £10,000 per week. . . . ‘ I am afraid,’ said Cobden, ‘that most of us entered upon the struggle with the belief that we had some


Vince, in his life of Bright, says (p. 28): “The battle of the corn laws was a contention between the middle class and the aristocracy.” How hypocritical the agitation for repealing the Corn Laws was we may gather from the report of the Inspector of factories for 1849, where we learn that wherever the circumstances permitted the manufacturers reduced wages 25 per cent. upon the introduction of Free Trade.

Nearly 65 years have passed since Free Trade was introduced. Mr. Hobhouse tells us that “the 19th. century might be called the Age of Liberalism” (p. 214); and the National Liberal Federation, speaking of the period since 1832, says (“The Work of Liberalism since the Great Reform Act”): “It has been in the main an era of Liberal administration. The Liberal Party has had practically unfettered control of the interests of the country in foreign, colonial, and financial policy.” Yet after all this what is the position of the worker ?

After detailing the high claims made by the pioneers of Free Trade our author says :

“The actual course of events has in large measure disappointed these hopes….. the prospect of a complete and life-long independence for the average workman upon the lines of individual competition, even when supplemented and guarded by the collective bargaining of the Trade Union, appears exceedingly remote. The increase in wages does not appear by any means proportionate to the general growth of wealth.
“There appears no likelihood that the average manual worker will attain to the goal of that full independence covering all the risks of life for self and family, which can alone render the competitive system really adequate to the demands of a civilised conscience. The careful researches of Mr. Booth in London and Mr. Rowntree in York, and of others in country districts, have revealed that a considerable percentage are actually unable to earn a sum of money representing the full cost of the barest physical necessities for an average family.

Of industrial competition he says : “That system holds out no hope of an improvement which shall bring the means of such a healthy and independf nt existence as should be the birthright of every citizen of a free State, within the grasp of the mass of the people of the United Kingdom.” But what is the remedy ? Surely not more Liberalism and Free Trade ! Despite the above admissions of the


Mr. Hobhouse devotes many pages to attacking what he calls “Mechanical Socialism” and defending the present system of society. He defends it, though his leader, Mr. Lloyd George, told us (Swansea, Oct. 1, 1908): “No one can really honestly defend the present system.” Mr. Hobhouse ignores the great combinations and trusts the workers have to fight by making this statement (p. 99):

“It is possible under a competitive system for rivals to come to an agreement. The more powerful may coerce the weaker, or a number of equals may agree to work together. Thus competition may defeat itself and industry may be marshalled into trusts and other combinations for the private advantage against the public interest. Such combinations, predicted by Karl Marx as the appointed means of dissolving the competitive system,


in this country by Free Trade.”

This is a fitting statement for a capitalist Professor of Sociology to make. Anyone, without propertied interests to defend at all hazards, can see all around him the existence of great combinations and trusts. From the Imperial Tobacco Company to the gigantic Coats Cotton Trust; from the Salt Union Ltd. to the United Alkali Manufacturers, Ltd., they thrive and flourish even under your Free Trade.

One of the leading members of the Free Trade Union (Mr. J. A. Hobson) points out in his work “The Evolution of Modern Capitalism,” that Great Britain is honeycombed with trusts and combines ; and recently the great Birmingham Free Trader, Mr. Arthur Chamberlain, told us that rings and combines were necessary to the capitalist and inevitable even under beloved Free Trade !


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