This article is from the January issue of Total Politics
The famous radical political writer and campaigner William Cobbett tried for many years to get elected to Parliament, eventually succeeding in December 1832.
Cobbett spent his early life as a pro-establishment figure. He denounced Thomas Paine – “wretched traitor and apostate” – although he later became an admirer. The motto of one of his newspapers, The Porcupine, was “Fear God, Honour the King”.
Through the 1800s, his journalism became more radical, prompted in part by the pervasive corruption. He began to consider whether he would have more influence if he was also in Parliament, and his opportunity came in June 1806, when a Honiton MP had to stand for re-election following a lucrative public appointment. After failing to find anyone else to become an anti-corruption candidate, Cobbett decided to stand, promising never to “receive… one single farthing of the public money”, and never to give “one farthing of my own money to any man in order to induce him to vote, or to cause others to vote, for me”.
Arriving in Honiton, he discovered that Admiral Thomas Cochrane, inspired by Cobbett’s appeal, also proposed to stand. Cobbett decided to withdraw in favour of this potentially stronger candidate, though Cochrane then failed to win the election.
At this time, Cobbett was working on large projects to record Parliament’s history and proceedings. His Parliamentary History and Cobbett’s Parliamentary Debates still rank as primary historical texts. Sadly, poor business skills meant that he had to sell them to his printer, to continue their production. Thus, Parliament’s official report is ‘Hansard’, not ‘Cobbett’.
George III’s death in January 1820 triggered a general election, and, on his return from a period living in America, Cobbett turned to the potentially winnable constituency of Coventry. But despite a slight early lead, he finished a poor third behind the successful Whig incumbents. He tried to challenge the result, claiming widespread intimidation, but a Commons petition presented on his behalf got nowhere.
At the next general election, in 1826, Cobbett stood for Preston, again a winnable prospect. One opponent was a young Whig, Edward Stanley, later to be, as the Earl of Derby, three times Tory prime minister. After a turbulent campaign, Cobbett was again well beaten. Once more he tried to challenge the outcome by petition, but without success.
By then, he knew that he would not be elected without parliamentary reform extending the franchise. Unlike many Radicals, he reluctantly supported the Whigs’ very limited reform proposals when they came to power in 1830. After a titanic parliamentary struggle, the Great Reform Act was eventually enacted in 1832. The December 1832 general election, under the enlarged franchise, gave Cobbett perhaps his last chance to enter the Commons.
He had already arranged to stand for the new constituency of Manchester, but was then also asked to contest Oldham. At Manchester, Cobbett faced strong opposition from Whigs keen to keep him out of Parliament, and, when it became clear that he was going to win easily at Oldham, he withdrew from the Manchester campaign.
Nearly 70 by then, he set off for the new Parliament in January 1833, declaring: “Now, I belong to the people of Oldham.”
From the start, he threw himself into Commons proceedings. His maiden speech on 29 January opposed the re-election of the Speaker, and began, controversially: “It appears to me that since I have been sitting here, I have heard a great deal of vain and unprofitable conversation.”
Despite the Reform Act, the Commons was still packed with establishment MPs, and the Whig government proved to be a grave – if not unexpected – disappointment to Cobbett, especially over Poor Law reform. He became a de facto representative of Oldham and the wider British underclasses.
Though an active participant, he had little time for Parliament’s arcane procedures. He criticised the size of the old Commons chamber as unfit to hold 658 members or to conduct civilised debate.
He was returned unopposed for Oldham in January 1835, but died five months later. Despite everything, Cobbett was proud of becoming an MP, and even planned to call his proposed autobiography The Progress of a Ploughboy to a Seat in Parliament.