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the Friend INDEPENDENT QUAKER JOURNALISM SINCE 1843
CONTENTS VOL 169 NO 45 3 Thought for the Week: John Bright’s legacy Nick Wilding 4-5 News
The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings… he takes his victims from the castle of the noble, the mansion of the wealthy, and the cottage of the poor and lowly.
John Bright Bicentenary 6-7 Friend, humanitarian and pragmatist Rae Street 8-9 ‘He took his ministry into public life’ The Friend talks to Michael Bartlet 10-11 A love for what is just Howard Gregg
12-13 Experiment with Light: Beyond our shores Marisa Johnson 14 Letters 15 Friends & Meetings 16 Letters
Cover image: John Bright (16 November 1811 – 27 March 1889). Image: © Religious Society of Friends in Britain.
Quote: Words from John Bright’s speech before the House of Commons opposing the Crimean War, 1855
Image: John Bright in the Quaker coat and collar that he wore in the first years of his political life. From The Life of John Bright by George Macaulay Trevelyan.
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the Friend, 11 November 2011 Thought for the Week
John Bright’s legacy
Imagine the scenario: a new government comes to power promising an ethical foreign policy, but then invades and occupies a foreign country – bringing death to its impoverished communities and the destruction of its heritage. This may sound strangely familiar, but I am not referring to the Labour government and Iraq, rather to the Liberal one of Gladstone in 1882. The savage attack on the sovereign state of Egypt, with the bombing of Alexandria, led to one of its respected ministers resigning in disgust. The name of this eminent gentleman was John Bright and, for many British people, his presence in the cabinet had been the insurance that the government would retain its moral stance. This was because, throughout Bright’s forty-year political career, he had been steadfast in his opposition to war.
In 1868, John Bright became the first member of the Religious Society of Friends to accept a ministerial office in the cabinet of a British government. Back in the 1840s, when he originally made the decision to fight a parliamentary seat, this was not traditionally considered by Quakers to be a very wise move. They had a point because, as a member of parliament representing a political party, he would be bound to accept the majority decisions of his colleagues, whatever they were. In fact, he was soon faced with the dilemma of being part of a government that was sending troops to quell a rebellion by the Ashanti tribe in Africa. His diaries of the time reveal how tempted he was to resign, but he had accepted his cabinet post knowing the dangers and there were important reasons for being part of what turned out to be a great reforming government.
John Bright had originally entered parliament as a radical, representing the Anti-Corn Law League, with the specific purpose of eliminating the widespread poverty in Britain. Bright felt that he was close to the people and understood their concerns. He considered that the majority of MPs in parliament were too far removed from the working people of Britain to be able to address the issues about which ordinary people cared. He may well have been correct. In 1867, even some of his best friends found it impossible to consider giving the working classes the vote. Richard Cobden, for example, was unconvinced but died before the Act was finally passed. Bright found unlikely support from the opposition party in the shape of the prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, whose government is praised for the 1867 Reform Bill which, until the Act that gave the vote to women in the twentieth century, brought democracy to the greatest number of people in Britain. What few people appreciate is that the Reform Bill was based upon a memo from John Bright, who had campaigned for ten years to bring it about. At the time, people respected Bright for his dedication. As the years have passed, his great work has been forgotten in the pages of history. As a Quaker, he should personally have had no cause to complain about this.
For me, though, speaking as a historian, I feel that we should give due credit to those people who, like Bright, have fought on social issues and laboured to bring democracy to Britain. I am delighted, through celebrating his bicentenary, to have another opportunity to screen my films about him and discuss his motives. I believe that we have much to learn from his life and the issues that he personally faced.
Documentary filmmaker and historian
There will be screenings of Nick’s film John Bright and the Angel of Death at lunchtime on 16 November in the People’s Museum in Manchester and in Touchstones Heritage Centre in Rochdale the same evening. The film will also be shown at the ‘Celebrating John Bright’ study day in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery on 19 November and at the Friends Meeting House on Mount Street in Manchester on 14 December.
the Friend, 11 November 2011