Cobbett returned to England as a Tory, but the critical moment in his conversion to what I believe was a ferocious proto-Liberalism, came in 1805, a few months before Nelson’s historic destruction of Napoleon’s naval ambitions. He bought a farm outside the Hampshire
Having been offered, and refused, a share of the national debt as one of the placement he derided, he also took a second look at the writings of Thomas Paine, the great British libertarian he had condemned so roundly before. Once he had done so, he was particularly struck by what Paine had to say about the financial system and, from there, he slowly became aware of the scale of the bribery, money-lending and sinecures on offer around him. Pitt’s friend Henry Dundas, the First Lord of the Admiralty, was charged with using public money for private speculation. The army commander-in-chief, the Grand old Duke of York, was letting his mistress sell army commissions on his behalf.
This was what Cobbett came to know and condemn as The Thing – the great mountain of placemen and pensioners paid for by the struggling farmers and labourers of the nation.
The superstructure of The Thing, as he saw it, was the burgeoning financial services in
Inspired by Paine, Cobbett suddenly regarded the nation he became famous by defending differently. It was ruled, not so much by a government – and certainly not by a king of doubtful sanity – but by a financial system, and one which had “drawn the real property of the nation into fewer hands … made land and agriculture objects of speculation ... in every part of the kingdom, moulded many farms into one … almost entirely extinguished the race of small farmers … we are daily advancing to the state in which there are but two classes of men, masters and abject dependents.”
Almost unwittingly, Cobbett was following the long agrarian tradition of deep scepticism about money, suspicion of banking and finance, and an implicit appeal to what was genuinely important. It was the ‘real property of the nation’, that Cobbett was defending. Not the stuff of fashion and instant wealth. Being in Hampshire also raised his awareness of the plight of ordinary labourers once the commons had been enclosed.
When he was campaigning to protect his own heath from enclosure, he ran across a Parliamentary report which estimated that there were a million paupers in
For Cobbett, it was the greed of middlemen and bourgeois speculators that was driving ordinary people from the land, which was their only guarantee of independence and subsistence. Those who remained were being squeezed by
What is extraordinary is how relevant this critique is today. The Thing, the corrosive hoovering up of the wealth of the nation by speculators, is at least as important as it was in Cobbett's day. Probably even more.