Manchester Liberalism

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Manchester Liberalism, Manchester School, Manchester Capitalism, and Manchesterism are terms for the political, economic, and social movements of the 19th century that originated in Manchester, England. Led by Richard Cobden and John Bright, it won a wide hearing for its argument that free trade would lead to a more equitable society, making essential products available to all. Its most famous activity was the Anti-Corn Law League that called for repeal of the Corn Laws that kept food prices high. It expounded the social and economic implications of free trade and laissez faire. The Manchester School took the theories of economic liberalism advocated by classical economists such as Adam Smith and made them the basis for government policy. The School also promoted pacifism, anti-slavery, freedom of the press and separation of church and state.[1]

Manchester background

Manchester was the hub of the world’s textile manufacturing industry and had a high population of factory workers who were disadvantaged by the Corn Laws, the protectionist policy that imposed tariffs on imported wheat and increased the price of food. The Corn Laws were supported by the land-owning aristocracy because, by reducing foreign competition, they allowed landowners to keep grain prices high and therefore, as the population expanded, increase agricultural profits.

However, the operation of the Corn Laws also meant that the factory workers in the textile mills in the textile cities of northern England were faced with higher food bills; consequently, the mill owners in turn suffered higher wage bills and therefore higher finished-goods prices which restricted their foreign trade competitiveness.

Anti-Corn Law League

Manchester became the headquarters of the Anti-Corn Law League from 1839. The League campaigned against the Corn Laws to reduce food prices and increase the competitiveness of manufactured goods abroad, and Manchester Liberalism grew out of this movement. This has led to the situation seen in modern Britain, where the country has become dependent upon imported food as part of a globalised interdependence.

Mercantilism holds that a country’s prosperity is dependent on large exports but limited imports of goods. At the beginning of the 19th century, trade in Britain was still subject to import quotas, price ceilings and other state interventions. This led to shortages of certain goods and, in particular, corn (grains usually requiring grinding, most often but not always wheat) on British markets.

Theoretically, Manchester Liberalism was founded on the writings of David Hume, Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say.

The great champions of the "Manchester School" were Richard Cobden and John Bright. As well as being advocates of free trade, they were radical opponents of war and imperialism and proponents of peaceful relations between peoples. The "Little Englander" movement saw little benefit in paying taxes to defend colonies such as Canada, which contributed little trade to Manchester manufacturers and could not supply their main raw material of cotton.[2] Manchesterism can therefore be seen as a belief in free and consensual relations amongst individuals and groups at all levels.[citation needed] Cobden's efforts in furtherance of free trade were always subordinate to what he deemed the highest moral purpose: the promotion of peace on earth and goodwill among men.[citation needed]


In March 1848, Benjamin Disraeli, a Conservative, first used the term "the School of Manchester".[3] According to historian Ralph Raico and as indicated by the German liberal Julius Faucher in 1870, the term "Manchesterism" was invented by Ferdinand Lassalle, the founder of German socialism, and was meant as an abusive term.[4]

See also

Notes and references

  1. Wallace (1960)
  2. Smith, Andrew (2008). British Businessmen and Canadian Confederation: Constitution Making in an Era of Anglo-Globalization. McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP. pp. 24–27. ISBN 9780773575004.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. W. H. Greenleaf, The British Political Tradition. Volume Two: The Ideological Heritage (London: Methuen, 1983), p. 41.
  4. Raico, Ralph (2004) Authentic German Liberalism of the 19th Century Ecole Polytechnique, Centre de Recherce en Epistemologie Appliquee, Unité associée au CNRS

Further reading

  • Bresiger, Gregory. "Laissez Faire and Little Englanderism: The Rise, Fall, Rise, and Fall of the Manchester School," Journal of Libertarian Studies (1997) 13#1 pp 45–79. online
  • William Dyer Grampp, The Manchester School of Economics (1960), the standard scholarly history
  • Wallace, Elisabeth. "The Political Ideas of the Manchester School," University of Toronto Quarterly (1960) 29#2 pp 122–138