Good evening, Manchester.
Two months ago this branch received a message expressing concern with our use of the Manchester Bee as part of its logo. The sender, while somewhat impolite, did raise some interesting questions which we’ve been meaning to address – and today’s commemorations served as a powerful reminder.
As many of you will know, Manchester was key to the Industrial Revolution in Britain and throughout the entire world. This far-reaching series of events began in the mid-18th century and an argument could be made that it’s still occurring now – exponential developments in automation and communication are business-as-usual for us now, but at the beginning this would have impacted society in a profound way. Working-class people from towns and villages moved into the cities in great numbers to take part in this new form of work, and Manchester in particular was regarded as a ‘hive of activity’ – to the extent that bees were included within the borough’s heraldry by 1842.
Three years prior to this landmark event, Manchester became home to the Anti-Corn Law league – a single-issue political movement dedicated to overturning a corrupt and bureaucratic set of practices which favoured an unaccountable elite entirely disconnected from the interests of the people. Some readers may empathise.
The Corn Laws were intended to improve Britain’s economic position abroad, and to secure high wages for labourers. However, like most kinds of tariff and all kinds of pricefixing, this rapidly backfired – mass starvation followed, as much of the landed gentry refused to permit food imports even as an emergency measure during extreme shortages.
The Anti-Corn Law league campaigned tirelessly for a decade, and then remained intermittently active until the 1852 budget definitively proved to its leader Richard Cobden that no further protest was necessary. Historians sometimes speculate on whether this would have unfolded so positively if the league had folded when the first repeal act was passed, as many commentators of the day presumed they should.
Another interesting coincidence; the aftermath of this victory led to a split in what was then known as the Conservative party.
Freed from protectionism and the privations it had caused, Manchester’s focus shifted away from raw production – which was then moving out to Bolton and Oldham. Instead, its commercial character continued to develop for many years.
Cobden and others like him supported a now-obscure political philosophy sometimes known as ‘Manchester Liberalism’ – or simply ‘Manchesterism’ – which held that a laissez-faire economic policy (free trade, free association, non-interventionism on foreign affairs) with similarly libertarian social values (free press, meritocracy, church/state separation) would raise living standards and generally facilitate a more equitable society.
This might be surprising to hear today, in a culture which is coming to equate ‘virtue’ with ‘spending as much as possible of other people’s money’ – but not so long ago, ideas like Manchesterism were on the vanguard and created a social climate in which large areas of the world were transformed for the better. For centuries free commerce has been pivotal in granting people across the planet the resources and opportunities they need in order to make the best use of their individual potential. What one person or place has in surplus, whether this is material or based on skill, they can trade with another for mutual gain – and this principle persists in every part of the world and in every area of life.
Hives, after all, are hierarchical. Different bees have differing strengths and weaknesses, and can work together to best effect when not pretending to all be the same. Some bees defend the hive, while others make it into something worth defending. Some humans like to pretend this doesn’t apply to them, and some of those might have you believe that Marx’s fleeting presence is the only aspect of political history worth noting about Manchester.