On the important question of education, Richard Cobden rejected the principles of free trade and limited government and instead campaigned for the introduction of a national system of free secular schools funded through local taxation.  Like many of his contemporaries, Cobden identified education as being critical for both democratic and industrial development.  Cobden also passionately believed that education was the key to solving many of the problems facing the working population, including: improving temperance, sanitary reform, unemployment, poverty, disease and trade disputes. 

By the mid-1830s however Cobden had become convinced that the voluntary system of education was no longer sufficient and that the English people had become the least instructed of any Protestant community in the world.  While Cobden initially campaigned for a national system of education that would couple the education of the country with its numerous religious communities, by the late 1840s he had become increasingly frustrated at the utter hopelessness of ever attempting to unite the religious bodies in any system of education.  

Therefore, following the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846 and hoping to build on the success of the Anti-Corn Law League, he lent his support to the Lancashire Public Schools Association which was set up in Manchester in 1847 to promote the introduction of a national system of free secular schools.   At its annual meeting in January 1851 (renamed the National Public School Association in 1850), Cobden highlighted his frustration with the lack of progress in education when he declared that he had “passed beyond the time in which I can offer any opposition to any scheme whatever which proposes to give the mass of the people of this country a better education than they now receive”.  In a speech at the Mechanics Institute in Barnsley in October 1853, he even went as far to declare that “I do not care whether instruction comes voluntary or from an organised State education.  I want education.” 

In particular, Cobden agreed with the Scottish writer George Combe and favoured the same system of free state schooling which had previously been introduced by Horace Mann in the state of Massachusetts in the US.  This is despite the fact that Cobden himself acknowledged that if you establish free schools in every parish, you will ultimately close all of those fee paying schools which currently serve the poor. Richard Cobden’s compromise on education did not escape the attention of those who continued to support the voluntary principle and resist any further government intervention.

For example, in a letter to Cobden dated April 30th 1851, Edward Baines (editor of the Leeds Mercury) argued that the only way in which the government could legitimately promote education would be by removing all taxes on knowledge including the excise duty on paper and the stamp duty on newspapers and periodicals.  Baines also reminded Cobden of the enormous improvements in education which had occurred within a generation and warned that it was not possible to ask the government to do something without also giving it the power and authority to govern in regard to that thing.  Therefore as soon as schools started to receive government grants then they would soon become entirely dependent upon the government, giving its inspectors arbitrary control over the nation’s schools.  According to Baines ‘any man who lends himself to the support of such a measure, will be a means of doing greater mischief to the people than even the repeal of the Corn Laws did good’! 

In his 1851 publication Social Statistics, Herbert Spencer also referred to the childish impatience of those who complained that the transformation from general ignorance to universal enlightenment had not been completed within a generation.  Dissatisfied with the natural rate of progress he was critical of those who were now prepared to use artificial means to remedy what they conceived to be nature’s failures.  The following analogy is provided:

Did the reader ever watch a boy in the first heat of a gardening fit? Probably a slice of a border has been made over to him for his exclusive use. . . . Note chiefly, however, with what anxiety the growth of a few scrubby plants is regarded. Three or four times a day will the little urchin rush out to look at them. How provokingly slow their progress seems to him.  When will the blossoms come out! For nearly a week has some forward bud been promising him the triumph of a first flower, and still it remains closed. Surely there must be something wrong! Perhaps the leaves have stuck fast. Ah! that is the reason, no doubt. And so ten to one you shall some day catch our young florist very busily engaged in pulling open the calyx, and, it may be, trying to unfold a few of the petals.

An edited version of the article was published in Economic Affairs, March 2011