Alongside Brexit and the Trump premiership, the UK election of Thursday 8 June 2017 is one of the great political upsets of recent years. The election had been called by the Tory Prime Minister Theresa May, in the belief that she would triumph over a divided opposition Labour party and thereby secure a hefty mandate in approaching EU negotiations.

In a now-notorious headline, the right-wing tabloid, the Daily Mail called on May to ‘crush the saboteurs’ [1] and silence those who doubted the wisdom of Brexit. However, the supposedly ‘unelectable’ far-left leader Jeremy Corbyn astonished politicians and pundits alike by securing the greatest gains in the number of votes for his party since 1945, reducing the government’s majority almost to a draw and placing May’s leadership in jeopardy. Corbyn dazzled and discomfited with his resilient temperament, dignified refusal to make personal attacks and advocacy of a radical program of tax rises, renationalization, and the scrapping of university tuition fees and nuclear deterrent. But perhaps the most surprising element of Corbyn’s campaign was his decision to base it on two lines from an early-nineteenth-century poem—‘Ye are many / They are few’ (stanza 91; lines 4 and 5)—from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1819 poem The Masque of Anarchy. [2] Not only did the title of his party’s 2017 manifesto ‘For the Many, Not the Few’ allude directly to the poem, but Corbyn quoted this final stanza at the Islington rally on the final day of campaigning and during his speech at the Pyramid stage at the 2017 Glastonbury festival. Almost two hundred years on, the poem and the events that surrounded its creation continue to have a remarkable resonance in British politics.

In the poem, Shelley imagines leading members of the Tory government of his time performing a terrifying apocalyptic masque (a courtly entertainment popular among sixteenth- and seventeenth-century nobles). The foreign secretary Viscount Castlereagh plays ‘Murder’ (s. 2, l. 1) tossing human hearts to his bloodhounds, the Chancellor Earl Eldon is ‘Fraud’ (s. 4, l. 1) and weeping tears that turn to millstones and the Home Secretary Viscount Sidmouth as ‘Hypocrisy’ (s. 6, l. 3) rides a crocodile. Each are acolytes of ‘Anarchy’, a menacing phantom-like creature who announces ‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’ (s. 9, l. 4). Shelley’s vicious lampoons make the more serious point that the powerful are not the guardians but the enemies of the people. He presents ‘[l]awyers and priests’ bowing ‘their pale brows’ to Anarchy and ‘Whispering—“Thou art Law and God”’ (s. 16, ls. 1, 2 and 4). Shelley urges ordinary people to reassert control over their lives, admonishing them that slavery’s ‘very name has grown / To an echo of your own’ (s. 85, l. 3-4). In Shelley’s depiction of Britain divided between a powerless, impoverished populace and a self-serving, astigmatic elite, and its injunction to people to take charge, The Masque has proven as relevant to Britain in 2017 as in 1819.

In fact, Shelley’s portrayal of a shameless elite overpowering an innocent majority was a response to a particular event: the so-called ‘Peterloo Massacre’ on 16 August 1819, in which the Manchester yeomanry charged on an assembly of sixty-thousand campaigners for political reform in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, killing ten and injuring an estimated one hundred. In his poem, Shelley imagines members of the British establishment doing to Britain what the government soldiers did to the Manchester crowd: riding across England, ‘[t]rampling to a mire of blood / The adoring multitude’ (s. 10, l. 3-4) while ‘[d]runk as with intoxication / Of the wine of desolation’ (s. 12, l. 3-4). In the short term, Peterloo represented a setback for Shelley’s brand of radicalism: the main speaker Henry Hunt was sentenced to thirty months in Ilchester Gaol; while the offending local soldiers were cleared of any wrong-doing and received a message of congratulations from the Prince Regent. However, if we take the longer view, we can see that Peterloo ultimately aided the radical cause. Just as the 14 June 2017 Grenfell Tower fire—in which eighty occupants of social housing in one of the wealthiest areas of London were burned to death—provided a shocking symbol of the disconnection between rich and poor in Britain’s capital, so Peterloo gave a visceral encapsulation of the radical’s arguments.

The event transformed the mindset of people previously hostile to reform, creating a foundation of support for the Reform Act of 1832, the law that expanded the electorate and evened out the number of voters attached to each Parliamentary representative. Shocked responses to Peterloo were disseminated in newspapers across the land and preserved in caricatures, popular satires such as William Hone’s The Political House that Jack Built (1819), memorialized in everyday items such as handkerchiefs and cookware and, of course, immortalized in Shelley’s poem.

Shelley’s lines ‘Ye are many / They are few’ articulate vigorously the people-power that preserved Peterloo’s legacy and established universal adult suffrage—and it is this element of the poem that appears to have appealed to Corbyn. In his Glastonbury speech, Corbyn eulogized ‘the determination of the collective’, asserting:

Nothing was given from above, nothing was given from above by the elites and the powerful, it was only ever gained from below by the masses of people demanding something better, demanding their share of the wealth and the cake that's created.

Corbyn’s belief that the world is divided into the elite and the masses—the one and the ninety-nine percent—is encapsulated in Shelley’s phrase. By placing the lines of a poem at the centre of his campaign, Corbyn seeks to inspire voters’ imagination and intellect, in a manner very different from the managerial style of previous Labour leaders such as Tony Blair. In the same speech, Corbyn claims: ‘I quote Shelley because he inspired like so many others do’. [3] What the relevance of Shelley’s lines and Peterloo suggest is that recent political events are part of a bigger struggle for the rights of ordinary people that has taken place over many centuries of history. For many, in the June 2017 election, Corbyn won an important if fragile victory against the few.

[1] Daily Mail, April 19 2017.
[2] All references to Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Masque of Anarchy: A Poem (Manchester: Edward Moxon, 1832).
[3] Rosin O’Conor, Jeremy Corbyn at Glastonbury: Read Labour leaders speech in full, The Independent, Saturday 24 June 2017.