1. "Ye are many – they are few"
Britain continues to experience the aftershocks of perhaps the most divisive General Election since Clement Atlee’s Labour Party ousted Winston Churchill’s Tories in 1945. With Labour’s narrow defeat on 8 June 2017, the National Health Service and other key public services remain vulnerable to a relentless programme of state shrinking. By the same token, deregulation, a 1% public sector pay cap and the removal of Welfare State safety nets will reduce further the living standards and life chances of low earners, children and vulnerable citizens throughout the UK. In the last year, over a million people – the homeless, ill, unemployed, veterans, single parents, nurses – were forced to rely on food banks. Incredible as it may seem in the tenth most prosperous country in the world, bare-ribbed Austerity continues to stalk the land.
It might seem a reasonable assumption that any UK government aspires to create the conditions in which the majority of the population can flourish, and realise their aspirations, rather than to load the dice so that an already privileged, overwhelmingly privately educated and health-insured elite is allowed to siphon off even more of the common weal. That assumption would be wrong. We shouldn't forget that the idea of a government working for the masses, not the few, committed to an equitable distribution of resources, is in important respects a Romantic innovation. It's fuelled by political texts such as Tom Paine's Rights of Man (1791) – one of the most widely read books of the age – gathers shape in responses to the French Revolution, and is tested in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, when hundreds of thousands of soldiers returned to Britain seeking work during a period of suppressed wages and poor harvests.
Romantic literature was closely attuned to these debates around how the country was to be managed. Jayne Archer, Howard Thomas and I have argued elsewhere about the ways in which well-loved, apparently non-political Romantic poems such as John Keats’s “To Autumn” are concerned with issues out there in the social world, such as poor working conditions and the unjust distribution of natural wealth. The drowsy reapers in Keats's poem would have struggled to purchase the bread their labour helped produce, and would have relied on cheap French imports that were contaminated with the psychotoxic wheat mimicker, darnel. Such poems often codify their resistance – wisely enough, perhaps, at a time when habeas corpus (a recourse in law preventing arrest without trial) was suspended and surveillance networks rapidly expanding.
Other Romantic figures, though, did not trouble to disguise their opposition. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1819 poem, “The Mask of Anarchy”, was, in the end, unpublished in its own day. Initially, though, it was envisaged as a quick and furious public response to the Peterloo Massacre on St Peter’s Field in Manchester, where on 16 August 1819, cavalry broke up a vast but orderly meeting of some 60,000 protesters who were demanding parliamentary reform and cheaper bread. Incompetent and prejudiced, the Manchester yeomanry rode through the crowd slashing and trampling indiscriminately, killing at least a dozen men, women and children, and injuring many more.
Shelley’s incandescent masque did not balk at condemning Tory ministers by name, including Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, immortalised in one of the most uncompromising opening stanzas ever written:
I met Murder on the way--
As many people now know, Jeremy Corbyn drew his 2017 campaign slogan, “For the many, not the few”, from Shelley’s final rousing address to the (literally) down-trodden electorate – "Ye are many – they are few":
“Rise like Lions after slumber
The Labour leader recited the entire final stanza at his climactic campaign rally in Islington on 7 June 2017, and spoke openly of his admiration for Shelley’s poem when he addressed a giant crowd of some tens of thousands at the Glastonbury festival. His recital there of Shelley (below: begins at 12:33) drew deafening chants of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” to the tune of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army. While that chant is not Romantic in origin, I couldn’t help think of a now little-known play from the Romantic period, What’s a Man of Fashion? (1815) – “a farce in two acts” – which contains the line “Oh, Jeremy! It’s you, Jeremy!”
2. Shaking the money tree
Corbyn’s borrowing from Shelley wasn’t the only example this tumultuous summer of how a prominent Romantic figure helped to frame the discourse of the 2017 General Election. One of the enduring images of the campaign was of Conservative leader Theresa May during the BBC Question Time Leaders Debate sternly lecturing a nurse who’d had the temerity to raise the issue of fair pay. There was, May insisted, figuratively wagging her finger, “no magic money tree”.
The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first use of “money tree” in this sense to 1937:
In fact, the phrase was coined by Romantic political radical and nature writing pioneer William Cobbett (1763-1835) in an 1810 pamphlet entitled “Paper against Gold”:
Writing from his Newgate prison cell, where he’d been imprisoned for “treasonous libel”, Cobbett railed against the government’s dependence on "paper money" – banknotes. An implacable opponent of Tory financial policies, Cobbett despised the fact that there wasn’t enough gold in the nation’s reserves to guarantee the face value of all the banknotes sprouting from the government's "paper-money tree". The other “limb” of this tree, Cobbett argued, was the County Banks, whose owners were licensed to print money. Percy Shelley also hated paper money. It was, he argued, an even "subtler and more complicated contrivance of misrule" than debasing specie with alloy. Romantic critic Jeffrey N. Cox puts it well, ventriloquising Shelley in terms that resonate in these post-election days:
"Paper currency is a representation of a representation, and it is issued to obscure the gap ... between the purported value of the paper bill and the labour it purchases: people work just as hard but they are paid in a bill worth a fraction of that labour's value. England's monetary system is based upon a corrupt and debased form of representation".
Having disparaged the idea of a paper-money tree before the nation, Theresa May, faced with an unworkably small parliamentary majority, has somehow magicked almost £1.5bn over two years in a pact with the DUP that locks the Northern Irish unionist party into a “confidence and supply” arrangement with the Conservative Party. Cobbett – scourge of government linguistic obfuscation in his own age – would no doubt have insisted on calling the agreement what it indubitably is: cash for votes; a bung. At any rate, now we’ve remembered the origin of the magic “money tree” in Cobbett’s radical oppositional politics, a delicious irony becomes apparent. What is today presented by the Prime Minister as a socialist fantasy actually began life as a rhetorically inventive attack on the Regency-period Tory party’s own paper-money tree.