The Masque of Anarchy


Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number,

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you.

Ye are many — they are few.

This is from Percy Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, written shortly after the Peterloo Massacre. Not quite 200 years ago people in Manchester held a meeting in a place called St Peters Field.  They were some of the first generations who worked in factories, which meant more than a weekly pay packet. It meant a complete change of life. Nowadays most people expect to go to work and earn wages. Before factories, the majority of people didn’t. They worked on the land, one way or the other. They were paid in kind more often than not. A lot of people felt short-changed, and they were. Getting used to a money economy made many people victims; this was why the Co-Operative movement started.

People were short-changed politically too. Somewhere around 60,000 people had a meeting in a field. They didn’t think they were being represented properly by a government of aristocrats in London. The government did what governments often do when they realise the people they pretend to represent have a different attitude to the one they’re told to have: they sent the army in to teach them to shut up. At least 15 people were killed and 600 injured, but these were days before NHS trusts and ambulances and 999 calls and performance targets. Nobody knows how many were really hurt because it wasn’t properly reported.

They don't use horses and swords any more. Not much else changes.
They don’t use horses and swords any more. Not much else changes.

In exactly the same way the BBC isn’t reporting things now. On November 5th an event called the Million Mask March happened in London and other cities around the world. It had the same objectives as the meeting in St Peters Field; to protest a world where disabled people who for example, need a spare room for a dialysis machine have their housing benefit cut by 14% because they have too many bedrooms to suit the doctrine that there just are plenty of jobs for everyone, the playground tabloid obscenity of Skivers vs Strivers, promulgated by people who inherited millions and had jobs found for them by their relations. Ask the Prime Minister about that. Or the Health Secretary. Or the Chancellor.

According to the BBC this is 200 people. And Russel Brand.
According to the BBC this is 200 people. And Russel Brand.

On November 5th there was a traditional bonfire in Lewes, near Brighton. There always is. That’s why it’s a tradition. The BBC put it on their website. It took them another four hours to bother to report the Million Mask March gathering outside Parliament. When they did it was chiefly because Russel Brand, a known media figure had turned up.

It was shameful. No major UK news source carried the story while it was happening. I first heard of it on Twitter. Then Al Jazeera picked it up. The US airforce has bombed the Al Jazeera offices in the past, but that was ok because it was an accident, apparently. This isn’t me and my opinion; that story was reported by Reuters, the place where newsmen get their news.

Nobody was killed in Parliament Square on November 5th. Camera phones and Twitter are quite useful these days. But the Masque continues. Shelley’s poem talked specifically about the government of the day, the Foreign Secretary, Castlereagh who appears as a mask worn by Murder, the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth whose guise is taken by Hypocrisy, and the Lord Chancellor,Lord Eldon whose ermine gown is worn by Fraud. Led by Anarchy, a skeleton with a crown, they try to take over England, but are slain by a mysterious armoured figure who arises from a mist.

Arthur, the once and future king? Drake, sleeping there below until his drum beats again? Or the last thing left when Pandora’s box was opened, Hope, revived, who through the poem called to the people whose families weren’t aristocrats or tax advisers or related to former Cabinet ministers.

The Masque Shelley was writing about wasn’t a physical mask. A Masque was a ball, a dance where masks were worn. People who ought not to have done could dance with people they ought not to be dancing with, despite the fact that everyone in the circle invited knew who was who anyway. It was a pretence, a charade. A polite game where everyone knew that everything was not what it seemed to be and nothing was really what it was called. Democracy. Freedom. Objective news reporting.

Two hundred years on and the biggest difference is the soldiers don’t usually carry swords on horseback any more. It’s not enough of a change. But they are few and we are many. And it’s time we woke up and remembered that.

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