Sunday, 28 May 2017

Percy Bysshe Shelley and the Guardian

Jonathan Freedland is a senior commentator at the Guardian. In one of his tweets early in the election campaign he asked, derisively, if “Corbynistas” (a term of abuse) knew that the Labour slogan “For the Many, not the Few” was originally a Blairite slogan. His tweet encapsulates the problem with the Guardian’s coverage of the Labour Party, since it first became clear Jeremy Corbyn would be elected leader in the summer of 2015. Almost everything is seen through the prism of the internal split in the party and time and again the Guardian has got its facts wrong. 

Corbyn has routinely been described on the Guardian news pages as “hard-left” despite his domestic policies being in the mould of Attlee and Scandinavian social democracy. His opponents have been called “moderates” even when supporting harsh welfare measures or further bombings abroad. Previously obscure MPs have been given regular platforms to vent their anti-Corbyn views. The paper ran and ran with vile smears of anti-Semitism against Corbyn; the smears are entirely untrue but real and lasting harm has been done. 

The Guardian’s narrow focus on the internal Labour power play has meant that it has, consequently, managed to miss the real story which is that Corbyn has developed a coherent and electable alternative to the truly dire Tory government.  And they have underestimated Corbyn’s supporters. They are the most serious, committed and numerous body of political activists the UK has seen for decades: not “cult members”; not “Trots”; not “Islington poseurs”.

Anyone who relied on the Guardian solely for information about British politics is likely to be bemused by the fact that the Tory lead in the opinion polls over Labour has shrunk from 24 points at the start of the campaign to only 5 now. Was Corbyn not meant to be incapable of leading, unelectable? Would not anybody - even Owen Smith - be better? Tony Blair made an actual deal with Rupert Murdoch; surely, Labour would have to compromise with the Tory-Murdoch-Dacre agenda to have any prospect of winning? 

The Guardian is not the paper it once was. The fact that it is described as left-wing is because the rest of the press is so right-wing. In an editorial, Labour’s manifesto pledge only to raise taxes on incomes over £80,000 was dismissed as “virtue-signalling” - the sort of comment one would expect from the Mail or Telegraph. In 2010, the Guardian advised its readers to vote Liberal Democrat. It may do so again in 2017.

Of course, the Guardian has had a proud and long history of radicalism. It was originally set up as the Manchester Guardian by a business man John Taylor who witnessed the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre. On 16 August 1819, a crowd of more than 50,000 met at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester to support extending the franchise beyond the tiny amount of rich men then allowed to vote. The local magistrates sent in the cavalry to break up the peaceful crowd. At least 15 people were killed. The name Peterloo was given to point out the bitter irony that the same cavalry had fought at the real battle of Waterloo four years before in 1815. Nobody was ever held to account for the Peterloo Massacre.

The source of Labour’s slogan “For the Many, not the Few” is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem The Masque of Anarchy, which was written in response to the Peterloo Massacre.

It is a brilliant poem. It has many contemporary resonances. Three monsters terrorise England - Murder, Fraud and Anarchy - but they are conquered by Hope.

“I met Murder on the way -
He had a mask like Castlereagh” 

Or “a mask like Theresa May” would scan too. If you think that’s a bit strong, have you seen I, Daniel Blake?  Have you read the reports of multiple suicides linked to May’s cruel welfare system?

“Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Lord Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them”

For Lord Eldon, one could put any number of greedy, super-rich antisocial tax-cheats. How about Philip Green or Rupert Murdoch or Richard Branson?  Their tax-cheating leads to deeper cuts to services and a rising number of hungry little children having to use food banks.

“Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.”

Anarchy in the poem is the anarchy of the rich and powerful, who do what they want. In 2017, Anarchy should stand for Donald Trump - a man who could literally cause an apocalypse and whom May hurried to hold hands with - only predictably to now be treated with the disdain with which bullies always treat sycophants.

But Shelley’s poem is hopeful. Murder, Fraud and Anarchy despite their huge power can be beaten.

“When one fled past, a maniac maid,
And her name was Hope, she said:
But she looked more like Despair

A rushing light of clouds and splendour,
A sense awakening and yet tender
Was heard and felt - and at its close
These words of joy and fear arose


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 and they are few.”

The Guardian would once have been supportive of Corbyn, who has the same anger against injustice and passion for social justice as Shelley. Not only has it not been with Corbyn but worse it has been actively undermining him since 2015.


I hope the Guardian will rediscover its radical roots, as a matter of urgency.
.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you Tom.
    From a sad ex Guardian devotee
    To my knowledge the paper has leaned more to the middle ground since the Gang of Four did their thing in the eighties. Polly Toynbee certainly favours the LibDems.
    The real crusher for me though is the vitriolic abuse directed at Corbyn (and his supporters) in the columns of Jonathan Freedland & Nick Cohen. Many inches of which can be classified as spurious and #alternativefacts

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  2. Hi Tom London,
    I grew up reading the Manchester Guardian and it is still my first port of call each morning when I go online. It was always a centre / soft left paper but with high journalistic standards and a liberal stance, which made it stand out amongst UK papers. Agree 100% with your blog. An exception to the current motley crew is the admirable Gary Younge and the mbm football writers who luckily don't seem to be included in the dominant spin. Keep the poetry coming and keep your chin up.

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