Did Chesterton predict Brexit over a century ago?
When words fail us, we turn to the poets. And since last Friday’s earthquake, one poem has been quoted everywhere, in the Daily Mail and the Financial Times, on blogs and social media, in conversations and over email.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget;
For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.
G.K. Chesterton’s “The Secret People”, published in 1907, prophesies an English revolution in which, after centuries of patient acquiescence in their own oppression, the people rise up against their arrogant rulers. It is “a cliché which for once seems completely apt”, says the author David Goodhart.
In one sense the poem is clearly appropriate: as Alan Fimister writes on our website today, the referendum has exposed a lot of snobbery towards the supposedly deluded and/or racist people who voted leave. “‘The Secret People’ is about refusing the condescension implied by a governing class and by an educated class,” says Michael Hurley, lecturer at Cambridge and author of a study of Chesterton. (Hurley received two emails last week quoting the poem and adding, “Well, they’ve spoken now.”)
So was Brexit the moment the secret people found their voice? The poem is, in all honesty, difficult to understand – and there is room to doubt that Chesterton had something like the referendum in mind. For one thing, he was sceptical about the idea of consensual revolution through the existing political system. He tended to think that if you were going to overthrow your rulers, you should have a full-scale uprising like the French Revolution or Russia’s “Revolution of 1905” – as “The Secret People” indicates:
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