‘For the Many, Not the Few’-Who said it? (Post No.3920)

Written by London Swaminathan


Date: 18 May 2017


Time uploaded in London: 17-56


Post No. 3920


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Britain is holding a snap election on 8th June 2017. Ruling Conservative party and the opposition Labour party are launching their election manifestoes with attractive new slogans. The Labour party’s slogan “For the Many and not the Few” have hit the headlines in newspapers.


There is a very lively discussion to find out who uttered these words for the first time. They have traced it to Greek historian Thucydides (460-400 BCE). Some argue that English poet P B Shelley is the one who popularised it. Here is the news item from Evening Standard newspaper.


“We’ve found Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s inspiration: Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Corbyn launched his manifesto in Bradford yesterday with the stirring slogan “For the many, not the few.” 

The Times’s Philip Collins says the phrase comes from Greek historian Thucydides, from around 400 BC. “Its origin is the Funeral Oration of Pericles [by Thucydides]”, he writes, talking about the foundations of democracy.

But UCL English professor John Sutherland says no. “‘For the many not the few’ actually comes from Shelley’s poem The Masque of Anarchy,” he told The Londoner when we called yesterday.

Over to Corbyn’s election guru James Schneider. Was it, in fact, Shelley? Schneider was thrilled to be asked and show his fine education at Winchester College and Oxford. He recited the poem word perfectly down the phone.


“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.”


He said, cheerfully. On the competing theories, Schneider went on to say: “Thucydides is interesting,” he said. “I didn’t know it , so I doubt it comes from there. Shelley is more well-known. It would be a stretch to say that it is directly taken from Shelley [though] Jeremy does know Shelley.

“The slogan very simply sums up our programme to change Britain.”

Romantic poet Shelley wrote his poem following the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in Manchester, in which around 15 protesters, fighting for democracy and against poverty, were killed by cavalry. The work is read as an early modern statement of nonviolent resistance, and is popular with JC’s supporters: in Corbyn’s second Labour leadership campaign last year, former Labour MP Chris Williamson suggested it as a slogan. “Let’s use that as our battle cry,” he said at a public meeting.


Picture of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn


Corbyn is known to be well-read, saying he has finished James Joyce’s Ulysses four times.

Does the phrase make Jeremy a Romantic, we asked Sutherland? “Yep. Romantic not Modernist,” he said. “The poets are with Jeremy but who ever paid any notice to them.”