Since Friday, Chesterton's prophecy of popular uprising has been quoted everywhere

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:

It may be we shall rise the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
Our wrath come after Russia’s wrath and our wrath be the worst.

The chief target of the poem’s wrath is the Reformation, which Chesterton thought a disaster, and not just for religious reasons. The monasteries, which had sheltered the homeless and fed the hungry, were sold off to the rich, “Till there was no bed in a monk’s house, nor food that man could find.”

Protestantism was, correspondingly, a religion of the elites: “…some were pure and some were vile; but none took heed of us.”

The Anglican establishment is eventually replaced by the “new lords”, remote figures with “bright dead alien eyes”. Whoever these people are – I’m not entirely sure – they are both distant from the working man, and less alive. At around the same time, Chesterton wrote of the English poor:

Caught in the trap of a terrible industrial machinery, harried by a shameful economic cruelty, surrounded with an ugliness and desolation never endured before among men, stunted by a stupid and provincial religion, or by a more stupid and more provincial irreligion, the poor are still by far the sanest, jolliest, and most reliable part of the community.

This passage assumes that the threat to those at the bottom is not so much from politicians as from the economic system. And Chesterton, especially towards the end of his life, generally thought that true democracy was incompatible with modern capitalism.

Partly for that reason, the Anglican philosopher John Milbank argues that anyone quoting “The Secret People” this week has missed the point. The “real enemy” of the secret people, says Milbank, is “anarchic, libertarian, globalising capitalism”, which “duped them” into voting for Brexit.

England’s poor, in Milbank’s view, have little in common with the leaders of the leave campaign. The secret people Chesterton loved “are the real Catholic voice of England, exulting at once in true hierarchic order, popular participation and continuous festivity, against the puritans and dissenters who love money and success too much.” Milbank thinks Chesterton would have voted remain, not least because Brexit increases the likelihood of what Chesterton feared: a German-dominated Europe.

But the Chesterton scholar Julia Stapleton suggests that his suspicion of Germany would have had the opposite effect: Chesterton was enough of a democrat to have resented “the sacrifice of democracy in Greece and Italy during the Eurocrisis,” she says. “One can be generous towards other nations and forge alliances with them, without supporting an organisation that holds independent nationhood and democratic self-government in contempt.”

Above all, says Stapleton, “Chesterton loved the nation but loathed the state, particularly states that were heavily centralised and run for the benefit of elites. Of this the British state in his time was a prime example and the EU in ours another, in the opinion of many.”

“The Secret People” is too good a poem to be reduced to one political message. But it is a cry for social justice more eloquent and less despairing than anything the British commentariat have come up with this week.

One other thing shouldn’t go unmentioned. There is a line in the poem which is tainted with anti-Semitism: a timely reminder that nobody, however wise or innocent (or correct in their political beliefs), is free of the temptation to seek a scapegoat.