The writer’s paeans for a nation at war are perpetuating a dangerous idea—that English exceptionalism makes extremism impossible
England’s fondness for pretence is an authentic national trait. Look at the reverence granted to actors, the admiration for the ironic style and the success of politicians who adopt the persona of stand-up comedians as they josh their way to power, and you will see a nation happiest when it is in a land of make-believe.
If you wish to break free from it, and attempt to see the truth about your country in 2020, you must confront the George Orwell of 1940. He stands like a mighty obstacle, and not one I ever wanted to tackle. I believed his part-critical, part-exultant celebration of Englishness for most of my life.
Orwell left the English a set of clichés as familiar to us as Big Brother and Newspeak are to the rest of the world. People who have never read him find themselves repeating his ideas so thoroughly have they penetrated the national consciousness.
The combination of Brexit and the far Left’s takeover of the Labour party has resulted in Orwell once again being cast as St George of England, the patron saint of commentators, with scant respect for what he actually believed. The conservative columnist Charles Moore press-ganged Orwell’s most evocative essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, written at the height of the Blitz, into the service of the Brexit cause. Orwell, he decided, would have had no time for Remainers, who refused to accept the referendum result and “embarked on a character assassination of their fellow countrymen”. In truth, as the Cold War began, Orwell thought the only way for England (and Britain) to retain its autonomy in a world dominated by the Soviet Union and America was to join a “United States of Europe” that was “self-sufficient and able to hold its own”. His argument applies as well in a 21st century dominated by China and America, as I suspect we are about to find out.
Half the writers in the serious press have reached for their Orwell to describe the modern Labour party’s attachment to repellent regimes and terrorist movements. I’ve thrown the words Orwell used against the pro-Soviet Left of the 1940s at the supposedly moral people in the Labour party who went with a conspiracist leader, Marxist-Leninists and anti-Jewish racism: “Do remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for. Don’t imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking propagandist of the Soviet regime, or any other regime, and then suddenly return to mental decency. Once a whore, always a whore.”
As polemic it is unbeatable, but as a description of modern England it is too kind. Orwell argued in The Lion and the Unicorn against a tiny group of left-wing intellectuals, who had “little in them except the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power”.
However badly it fared, Labour’s vote of 10,265,912 at the last election was not tiny. A portion of its supporters will say they voted Labour despite the leadership or because our electoral system left them with no other way to protest against the extremism of the Brexit right. Nevertheless, they still voted for the first party since the neo-Nazi British National Party to be investigated by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission for Jew-hatred and institutional racism. The racism, the crankery, the service to enemies of the country was not a deal-breaker.
The contenders for the Labour leadership want to put the ugliness of the past to one side, and the right wants us to “move on” from the Brexit wars. In this, at least, they are being typically English. Their notion that we can, or indeed should, settle our differences and come together is the closest the BBC has to an ideology and the Church of England to a theology. If you believe we should “find closure and to let the healing begin” to use Boris Johnson’s words after he won the 2019 election, or “we’re all in this together,” as his predecessor David Cameron said, Orwell expressed the same thought first and better.
Orwell was a socialist and never ignored England’s class divisions or the crimes of the British Empire. But he was adamant in 1940 that, however unjust the ruling class was, it was still “our” ruling class. England was a “family”, he said in The Lion and the Unicorn. It may be a “family with the wrong members in control”. It may kowtow to rich relations, thwart the young and hand power to irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. “Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks.”
Closely tied to the notion of national unity is his view that the English possess an innate hatred of extremism. If you have ever found yourself insisting the English are decent patriots, not dangerous nationalists, Orwell’s view that the British army could never instruct troops to goosestep “because the people in the street would laugh” is ready made for you. English patriotism wasn’t based on hatred of foreigners but a “refusal to take foreigners seriously,” he explained. England was an eccentric insular country with its “solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes”. Everyone except left-wing intellectuals who got their politics from Moscow and food from Paris understood and welcomed its peculiarities.
I can understand his pride. In 1940 Britain was the only major European country not to be occupied by Stalin or Hitler. It was also the only one without a mass communist or fascist party. But a lucky history does not mean our luck will last.
A pedant could point out that in the 75 years since 1945, English history has not been noticeably more polite or peaceful than the histories of our neighbours. Starting in 1968 with Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, the beginnings of war in Ulster and industrial militancy in the factories, and going on through the trade union movement’s effective destruction of Edward Heath’s government in 1974 and Jim Callaghan’s in 1979, Margaret Thatcher’s great recession of the early Eighties, the near civil war of the miners’ strike of 1984-85, the Poll Tax riot, and the collapse of the pound in 1992, conflict, racism and hatred were as much a part of the English way as winding roads and red pillar boxes. The social peace of the Blair years was the exception, not the rule.
‘Our escape from the history of the continent has also made us reckless. No nation that endured the tragedies of the 20th century would risk what we are risking with Brexit’
But what matters is not whether national myths are true but whether they are believed. Brexit is a warning of how a lucky history in the 20th century can become a curse in the 21st. The belief that we are Orwell’s gentle country, that laughed at extremists, and never experienced communism or fascism, led to a vainglorious belief in our superiority. Our escape from the history of the continent has also made us reckless. No nation that endured the tragedies of the 20th century would risk what we are risking with Brexit. Even the Greeks, who have every reason to deplore the suffering that European institutions inflicted on them after the financial crash, have not left the EU or returned to the drachma. Memories of Nazi invasion and a military dictatorship incline a country to caution.
Not so here. The Scots, the Welsh and the Irish used to complain that the English talked of “Britain” when they meant England. What was an irritating verbal tic is now threatening the state. With the apparently unwavering approval of English conservatives, Boris Johnson is betraying the promises made to Ulster Unionists and placing a border in the Irish Sea. He risks giving Scottish nationalists a decisive advantage by pursuing a Brexit that ignores Scottish interests. In this he is an authentic representative of the new English nationalism. Every poll of Conservative members shows they would prefer the break-up of the United Kingdom to their England remaining in the European Union.
They are so dangerous because they are so old. Commentary about the generational divide tends with justice to focus on the problems of the young affording housing. As striking, are the political consequences. In Britain, as in every other modern society, the old are becoming the most influential group. Britain has almost 12 million people aged 65 or over and 8 million aged between 55 and 64. They are not only more likely to vote than the young, they are likely to vote as a bloc as age replaces class as the main predictor of political behaviour. In the 2019 election, 64 per cent of pensioners voted Conservative. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, over-65s were more than twice as likely as under-25s to vote to leave the European Union.
Optimistic writers and politicians from the 20th century would find the power of the grey vote the strangest feature of our world. They looked to new men and women working in new industries, often living in new towns, as the country’s best hope for the future. Harold Wilson won power in the 1960s by arguing that a “new Britain” would need to be forged in the “white heat” of a scientific revolution. Tony Blair and David Cameron emphasised that they wanted to win power to help “hard-working families”. In The Lion and the Unicorn, Orwell saw “the germs of the future England” among “people most definitely of the modern world, the technicians and the higher-paid skilled workers, the airmen and their mechanics, the radio experts, film producers, popular journalists and industrial chemists”.
Now you see the new England in retirement homes. Or at least the England that politicians must work the hardest to appeal to. The demography of Western societies makes culture war inevitable. As the birth rate falls and life expectancy increases, more immigrants are needed. Nativist politicians then exploit fear of the foreigner among the older white voters to win elections and referendums and so the circle continues. Economic arguments along the lines of “Brexit will destroy jobs” lack force when so many voters do not work. Nor do the wild promises of English and Scottish nationalists that they can tear up the old order without inflicting economic pain necessarily cause alarm.
An identity crisis follows. Older white voters are as entitled to think their world has gone, and worry about whether there’s a place for them in a multicultural country, as ethnic minority voters are to worry about racism and the unspoken codes of English life that mandate their exclusion. The only sane future is to accommodate both, which will be hellishly hard but must be attempted. A start can be made by chucking out old myths. The English are not uniquely gentle or tolerant, and racism and nationalism can exist as easily here as in any other European country.
You may want Orwell to be right. You can believe there was a time when he was right. But he isn’t right now.