Orwell, Nationalism, Brexit and Historical Foresight – An editorial, post-referendum.

The London Palace Coat of Arms features a Lion and a Unicorn: the two animals that George Orwell used to title a now infamous essay about nationalism, class and Britain’s lack of European identity. I’m writing about it today in a ponderous post that will look at English Socialism, historical understandings of our apparent island-identity, and the way that Orwell always seems to have known what to say.

First and foremost, I should say that this is another editorial entry in the post-EU referendum political scene. This blog is written by one person, and that person is still pretty angry. On this occasion, however, that person happens to be someone who has read and written a lot about George Orwell. Every other day there’s a comment piece in a British newspaper about Orwell’s tremendous prescience and foresight. His contributions to our understanding of modern politics are invaluable, and the way his legacy has been used and abused by all ends of the political spectrum is astonishing. Today I’m looking specifically at his essay, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, but I’ll dip in and out of his other writing as it is relevant.

Author, 1984, Big Brother, British, Dystopia, English

Orwell’s work, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, was first and foremost, an essay that explained his belief that the outdated British class system hampered society and the war effort, and that only a Socialist revolution could defeat fascism. It’s important to get that out of the way at the top of the post, because there’s been some nasty fighting over his left-wing credentials and his words have oft been usurped by a right-wing audience. Nobody can claim a political ownership of his work, of course, but it seems a poor way to remember a man who stated that (in “Why I Write,” 1946):

Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.

You really have to get both clauses of that sentence together. You also need to recognise that his understanding of totalitarianism was informed by both Hitler and Stalin- in no way can it reasonably be claimed that his post-1936 work was an attack on the Left. His full credentials, however, will be picked over until the end of time.

The Lion and the Unicorn acted, in part, as literary space for Orwell’s musings on nationalisms with Britain, and other kinds of discrimination and difference. He wrote about nationalism in the way that it impacted on class, and in the way it related to human nature more widely. This post is going to turn now to some of his words on nationalism- perhaps his famed prescience can be useful to us in the post-Brexit world of potential independence, nationalism, and confusion.

In this essay, Orwell explained that

“In England patriotism takes different forms in different classes, but it runs like a connecting thread through nearly all of them. Only the Europeanized intelligentsia are really immune to it … The working man’s heart does not leap when he sees a Union Jack. But the famous “insularity” and “xenophobia” of the English is far stronger in the working class than in the bourgeoisie. In all countries the poor are more national than the rich, but the English working class are outstanding in their abhorrence of foreign habits. Even when they are obliged to live abroad for years they refuse either to accustom themselves to foreign food or to learn foreign languages. Nearly every Englishman of working-class origin considers it effeminate to pronounce a foreign word correctly … The insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time.

The referendum certainly sits very heavily on 48% of us. Orwell’s discussion about class and its relationship to xenophobia can be seen to reveal a great deal about the English and the British character. It is important, at this stage, to differentiate between the two identities, and  to remember that while there may have been a majority Leave vote, the vote largely reflects a very English sentiment.

That map is from ABC news, here.

“Welsh and Scottish readers are likely to have been offended because I have used the word “England” oftener than “Britain”, as though the whole population dwelt in London and the Home Counties and neither north nor west possessed a culture of its own … It is quite true that the so-called races of Britain feel themselves to be very different from one another. A Scotsman, for instance, does not thank you if you call him an Englishman. You can see the hesitation we feel on this point by the fact that we call our islands by no less than six different names, England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles, the United Kingdom and, in very exalted moments, Albion. Even the differences between north and south England loom large in our own eyes. But somehow these differences fade away the moment that any two Britons are confronted by a European.” 

So Orwell’s understanding of Britain, is that our identity is predicated on who we are different to. I don’t think that this is the only country in the world such an accusation could stick to. However, it is interesting to think about this identity of difference in light of the xenophobic nature of the rhetoric that came out of this campaign. It has been astounding: the lowest point must surely be Nigel Farage’s digusting Nazi-esque poster (which has actually been reported to the police).

This xenophobia is being applied to the working class vote, twinning the two inextricably. It seems to be predicated on the false assumption that a wealthy person could never discriminate on the basis of race or nationality, whereas working class people are indiscriminately racist.

working class vote

Historians have been fighting hard for a long time to develop a more nuanced understanding of identity politics- in this instance, we should all reflect upon the fact that ‘working class’ is not synonymous with either White, or English. There are certainly substantial numbers of working class people in London and in Scotland- two areas that were Vote Remain majority. Equally, it is insulting to believe that, in the multicultural environment of modern Britain, working class people reside solely in rural backwaters, behaving like peasants and speaking Ye Olde English. Working class is a socio-economic term: it is useless to try to apply it, in this country, to white people alone- indeed given the systemic problems of racism and xenophobia in the British economy and job market, it’s difficult to argue that people of colour in Britain and migrant workers (two distinct but sometimes overlapping categories) don’t make up a significant proportion of the British working class.

Orwell’s essay is not particularly intended as an attack on the working classes. It’s actually fairly indulgent of this apparent English xenophobia, portraying it quite romantically as some sort of useful cynicism. The essay is intended, as almost all of his work is, as an attack on the elite class, who make up much of the political class in the UK. Indeed, he explains:

“Only half a million people, the people in the country houses, definitely benefited from the existing system. Moreover, the tendency of small businesses to merge together into large ones robbed more and more of the monied class of their function and turned them into mere owners, their work being done for them by salaried managers and technicians. For long past there had been in England an entirely functionless class, living on money that was invested they hardly knew where, the “idle rich”, the people whose photographs you can look at in the Tatler and the Bystander, always supposing that you want to. The existence of these people was by any standard unjustifiable. They were simply parasites, less useful to society than his fleas are to a dog.”

It’s when he writes most clearly about the problems of his own life and his own time, that we realise that he was not always filled with foresight about what might happen, but filled with fear that things might never change. Indeed, perhaps his words have such impact on us now, because there are some problems that have gotten even worse:

“There is much in England that this explains. It explains the decay of country life, due to the keeping-up of a sham feudalism which drives the more spirited workers off the land. It explains the immobility of the public schools, which have barely altered since the ’eighties of the last century … It must be admitted that so long as things were peaceful the methods of the British ruling class served them well enough. Their own people manifestly tolerated them. However unjustly England might be organized, it was at any rate not torn by class warfare or haunted by secret police.”

Perhaps this is naive – it’s certainly not the Done Thing to state, in simple terms, the nature of the class system as it applies in the UK and to suggest that it might still be impacting on us. It’s certainly frowned upon to have faith in the potential transformative power of class politics in Britain. But perhaps we need a bit of naivety and simplicity, in the face of the fear, corruption, and culture of lies inherent in the EU referendum campaigns.

This referendum has been a shock, regardless of how you voted. Despite what is happening to the Labour Party, I can only hope that it becomes an opportunity for the Left in this country to work in unity- a Left with room for discussions of class, and identity politics, and fear. A Left that is not made up of a political class, but is varied, representative, and useful. Something to build on. If that’s naive, then perhaps this is a time to turn to Orwell for a rare bout of optimism:

“”England is a family with the wrong members in control. Almost entirely we are governed by the rich, and by people who step into positions of command by right of birth…

…The nation is bound together by an invisible chain. At any normal time the ruling class will rob, mismanage, sabotage, lead us into the muck; but let popular opinion really make itself heard, let them get a tug from below that they cannot avoid feeling, and it is difficult for them not to respond.”

Many thanks, as usual, to Pixabay for open access images. You can read The Lion and the Unicorn online, through the Orwell Prize website.


3 thoughts on “Orwell, Nationalism, Brexit and Historical Foresight – An editorial, post-referendum.

  1. I found your article very interesting as a former socialist, someone who is interested in class and the political views of Orwell. I personally voted leave but more out of fear of a totalitarian society and globalisation. I believe a small portion of the working class in this country can be xenophobic but there is a large mass of the working class population who are extremely tolerant to immigration who more concerned with the pace of change. If the population of Japan suddenly changed places with China. Would that make the Japanese suddenly Chinese? or the Chinese suddenly Japanese? The answer is no – it takes at least a couple of generations for people to suddenly feel part of a national identity. I should know as I’m married to the daughter of a Spanish immigrant who was born in this country but still classes herself as half Spanish. I believe people in this country realise that change needs time to breathe and let the the dust settle. You’re right about the need for the left in this country to change as well though – they need to have honest conversations with their old heartlands, otherwise a potential hard right future is all we have in front of us.


    1. Thank you for your comment- it’s always interesting to hear about other people’s perspectives when talking about identity politics.
      It’s so difficult to talk broadly about identities, which are actually so personal, so I’m glad to hear your thoughts (esp. from a fellow Orwell enthusiast).


  2. Thanks for the reply. Something else to consider regarding Orwell’s view point. He was writing in a time when the working class rarely travelled abroad on holiday and in a time of very little immigration. Since the second world war the working class have been exposed to a steady influx of immigration in most communities. So I’m not sure his claims of xenophobia have as much weight now.

    Liked by 1 person

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