Ignorance is Bliss

“George Orwell believed in the moral power of language and understood the dangers that accompany its corruption”
– [from the Orwell Prize website].
“A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency.”
– George Orwell, May 1945.

Ruth Davidson used the wrong Orwell text in her extraordinary speech to the Orwell Prize (read the full text here). Instead of Notes on Nationalism she should have used 1984, as her party has done more than any over time in Britain to render Orwell’s fictional dystopia into fact.

Quite what the Orwell Foundation, who issued the invitation, thought they were doing inviting a politician who has created their own image through nationalism and who’s own government has taken surveillance measures to unprecedented heights, to talk on liberty and anti-nationalism is not entirely clear.

The party that brought you the Investigatory Powers Bill lecturing you on Orwell. The British politician possibly more than any other who has defined themselves by their Britishness, and regularly issues photographs on top of a tank, draped in a Union Jack, lecturing you on anti-militarist and anti-nationalist Orwell.

Before we go on to look at what she actually said, it’s worth remembering the IPB and what it means, as it has quickly disappeared down the Memory Hole.

The Investigatory Powers Bill (or Snoopers Charter) was introduced by Home Secretary Theresa May in 2016. It was described by Jim Killock, director of the Open Rights Group, as: “the most extreme surveillance laws ever passed in a democracy.”

The bill gave the go-ahead for the state to hack into your personal date, for mass surveillance, for bulk hacking and for the appointment of “Commissioners” to oversee the process. The Investigatory Powers Bill:

  • Forces your Internet Service Provider to keep your Internet Connection Record (ICR) – a list of services and websites you use and when – for 12 months.
  • Obliges communications companies to retain your communications, hand them over when served with a notice, and remove encryption when requested.
  • Creates new rules about who can intercept your communications, ie. who can read your messages.
  • Explicitly legalises intelligence agencies, law enforcement and the armed forces interfering with (ie. hacking) electronic equipment – for example, by covertly downloading the contents of your phone or remotely accessing your computer.
  • Allows security and intelligence agencies to use these powers in bulk to obtain large numbers of data about a large number of people.
  • Create warrants for authorities to examine “Bulk Data Sets” – basically, a lot of people’s personal information – such as medical records and tax histories.

It’s just worth remembering that context before we go on to enjoy Ruth’s talk about “Orwellian-nationalism”.

British Nationalism Does Not Exist

As David Dunn has commented: “Davidson’s insistence that immature nationalism only becomes grown-up patriotism through the prism of the UK is very quintessence of the cringe.” But it is more than that, it represents an invisible nationalism, or Nation Denialism. Britain is so sacred, so special, so revered that it doesn’t actually exist in the same way as other lesser nations.

For Conservatives and Unionists, Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalism exists and is – by definition – divisive and based on hatred.

British nationalism simply doesn’t exist. It cannot exist.

This is a point made repeatedly by John McTernan and others in an attempt to prop-up the idea of the Union as a force for progressive, multinational, internationalist good.

It’s an approach that is ahistorical in terms of the British States imperialist past (including both internal and external colonialism) and also defies the examination of the systematic collapse of the progressive and unifying institutions and ideas that might have backed-up such an idea in the post-war era.

It’s an idea that falls apart in light of the extraordinary outbreak of Anglo-British nationalism witnessed though the Brexit campaign.

On Patriotism

The speech itself is littered with banal straw-men arguments and cute but vacuous statements before careering to some hilariously inept conclusions.

“There’s nothing in my love of dogs that makes me want to rise up against people who prefer cats.”


“There’s nothing in the joy of being a liberated gay woman in 21st century Britain that makes me oppose heterosexual men”

Er, no.

“To be patriotically British does not mean that we must oppose others”.

Well, hang on, actually very recent history demonstrates the exact opposite, that the wave of ‘British patriotism’ is predicated on a xenophobia that will carry us out of Europe and into a British enclave defined by a bizarre exceptionalism and grievance culture. She continues:

“Orwell was writing about nationalism in 1945, at a time when the impact of aggressive nationalism was of a different order to anything we may face today.”

Er, quite, he was referencing the rise of dictator states like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia but on you go anyway…

“And his definition of nationalism was not solely referring to nationhood or attachment to a government – rather nationalism was, in his view, the process of sinking of one’s individuality into a bigger unit: be that a country, or a political ideology or a religion. He defined it as the assertion that this unit should be promoted above all else as inherently virtuous – and that that which was not this unit was without such virtue.”

It’s an enduring myth of Conservative/Unionism that Scottish nationalism promotes itself add being inherently virtuous. It simply doesn’t. It offers the idea that people should run their own country. Nothing more. But the extract she chooses could have been a description of the Brexit campaign, characterised as it was by incredible language about ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ for the nation.

The Memory Hole

Ruth’s passage about John Buchan could be straight out of the Memory Hole. She said:

“Which MP said in his speech to Parliament: “Every Scotsman should be a Scottish nationalist”. Not Alex Salmond, But John Buchan. Author of the Thirty-Nine Steps and a Unionist Party MP for the combined Scottish Universities. He went on to add “If it could be proved that a Scottish parliament were desirable … Scotsmen should support it.”   Thus showing that even in the early days, Unionists could be devolutionists too…”

Well, yes, sort of, except of course that John Buchan (former High Commissioner for Southern Africa, Governor of Cape Colony, colonial administrator of Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, writer for the British War Propaganda Bureau – isn’t the ideal reference point for anti-establishment Orwell – but lets put that to one side) said that just before the Conservative Party spent half a century OPPOSING devolution with all the strength in their wee Patriotic not Nationalist bodies.

Obsession, Indifference to Reality and Superiority

At first when I read the lines quoted about “Obsession, Indifference to Reality and Superiority” I thought that this was the big reveal of the Tory #GE17 manifesto slogan, but no. This was another strand of a bizarre re-working of Orwell prose. She continued:

“Do we submit before this nationalist instinct and the  Either / Or dichotomy which it demands of us? Or do we follow the path of patriotism – where our love of what is ours does not rely upon the ‘othering’ of what is not. Like all great writers, the questions posed by Orwell are timeless. And it seems to me that far from fading over time; this one demands our direct attention now. Whether it is due to the perceived failure of globalisation, or simply the aftershocks of the financial crash, we all know that the nationalist impulse has strengthened once again in recent years. In America, in Britain, in France and all across Europe – we see it. That in order to rise again, others must be put down.”

No-one is being put down by the claim of right for Scotland to elect it’s own government and run it’s own affairs. This is a Unionist myth.

But again we have the conflation of the movement for self-determination in Scotland with Trumpism and the far-right in Europe. That is the implication and Davidson seems to have suffered some sort of political amnesia, but of course Brexit and British Nationalism simply doesn’t (and cannot) exist.

On obsession she writes: “Obsession – tick. We have not heard an awful lot else from the SNP in these last ten years apart from their quest for independence.” Anyone taking a brief glance at Davidson’s own general election campaign material, social media output, press releases or running commentary at First Minister’s Questions will know that it is she who is royally obsessed with the issue.

Perhaps the greatest moment of this bizarre event is where the leader of the Scottish Conservatives aligns herself with the French anarcho-communist Albert Camus.

She ends with a flurry of magnificent irony: “Nationalism,” Orwell wrote, “is power-hunger tempered by self-deception”.

This is post-Ruth at her best, as her new hero George Orwell put it: ““It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”

Ignorance is Bliss.



Comments (27)

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  1. Jim Monaghan says:

    excellent piece

  2. Charles L. Gallagher says:

    What a pity she did not study Orwell a bit more closely and she would have done well to run this speech past an Orwell Scholar before making an eejit of herself – AGAIN.

  3. Alistair Livingston says:

    Or more ridiculous than Orwellian? I have been quoting Lewis Caroll in response to the Tories in Dumfries and Galloway- as in this letter to the local paper.

    Dear Sir
    I am confused. I have had two election leaflets so far, both from the Conservative Party. One is from Theresa May and the other from Alister Jack. Theresa May tells me that I should vote Tory to take back control of our borders, our laws and our money. Alister Jack says I should vote Tory to stop this happening.

    No doubt Mr Jack will say he means Scotland while Mrs May means the United Kingdom. But if it is such a good idea for the United Kingdom to take back control of its own affairs, why is such a bad idea for Scotland to become independent?

    In 2014 we were told that taking back control of our own affairs in Scotland was based on wishful thinking and would lead to economic disaster. Unlike Brexit, which Mrs May opposed in 2016, but now tells me is perfectly sensible and will be an economic triumph.

    Perhaps it will, but it makes Mrs May sound like the White Queen in ‘Alice in Through the Looking Glass’ who could imagine six impossible things before breakfast. Mr Jack is like Humpty-Dumpty in the book who said ‘A word means what I want it to mean, nothing more, nothing less.’

    On reflection then, rather than vote for the Tories’ confused Looking Glass world, sensible voters should support Richard Arkless and the SNP instead.

    1. e.j. churchill says:


      Both sides invoke any number of delightfully alternate petard puncturing.

      My preferences come from Æsop.


      1. Elias Mistraphenestrades says:

        “…sensible voters should support Richard Arkless and the SNP instead.”

        Jibbering manics would vote for the unstable Arkless. Nobody ‘sensible’ would that have met him. No matter how bad the Tories are, Arkless and his band of traitors are always worse.

        Pro-independence people need qualified and upstanding candidates to vote for. There don’t seem to be any.

  4. Blair says:

    Sacred, an anagram of scared. A natural conservative may well be sacred (True Blue). A Tory conservative by contrast only conserves the truth. Natural light reveals Christ in a project. The real truth is Scotland is as important as Israel. SNP & Labour need to be awaken to the wet paint glossing over Brexit. Is it time for Scotlands people to set a new course? We need to vote and be sacred not scared.

  5. Jim Bennett says:

    Excellent piece.

  6. Redgauntlet says:

    Very brave and selfless of you, Mike, to actually wade through the whole speech. I just hope you had your wellies on…

    The kind of daft, confused, mumbo jumbo you might expect from somebody who likes hanging around tanks in their spare time…

    What can you say about our politicians? They’re not the brightest, are they? Obviously with the exceptions which prove the rule…

    But this Ruth Davidson speech sounds like a different category altogether: the rantings of a certifiable lunatic…

  7. Eleanor Ferguson says:

    Ruth Davidson is a nasty piece of work and knows very well that she is talking rubbish, but hopes that most people will accept what she says without thinking, like brain washing people into believing that they are too fed up with voting to grab the chance to escape the Tory nightmare and that having a difference of opinion is divisive.
    We should be all like sheep-or rather turkeys voting for Christmas.
    If only we had an impartial news provider….
    Most people seem to be unaware that Scotland is well regarded in the EU, that there have been marches,and still more to come, in Europe for Scottish independence. There is every indication that obstacles will not be put in our way should we want to rejoin as an independent country.
    No one seems to want to point out that parties other than the SNP will have to toe the Westminster line so they can promise anything they like, it is not going to happen unless it suits the rest of the UK.
    I just hope people wake up and don’t believe all the lies!

    1. Frank says:

      We might rejoin as an independent country but once we have done that we will no longer be an independent country.

  8. e.j. churchill says:

    Mike you need an editor.

    This could have been a powerful 700word piece instead of the microwave popcorn bag of straw men, tu quoques and the sure and certain stable of argumentum ad ______.

    Scottish ‘Civic Nationalism’ is NOT ‘Blut und Boden’ indeed … a distinction with little difference.

    Sean Clerkin is more exemplar than aberration.


      1. e.j. churchill says:

        Informal logical fallacy appealing to hypocrisy.
        “You also”
        ‘And you are lynching Negroes’

        Your piece was a screed, a philippic; more boring & less powerful the longer it droned.

        You need an editor with a box of (virtual) blue pencils.


        1. Thanks e.j – where is your blog so I can learn from you?

  9. IDL says:

    One is struck by the possibility that it is not the message in the speech that matters, and the analysis of what she says. Like so much now, the metamessage is what counts.
    That metamessage is simply the fact of having been invited to speak at this forum as it marks her imediately as acceptable to what is ostensibly an organisation seeking after truth.

    I am not sure what the worst aspect of it is-is it the phoney legitimisation of a Tory, in docile thrall to her dalek leader, aligning herself with a convenient interpretation of the left-swinging Orwell-condemning both nationalism and madness of Stalinist demagoguery, and as the defender of the muddled, if apparently strangely tolerant, fair-playing, dogged independence and individualism of the British, where the right path is arrived at by some mystical quasi (or not so quasi)-religious process, combined with some British common sense- which involves the rejection of the extremes of Nazism and Communism. Never mind that it is convenient cover for a bourgeois sanctimonious, money grubbing hypocrisy that is the reality of post modern Toryism.
    Of course Orwell was a child and product of the empire and his colonial job,on leaving Eton, described by himself, was to make sure that the serial hangings of inconvenient and non-compliant Burmese natives went off succesfully, by sending a minion to pull on the legs of the still wriggling neck-suspended.

    I can well see what she jumps at the chance to speak in this forum , as she is busy propagating that now mythical condition of reasonableness, that comforting cheery, solid upper lip stiffness-this throwback to the past. That Tory message, as we drift into the Brexit decline and its likely consequences, is of course false. That wartime spirit is not an identifiable feature of the current Tories. We need to keep reminding people of the how phoney this Britishness now is, if it was ever real.

    A previous comment is that she was a nasty piece of work but that is possibly a failure to get to grip with the dangers of the ‘marketing’ of Ruth Davidson.
    It’ll take a lot more than a bit of invective to counter it.

  10. Monty says:

    more rubbish has been talked by more Scots in the last four years than in the previous thousand. One lesson has certainly been learned from 1984 in modern Scotland. Distract the people from the standard of services, education etc. with a perpetual ever shifting conflict. It works and maybe the Scottish Tories and SNP are all we deserve but this surely can’t go on for another ten years

    1. Wul says:

      “Distract the people from the standard of services, education etc. with a perpetual ever shifting conflict.”

      Not where I live Monty.

      I hear a daily stream of criticism about the standard of services in Scotland being broadcast nationwide.

  11. bringiton says:

    Ruthless has a PhD in Plumbing (depths that is).
    U turns and brass couplings (the bits that connect the neck to other parts) are her speciality.
    Of course,she only gets attention because HM press and broadcaster promote her as a “viable” alternative to a Scottish government.
    All that is required from Westminster’s representatives in Scotland is to do as they are told and oppose Scottish self determination at all costs.
    She will be toast in Scotland come the next referendum which is why she is now plying her trade south of our border.
    She will,however,discover as many before her have that England is not known as perfidious Albion without good reason.

  12. James Mills says:

    I too waded hip deep in ‘Ruth’s Truth speech’ and , sadly ,that time can never be retrieved . This was nothing but a political broadcast for the Ruth Party / Conservatives masquerading , poorly , as a legitimate tribute to Orwell’s work . She claimed that she didn’t want it to be biased piece of electioneering -then proceeded to do produce that , in spades .
    All that was missing was a tank , with Ruth climbing and on it waving her Union flag .

  13. David Allan says:

    The speech suggests that Patriotism exists only for Brits. Nationalism only exists if you are Scottish and vote SNP.

    What about Loyalism and Unionism and Imperialism being confused with Patriotism .

    For me a disappointing yet predictable speech a poor muddled effort worthy of the extreme British “Nationalist” views we often hear expressed by the divisive yet “patriotic” Ruth.

  14. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    OK. I think I am getting the hang of it.

    George Orwell would almost certainly endorse the likes of this (rather mesmerising) Brexit-promo video, since its pro-British-independence subject-matter makes it undeniably an expression of wholesome “patriotism”:


    On the other hand, Orwell would recoil from the following (admittedly modest) poetic effort, since its pro-Scottish-independence focus cannot but cause it to reek of ignoble “nationalism”:


    George Orwell wrote his novel 1984 on the Island of Jura.
    I saw something about it on tv recently.
    He was in a boating incident by Corryvreckan.
    Himself, his three-year-old son, and two other men
    in this small boat that got caught by strong tides
    and was drawn towards the great whirlpool.
    The outboard motor sheered off and dropped into the sea.
    But they managed to row to a rocky outcrop
    where their boat sank. There they lit a fire
    which was eventually spotted by lobster fishermen.

    We have just lost our referendum on independence.
    Scotland like a boat sinking, as it were,
    in an Orwellian whirlpool,
    in a Corryvreckan of lies.

    Like Orwell himself, though, we were not drowned,
    but landed on a rock higher than the waves.
    And we lit a fire which still burns strong.

    – Gaelic original (“Coire a’ Bhreacain”) on page 9 of free online mag here:

    1. Thanks Fearghas, I had heard a darker account of Orwell’s Jura boating incident.

      Have you read this on the connection between the invention of Newspeak and gaelic? (“The language of resistance: gaelic’s role in community fightback against corporate greed”.)

      “THE haunting brilliance of George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four was his insight that some ideas become literally unthinkable when we lose the language to express them. The point about the continuous redacting of Newspeak, the language of the totalitarian state, was to remove words so that people could no longer imagine certain possibilities of resistance and human freedom.

      He wrote these words, as is well known, in an attic of the farmhouse at Barnhill in North Jura. A typewriter still sits at the desk where he worked, and from the window, there is a magnificent view east to Argyll across the water. He would have been well aware of the relevance of lost language to his crofting neighbours with whom he worked on the hay harvest. When you lose a language, you lose the world view that it encapsulates, and in the case of Gaelic, it is one which challenges some of the most deeply embedded assumptions of modernity such as capitalism and individualism.

      Orwell would have known the importance of language and memory as sources of identity and resilience in the Gaelic island communities around him, but it’s not something the critics comment on; few Orwell scholars have much knowledge of Gaelic and the Scottish west coast, and they have simply described Barnhill as remote and Orwell’s decision to move there as evidence of his eccentricity. They have missed the moments in Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the most influential books of the 20th century, when Gaelic culture must have been in Orwell’s mind.”

      It’s from Madeleine Bunting in the Sunday Herald 2016.

      1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

        Hi Mike,

        Thanks for the intriguing Madeleine Bunting quote. It completes a circle in my head.

        Reading Orwell’s 1984 at home as a teenager in the 1960s was seminal to consolidating my preoccupation with Gaelic thereafter (and indeed with the nature of consciousness). I had become increasingly aware that our secondary school education in West Dunbartonshire was failing to educate us regarding Scottish language or literature (beyond some Burns). The matter was almost literally highlighted for me in an essay for our Higher English class when a particular word I used was underlined in red, with the margin explanation: ‘Scotticism’.

        So to imagine Orwell having Gaelic partly in mind as he penned 1984 is fascinating for me. If you will allow a longish quote from the book, this is the specific passage which spoke to me (and Madeleine Bunting indeed refers to it):

        “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought – that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc – should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and very subtle expression to every meaning that a party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’ or ‘This field is free from weeds’. It could not be used in its old sense of ‘politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’, since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.” – George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (Harmondsworth, 1968, pp. 241-2)

  15. john spreight says:

    Using the Orwell analogy in Animal Farm:

    English Nationalism is good
    Scottish Nationalism is bad

  16. Frank Casey says:

    It had all the qualities of a Wattie Scot apoplogist’s analysis of Burns. Yet another high tory flying false colours.

  17. Frank Casey says:

    It had all the qualities of a Wattie Scot apologist’s analysis of Burns. Yet another high tory flying false colours.

  18. MBC says:

    What was it Goebbels said? If you repeat a lie often enough people will start to believe it?

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