“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.
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”
“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.