2007 - 2021

George Orwell and Britain’s Constitutional Crisis

Eric Arthur Blair, or George Orwell as he is more commonly known, is a paradoxical figure. He was the author of two pretty wooden novels (Animal Farm and 1984) which nonetheless had a tremendous impact and influence on society and are still widely read today. An Eton-educated scholarship boy, Orwell was also something of a snob according to many accounts, but a snob who unquestionably devoted a great deal of his life to fighting for the working class, the poor and the cause of social justice.

Paradoxical too is Orwell being credited with having spoken out against nationalism, even though he also wrote one of the most famous essays in the English nationalism canon, “The Lion And The Unicorn”, where he pays tribute to the English “genius” whose most distinctive feature he declares to be “gentleness”, before reeling off a number of his most cherished features of English life. John Major’s much ridiculed “old maids on bicycles and warm beer” speech from back in the 90’s is basically a rehash of Orwell’s “solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar boxes” from that same essay which dates from the darkest year in British history, 1940. Orwell goes on to add: “Above all it is your civilization, it is you. How ever much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it… Good or evil, it is yours, and you belong to it.” England that is. So much, then, for George Orwell the anti-nationalist…

Returning to him at this time of profound crisis in British democracy – Orwell is the nearest thing to a public intellectual figure 20th Century England produced, along with the philosopher Bertrand Russel – what is striking is just how much he is associated with anti-totalitarianism and anti-nationalism these days, and just how overlooked his commitment to Social Democracy has become, almost elided out of existence in fact.

In his writings, Orwell continually points to two distinctive dangers for the free-thinking individual of independent mind who constitutes the backbone of democracy and a human rights-based society: the totalitarian State on the one hand, and the monopoly of power, wealth and the media in capitalist society on the other.

These are the twin dangers, the twin sources of propaganda and doublethink, and both were uppermost in Orwell’s mind when he was writing. While the dangers of the former are mentioned frequently in the UK press, the concentration of media power and wealth in the hands of the few is rarely if ever touched upon. This tells you all you need to know about the times we live in, about the political and media establishment which have served us up the calamity of Brexit, and the people with a penchant for quoting George Orwell all of the time.

With public support for the UK remaining in the EU overturned in a nightmarish 2016 referendum campaign characterized by lies, dirty money, illegitimate campaigning tactics (Cambridge Analytica), and even the murder of a Remain MP, the late Jo Cox, the blame which lies with the English media and its thirty year propaganda war of attrition against the European Union cannot be over-stressed. The London media is very much to blame. It has got what it always wanted in Britain leaving the EU, but has it always wanted what it now has got? Which is to say, an unprecedented constitutional crisis, political paralysis, economic stagnation and what looks like the now seemingly inevitable break-up of the UK?

All too many of the UK’s leading Remain politicians also need to take their share of the blame for cravenly refusing to stand up to cheap, jingoistic anti-EU sentiment when it needed to be outfaced, like former PM Gordon Brown who shamefully called for “British jobs for British workers” when he needed the votes, and infamously – at least in Europe is it still remembered – snubbed twenty-seven European Heads of Government when he failed to attend the public ceremony for the signing of the Lisbon Treaty in December 2007.

Brown is ever present in the UK media of late, arguing against Brexit, yet he clearly played a role in Brexit having come about in the first place, placating the Brexit mob when he could have done much more to fight back against a campaign of outright lies and shameless propaganda. After all, for a few bumbling and forgettable months, he was the British Prime Minister. That Brown is now selling himself as a champion of Remain, and referencing George Orwell with it, is just too much to bear. Almost any mainstream politician who quotes George Orwell ought to be immediately distrusted, and the fatuous Gordon Brown, who famously claimed to have abolished boom and bust, more than most.

The fact of the matter is that with a truly free and diverse press, we would surely not be in this current Brexit mess. Such a press can only come about if guaranteed by parliamentary legislation, and by subsidizing, if so required, the critical, popular writing Orwell himself produced. It seems obvious to me – it would have seemed obvious to Orwell too I think – that a society which has such huge concentrations of wealth and power as the UK does today – a circumstance perpetuated by the private schools (which Orwell wanted abolished) low or non-existent inheritance tax, chronically underfunded public services, and tax havens for the rich, to name just a few of our ills – cannot by definition have a fair, diverse and balanced press.

Social democracy is the key to a plural society, and always has been: the clue is in the name. If you fail to legislate for a socially diverse society and instead entrench class differences as in Britain, one of the most unequal countries in Europe today, you will destabilize democracy by concentrating too much power in too few hands. This is precisely what happened in the calamitous 1930’s when Orwell was writing, and to a large extent it is why he believed in Social Democracy. It is also what has happened in Britain over recent decades and, I believe, explains to a large extent the folly of Brexit.

If it is in the essay form where Orwell is at his best, the essays themselves are a somewhat mixed bag. “Inside The Whale” is an interesting enough account of how Orwell, en route to Spain, found his way to becoming a political novelist – at least that is one reading of it – through meeting the American writer Henry Miller in Paris, who told him that only an idiot would go to fight in the Civil War in Spain. Miller’s outlook as an artist was that of a passive spectator of events, a Jonah inside the whale of History, which is where the essay’s title comes from. Orwell presciently saw what was new in the nihilistic, life-affirming, Miller – a writer to whom the wandering Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi seems indebted – and for his own novels, headed in precisely the opposite direction.

“Notes on Nationalism”, on the other hand, is a muddle-headed and confused essay, deficient in its terminology to the point that it comes close to mumbo-jumbo. Orwell’s definition of nationalism – a term which he concedes is inadequate for what he is trying to convey – includes Catholicism, the Soviet Union, Nazism, Pacifism, Scottish Nationalism, Welsh Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, Zionism, and Trotskyism, though not English imperialism, even if it ought to be added that Orwell did support India’s right to self-determination and would surely have supported the same right for Scotland today, according to any fair-minded reading of his work.

In his much quoted “Notes”, Orwell contrasted “aggressive nationalism” with patriotism, which he defined as a “devotion to a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is by nature defensive, both militarily and culturally.” This back in 1945, when the Empire was four centuries old and British rule was finally coming to an end in around one third of the planet…

The expression Orwell was looking for can only be what we now call the fundamentalist or totalitarian mindset, and it seems odd that a man who knew totalitarianism better than most was unable to put his finger on it at the time. In any case, what is important to realize is that what Orwell was denouncing in “Notes on Nationalism” was a mindset and way of thinking, which he called “nationalism”, more than any particular cause – though his focus throughout this period is particularly on the totalitarian thinking of British intellectuals who supported the Soviet Union – and, equally, almost any political cause is susceptible to the mindset Orwell correctly identified.

In any case, the hard Brexiters / No Dealers – which is to say, the current UK cabinet – would clearly fit into one of the “nationalism” categories which Orwell chose to call “Neo-Toryism” in his essay, the defining characteristic of which is “the desire not to recognize that British power and influence have declined.” Though again, it ought to be said, the correct word for what Orwell calls Neo-Toryism would be English Nationalism, no more, no less. But Orwell doesn’t seem to have even contemplated that English nationalism might exist, not even as a political concept.

In any case, his essays do provide some clues to understanding just how the British public was duped into voting the country poorer, more isolated and culturally impoverished back in June of 2016 by a band of unscrupulous, public schoolboy toffs with a variety of life experience similar in range to the common tadpole in the pond of the local park. In “The Prevention of Literature” Orwell states that “Political writing in our time consists almost entirely of prefabricated phrases bolted together like the pieces of a child’s Meccano set.” Some such examples of pre-fabricated phrases – deadly to critical thinking and a vibrant democratic society – which have dominated the news headlines over the last three years would be the vapid and illusory “take back control” (over what and for whom?), “Brussels bureaucrats” (as if there were no bureaucrats in Britain) “global Britain” (as if we didn’t already trade globally, and what about all those carbon emissions and airmiles anyway?), “EU Super State” (Brussels is not even a State, it is a bureaucracy or an administration) and even the term Brexit itself, which sounds like something easy, racy, and snappy, as painless as walking through an open door. With the coinage of that slippery term, the pro-Brexit English press already handed a head-start to the Leavers over those in favour of remaining in the European Union.

For the always engaging Will Self, Orwell was a “talented mediocrity” in a country which has always cherished talented mediocrities because they are easy to understand, easy to quote from, and not much of an intellectual threat to anybody. This seems to me to be a correct analysis. Orwell can indeed be just what you want him to be – his writings are often called upon by both the Right and the Left to make a case – and his legacy has been put to use for dubious ends far too often, by people like the late Christopher Hitchens, who comes close to enlisting Orwell for the cause of the illegal war in Iraq.

‘Hitch’ is one of many English writers whose enthusiasm for Orwell amounted almost to an act of appropriation. In fact, Hitchens, whose career saw him cross the political spectrum from the Left to the Neo-Con Right would seem to have had the same mindset which Orwell particularly distrusted. In his Notes on Nationalism, Orwell points out that one of the characteristics of the fanatical or totalitarian mindset is changing from one cause to another (indifference to reality is another one) as Christopher Hitchens did so publicly, becoming as intransigent a Neo-Con as he had earlier been a champion of the Left. If the 21st Century has taught us anything, it is that the fight against evil dictatorships is just as liable to fall victim to the totalitarian, fanatical mindset as any other noble cause. See Tony Blair for further details.

As a writer of novels, Orwell is generally agreed to be lame and pretty weak, and if he is so well known and so widely read, it is because he wrote in a language as transparent as a pane of glass. That might be considered a virtue for the historian, or the essayist which Orwell essentially was, but for a novelist it can hardly be considered a compliment. There is a world of difference between the opening pages of Henry Miller’s seminal and still vibrant “Tropic of Cancer (“Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God. This then? This is not a book. This is… a prolonged insult, a gob or a spit in the face of Art”) and the wooden, puerile opening of Orwell’s 1984It was a bright, cold day in August, and the clocks were striking thirteen” which sounds like something out of a childish nursery rhyme.

All of this said, there seem to me to be two things in which Orwell was indeed an exceptional man: one is his courage and his bravery, both physical and intellectual, in standing up to power and enduring physical hardship. The other is his thirst for experience and his taste for adventure.

Orwell, after all, actually went to Spain to fight Fascism, lambasted the British elite who had appeased Hitler, and was also unsparing with Stalinism and the pro-Soviet Union English intellectual circle of the 1930’s which included the Auden Group. He made plenty of enemies, and he was always a bit of an outsider. Furthermore, something which is usually bestowed by chance or fate on certain individuals, in Orwell’s case was actively sought out: he made sure he was in the right place at the right time when History was being made, and he knew how to turn that to his account. He was, at the very least, honest, brave, effective and highly perspicacious, and all in aid of the right cause, and at precisely the right time when democracy needed a writer like him most. As a figure, it seems to me, he will always be important to any democrat, much more than he actually is as a writer.

Orwell’s unflinching intellectual bravery was such that he devoted most of his life after the Spanish Civil War to denouncing one of the factions – Soviet Communism – which had been fighting on the same side as him, without ever reneging on his decision to go to Spain to stand against Fascism in a war which was merely the prelude to the Nazis overrunning Europe. As Orwell himself expressed it in “Why I Write” about his time in Spain: ·Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism”.

To see people like Gordon Brown and Ruth Davidson quote Orwell for their own political ends is an absolute travesty of the man and his ideas; it is not more partial and tendentious quotations of Orwell from our politicians that we need, but more of the free-thinking, active, unflinching independent writing which Orwell championed. The democratic well-being of our society depends upon a vigorous free press, including television, radio and the internet. If it has to be funded by the State, then so be it. It would be a cheap price compared to the one we now have to pay for leaving the European Union, the billions Britain will lose for allowing too much media power to accumulate in too few hands.

The BBC, an anachronism in the 21st Century, should be broken up, and the license fee distributed to a variety of different news outlets to create a vigorous, diverse media space. The BBC too has played its part in the constitutional crisis we are now facing in Britain today, it too is to blame for the Brexit fiasco. The BBC has failed the country, never missing an opportunity to invite Nigel Farage onto political shows like Question Time in the years before the June 2016 referendum, allowing him and UKIP airtime far in excess of the support they enjoyed, failing to properly scrutinize the arguments of the Brexiters again and again.

Perhaps too, thinking about Orwell and Social Democracy, and looking at what has happened to Britain since Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 and decreed the end of society, ringing in the age of unfettered greed and heedless individualism, Britain leaving the EU was always just a question of time.

For one of the declared founding principles of the EU is, after all, solidarity between European nations. And why care about that when British governments over forty years have ordained that what is important in life is getting on, working hard, buying a house and earning money? Such a narrow, blinkered self-seeking, self-serving, and fundamentally selfish view of human society was always doomed to failure, a failure which has now come to pass. For whatever happens over the next few weeks and months, Britain is a broken democracy, and a whole era is surely coming to an end.

As for leaders of other EU countries, the ones where the Far Right are still not in power that is, they could do worse than read Orwell on Social Democracy, power and the capitalist media if they want to preserve the European Union, a project which, let’s not forget, came into being and flourished at the same time as European Social Democracy itself, and which, not uncoincidentally, has entered stormy waters on abandoning that model for the short-term hit of neoliberal gain.

As the refugee rescue boat the Open Arms sails around the Mediterranean with 140 desperate refugees on board, and no port willing to let it land, solidarity, the very principle the European Union was founded on by its creators, is nowhere to be seen, and without that principle being respected, the EU will not survive. I think we all know what George Orwell would have said about that.











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  1. Chris Ballance says:

    Yes to all of that, contradictions and all. but surely one of his greater achievements is his work on how language influences thought, rather than vice versa. The essay Politics and the English Language, with its insistence on clarity of language and metaphor, should be read by any would be writer of anything, political writing in particular. And the thesis of 1984, that whoever controls the language we use, controls our thoughts, was itself an important discovery.

    1. Alan says:

      I’d also recommend Freedom of the Press, the proposed Preface to Animal Farm.

      The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news — things which on their own merits would get the big headlines-being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

  2. Jack collatin says:

    It cost me 2s and 6d, half a crown, the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Animal Farm, sub titled ‘A Fairy Story’.
    It is the 1967 print, and as chance would have it, it is sitting atop my printer as I read Douglas Stuart Wilson’s current take on Orwell, his writing, and its influence on modern political discourse.
    I was 20 in the summer of ’67, but had been reading Orwell since, say, ’63, at school, under the desk of course, in well thumbed copies which did the rounds.

    Our English Literature at the time included Lamb’s Essays of Elia, and Addison and Steele’s Roger De Coverley Papers.
    ‘Barnaby Rudge’, ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’, and ‘David Copperfield’, and an ‘abridged version’ of Shakespeare’s Big Hitters, ‘Hamlet’, ‘Macbeth’, ‘Twelfth Night’, and ‘Julius Caesar’.
    Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats.
    History was almost exclusively English History; I can still name the members of the CABAL.
    And Latin, and Greek of course, without the sex, incest, and the unchallenged assumption that violent acquisition, betrayal, and mighty Empires like Rome and Britain were perfectly ‘normal’.
    No, I didn’t attend a Boarding School in Sussex.
    All this was fed in to our young minds, our young working class minds, in a ‘Senior Secondary’ in Dumbarton.
    We were being conditioned to be the Next Generation to act as a Buffer Class between those above in the ‘pecking order’ (how very ‘animal Farm’), the Top Tier of an ancient hierarchy, which still survives to this very day, and the mass hordes threatening Revolution.
    The works of Orwell, Miller, the Angry Young Men (and Women), were Banned Books, under-the-counter reactionary anti Establishment Socialist tracts.

    Therefore I got a wee ‘ouch’ when I read:-

    “He was the author of two pretty wooden novels (Animal Farm and 1984) which nonetheless had a tremendous impact and influence on society and are still widely read today. ”

    I have never considered Will Self ‘engaging’, even less so when he re-quotes Chesterton’s ‘talented mediocrity’ jibe.

    “To see people like Gordon Brown and Ruth Davidson quote Orwell for their own political ends is an absolute travesty of the man and his ideas; it is not more partial and tendentious quotations of Orwell from our politicians that we need, but more of the free-thinking, active, unflinching independent writing which Orwell championed.”

    From the author of an Orwell littered piece who must surely see the irony of his observation that quoting Orwell for one’s ‘own political ends is an absolute travesty of the man and his ideas.’

    It may be argued that there would have been no ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’, no ‘Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’, ‘This Sporting Life’, ‘Room At The Top’, ‘The L Shaped Room’, and ‘Up The Junction’, but for the ‘wooden’ efforts of Orwell a decade earlier.
    I had to wait a long time to buy my own copies of Orwell. A Half Crown was a helluva lot of money in the ‘sixties’ for a lad from a housing scheme.
    I still treasure these parchment yellow paged paperbacks to this day.

    They’re closing libraries and Community Centres these days.
    Attack that rather than take cheap shots at the man who led us on the Road to Wigan Pier.

    1. Jack collatin says:

      Such is my rankle, I hunted down an example of the Imperial Toss we were fed in the ‘sixties by school masters who surely knew what they were doing.

      “Sunday In The Country
      Joseph Addison in The Spectator.

      I am always very well pleased with a country Sunday, and think, if keeping holy the seventh day were only a human institution, it would be the best method that could have been thought of for the polishing and civilizing of mankind. It is certain the country people would soon degenerate into a kind of savages and barbarians, were there not such frequent returns of a stated time, in which the whole village meet together with their best faces, and in their cleanliest habits, to converse with one another upon indifferent subjects, hear their duties explained to them, and join together in adoration of the Supreme Being. Sunday clears away the rust of the whole week, not only as it refreshes in their minds the notions of religion, but as it puts both the sexes upon appearing in their most agreeable forms, and exerting all such qualities as are apt to give them a figure in the eye of the village. A country-fellow distinguishes himself as much in the Church-yard, as a citizen does upon the ‘Change, the whole parish-politicks being generally discussed in that place either after sermon or before the bell rings.

      My friend Sir Roger, being a good churchman, has beautified the inside of his church with several texts of his own choosing. He has likewise given a handsome pulpit-cloth, and railed in the communion-table at his own expense. He has often told me, that at his coming to his estate he found his parishioners very irregular; and that in order to make them kneel and join in their responses, he gave every one of them a hassock and a common prayer-book: and at the same time employed an itinerant singing-master, who goes about the country for that purpose, to instruct them rightly in the tunes of the Psalms; upon which they now very much value themselves, and indeed outdo most of the country churches that I have ever heard.”

      Is there anyone still alive who can defend this curriculum?
      Orwell was like a beacon. Still is.

      1. Robert R. Calder says:

        One thing I remember well from the English classroom at school was the teaching of J.D. Gatheral, of ANIMAL FARM.
        Wooden it isn’t! Nor is NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR.
        The books we studied were worth reading, though I have to say I didn’t take that much interest
        but it was stirred at times, quite often I think, and some of these times deeply.
        Has the author of the article checked his own work for wormedness?
        It seems to be a succession of projections of the things which might be said, regardless of their respective soundness, or otherwise, congruent with the leading dogma to the effect that Orwell wasn’t all that good. Allow him this, allow him that, all proportioned to a notion of probability founded on general and frequently (see Kahnemann) erroneous notions of plausibility. What does it mean to call someone “plausible”?

      2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

        Jack Collatin,

        We are clearly almost exact contemporaries; I was born in 1947. Your recollections of literature in secondary school in the 1960s chimes with my own, and your personal choices matched many of my own.

        However, I found myself agreeing, in the main with Douglas Stuart Wilson’s essay. I think it is pretty nuanced and, although he identifies a number of negative aspects of Orwell and his work, he ends with a strong acclamation of the man and his courage and his lasting legacies.

        Recently, I have been reading a series of essays on Robert Burns, a commentary on Hugh McDiarmid and a series of articles about Adam Smith. All of these people, were I think in the view of very many through the years, are considered to have made significant changes in the way people think. All are misappropriated by people seeking to use their reputations in the support of their particular points of view. Look at how the Tories and the neoliberals elevated Adam Smith to someone who had ‘told it like it is’, as if he had discovered some law of nature, whereas his insights were very nuanced and he provided, like Orwell, pretty lucid descriptions (in the idiom of his time) of how things were. He was strongly opposed to slavery for example and his “Moral Sentiments” is often ignored for a selective reading of the ‘Wealth of Nations’. Burns could be pretty nasty towards women, but still wrote some timeless poetry and collected a vertitable treasure of songs. McDiarmid was, in his time anazi and a communist and was a pretty querulous (I was once thrown out of Glasgow University Union because I bumped into him by accidents and caused him to drop his whisky: poetic his language was not! However, he debunked the ‘Burns myth’ and sought to re-establish a genuine Scottish language and literature. Like Burns he established a cultural authority.

        I enjoyed Animal Farm and ploughed through 1984, with a fair measure of enjoyment, but, did find it a bit turgid and melodramatic in places and, in later readings, while I felt his warnings were valid, did not find it good fictional writing. He was nowhere near as good a novelist as he was an essayist. I think this has been a good essay on him.

      3. Willie says:

        Interestingly Jack, although I am slightly younger than you, my school in Glasgow included Animal Farm in its curriculum – and I used that novel in my exams.

        Not sure how anybody could call the book wooden. It is a masterpiece. Simplcity and depth combined it is I think a most excellent book to have on the school reading list. That your Dumbarton school did not have it maybe underlines the thinking and mentality of the Dumbarton School Board of the time – or buffer class as you euphemistically called it.

        As area with some of the poorest and most deprived communities in Scotland, the restriction in books may well have contributed to this appealing state of affairs.

        But I digress. You fortunately went out of your way to find books.

        In relation to the piece commenting on the bumbling ex PM Gordon Brown resurfacing over recent weeks in the press I couldn’t agree more about the sentiment applied to him.

        This is indeed the man who ended ” boom and bust”. Well ” prudence Brown ” got found out on that. He’s also the liar who gave us the ” sacred vow ” which quite frankly ain’t to sacred now.

        And now like some monster from the deep he’s back to tell us how good the Union is.

        Best that like his multi millionaire chums like Blair, Mandelson et al that he crawls back into his hole.

        Scotland recognises him for what he is as he promotes our continued servitude under Boris Johnson and his ilk.

        Otherwise and back to Orwell he may have been a man of personal contradiction but he was a genius, and Animal Farm and 1984 were works of particular genius.

        Orwellian in fact to coin the phrase.

        1. Jack collatin says:

          ‘That your Dumbarton school did not have it maybe underlines the thinking and mentality of the Dumbarton School Board of the time – or buffer class as you euphemistically called it.’

          This from Orwell’s ‘The Lion and The Unicorn’.

          “England (sic) is a country in which property and financial power are concentrated in a very few hands. Few people in modern England own anything at all, except clothes, furniture and possibly a house.
          The peasantry has long since disappeared, the independent shopkeeper is being destroyed, the small businessman is diminishing in numbers. But at the same time modern industry is so complicated that it cannot get along without great numbers of managers salesmen engineers chemists and technicians of all kinds, drawing fairly large salaries. And these in turn call into being a professional class of doctors lawyers teachers artists etc., etc.
          The tendency of advanced capitalism has therefore been to enlarge the middle class and not to wipe it out as it once seemed likely to do”

          The ‘buffer class’ to which I phlegmatically referred earlier.
          It was a fact of life.
          We had been separated from the herd at the age of ten or eleven, by means of an intelligence test, and groomed to boost the ‘professional class/middle class’ which ‘advanced capitalism’ required.
          Orwell was writing in the ‘forties of course, and could not have predicted the destruction of English (sic) manufacture, but the ‘buffer zone’ has been beefed up to reinforce the barrier between the ‘few’ and the ‘many’ in Fortress London.
          I hope Douglas Stuart Wilson is happy now.
          I’m a bibliophile/hoarder and have been rummaging through shelves digging out Orwell, the Angry Young Men , and Self.
          No bad thing.

  3. Alan says:

    One can read 1984 as a rewrite of Zamyatin’s WE. Orwell wrote a review of We.

    “It may well be, however, that Zamyatin did not intend the Soviet regime to be the special target of his satire. Writing at about the time of Lenin’s death, he cannot have had the Stalin dictatorship in mind, and conditions in Russia in 1923 were not such that anyone would revolt against them on the ground that life was becoming too safe and comfortable. What Zamyatin seems to be aiming at is not any particular country but the implied aims of industrial civilisation. I have not read any of his other books, but I learn from Gleb Struve that he had spent several years in England and had written some blistering satires on English life.”

    Both Zamyatin and Orwell failed to foresee the full nature of surveillance in the modern state. They didn’t envision to what extent we would be willing participants through our own non-chemical addictions or the efficiency of controlling individuals through population surveillance that electronic networks and databases would make possible. What they describe is not Facebook, Google or Cambridge Analytica. Back in 1977 Foucault already sensed what was emerging :

    “The idea of the panopticon is a modern idea in one sense, but we can also say that it is completely archaic, since the panoptic mechanism basically involves putting someone in the center– an eye, a gaze, a principle of surveillance – who will be able to make its sovereignty function over all the individuals [placed] within this machine of power. To that extent we can say that the panopticon is the oldest dream of the oldest sovereign: None of my subjects can escape and none of their actions is unknown to me. The central point of the panopticon still functions, as it were, as a perfect sovereign. On the other hand, what we now see is [not] the idea of a power that takes the form of an exhaustive surveillance of individuals so that they are all constantly under the eyes of the sovereign in everything they do, but the set of mechanisms that, for the government and those who govern, attach pertinence to quite specific phenomena that are not exactly individual phenomena, even if individuals do appear in a way, and there are specific processes of individualization (and we will have to come back to this, because it is very important). The relation between the individual and the collective, between the totality of the social body and its elementary fragments, is made to function in a completely different way; it will function differently in what we call population. The government of populations is, I think, completely different from the exercise of sovereignty over the fine grain of individual behaviors. It seems to me that we have two completely different systems of power.”

  4. Millsy says:

    As someone who has never read much in the way of ‘political ‘ authors I enjoy reading many of the articles by guest contributors on here who provide their insight into what they think various writers /figures from the past/present had to say about society etc…

    Much more appreciated ( by me ) is the debate that often ensues with posters giving their views on what has been presented in the articles . I am persuaded by some seemingly pertinent point made eruditely , then find this contradicted by another equally vehement and articulate contribution. This is stimulating and educational ( to me ! ).
    Thankfully these debates are usually well-mannered and courteously conducted , often with a pleasing back-and-forth between some posters .
    ( Unlike some of the rather heated and disrespectful remarks which detracted from the highly topical and interesting discussion about Mr Campbell’s ideas about ”getting round ” the D’Hondt voting system for the Scottish Parliament )

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article on Orwell and the discussion ( so far )which followed .
    More of this quality , please !

    1. Jo says:


      Same here so thank you for expressing so well what I was thinking too.

      This thread is an education itself and I was going to post a thank you to all who participated. You’ve done it better!

  5. w.b. robertson says:

    read anything and everything. in my old High school in the 1950s the vast majority of senior pupils were the sons and daughters of Fife miners. we could opt for Latin, French, German, Spanish …even Greek. Today they don`t have the teachers to provide the Classics. we read (and were tittalated ) by Chaucer. today I asked my graduate granddaughter whether she had studied the Canterbury Tales. I might have been asking her about life on the moon. I again urge youngsters – read everything you can lay your mitts on.

    1. Jack collatin says:

      What w.b robertson says.
      Later. Things to do, but will re engage on this anon.
      Yes, ‘We’ influenced Orwell, and he was doubtless influenced by Huxley who admitted being influenced by Wells but denied having heard of Zamyatin. (Aye,right).
      That’s how this marvellous muse works.
      Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land…
      I too was born in 1947 , Alasdair, and struggled through Chaucer at school: The bawdy bits were abridged mind, though, but.
      A plus, mes braves.

      1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

        Jack Collatin

        Our ‘English Parnassus’ had bits of Chaucer, such as ‘Chanticlere and Pertelot’. and “The Nonne Preeste’sTale’, but Anderston PublicLibrary had the full Canterbury Tales, which allowed me to see the ‘bawdy bits’. The Librarian raised her eyebrows and shook her head, but she let me take it out!

        WB Robertson,

        Those of us of secondary school age pre-1970 had to sit the ‘Qualy’ and if we ‘passed’ then we went to the Senior Secondary. The Qualy was designed to select the ‘top 35%’ and those of us who passed received a fairly rich curriculum as you have described, but it was also deficient in some aspects. Generally, our schools were well-staffed. For those sent to Junior Secondaries (65%) the curriculum was far narrower and the staffing levels were poorer and often contained a fair proportion of ‘uncertificated’ teachers. It was not unknown – in Glasgow anyway – there was a long-term absence of a specialist teacher in a senior secondary for a teacher from a junior secondary to be transferred in even if there was no qualified replacement for the JS post.

        I taught for nearly 40 years in various comprehensive secondaries in and around the Glasgow area and was Head Teacher of three. It is my opinion that the comprehensive system has been able to provide at least as high standards and has provided a much more broad and balanced curriculum than ever the SS/JS system did. One of the resons why we have many more better qualified young people is that there are more better educated mammies around. Social prejudice and family economics often meant that many able girls were denied the kind of education that they ought to have had. My mother and mother-in-law were paradigm examples. Fortunately despite working from an early age – 14 in my mother’s case, 12 in my mother-in-law’s – they continued to read widely and when they had their children, they made sure they made the most of the educational opportunities that were denied them.

        1. Jack collatin says:

          Some would observe that we come across as a bunch of old septuagenarians gathered around a pot bellied stove, spitting on the hot pale and watching it sizzle, which of course we are.
          I’d venture that we could step back from the debate, and let younger heads lead the charge, but somehow we don’t.
          I’ve been out for a few jars with the Rat Pack during which we swilled fine beer and whisky and sung songs of insurrection and change.
          It’s Tuesday night, but we ancient fogies can do this.
          We’ve put in the hours, and provided for our old age; so far.
          Good night, all who care about Scotland, and its citizens.
          Thank you for your thought provoking article, Douglas.
          I may have more to say come the dawn.
          And so to bed.

          1. Jack collatin says:

            ‘hot plate’, even.
            Thank the Chief for malt whisky.

  6. florian albert says:

    Douglas Stuart Wilson writes about Orwell’s ‘commitment to Social Democracy’ and that he ‘believed in Social Democracy.’
    Later, he – correctly – quotes Orwell as saying that everything he wrote was in favour of ‘democratic Socialism’.

    He writes as though social democracy and socialism are one and the same thing. They are not. Social democracy involves the continuation of a capitalist economy while socialism involves its replacement. Orwell was in favour of the latter. I am not sure if he ever used the phrase ‘social democracy.’
    (Whether democratic Socialism was/is achievable remains an open question. I tend to agree with Kolakowski that it is as feasible as fried snowballs.)

  7. SleepingDog says:

    I am (and have been for some time) part-way through a collection of Orwell’s political writings. It is striking how many reviews and letters (to newspapers) are included. It seems that Orwell was for a period engaged in long-running public conversations, trying out various ideas, critiquing trends, and so forth. Some of which may have been more provocative or playful than others. He does not come over as political theory-builder so much as a commentator. Therefore it is not so surprising that there is such a variety of quotes available.

    And surely the clocks striking 13 would send a chill down every English Europhobe’s neck: the imposition of a Continental 24-hour clock! Decimalization and metrication cannot be far behind! Sterling replaced by the Euro! The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse stalk the Land! Masterly grasp of the fabulous form.

  8. John Monro says:

    I enjoyed this post, thank you, even as your treatment of Orwell seemed just a bit sour. Funnily enough, I’m 72 years old but only recently read 1984 for the first time. To say I enjoyed it would not be truthful, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite so depressing. I think that depression was magnified by the times we now live in, in which the sickening parallels are all too evident, as discussed in your post today. I saw nothing bad about the writing. I think he wrote sparingly and clearly – after all one of his major contributions to political and social debate is his understanding of the power of language, in particular, the power of the misuse of language. 1984’s opening line has achieved the status of one of the great literary opening lines. I also read his book about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, which was an exciting read, and I recall no traces of snobbery, though I did note that his wife was barely mentioned in the story, despite the fact she probably saved his life. It wouldn’t be surprising if Orwell has some sort of ambivalence to the British / English empire, having been a colonial policeman in Burma, but who came to question his and the nation’s need to be there. As for Will Self’s critique, I just have to admit I don’t actually understand it. He seems to be criticising Orwell’s writing for its simplicity and the strictures which Orwell imposed on himself in his writing. Because of this he is an “English Mediocrity”, another in a long line of such mediocrities. If this were really true, why then this page and why all the debate, why the quoting, why the words and phrases and ideas that have incorporated themselves into the English lexicon, of which even his name is now part? That’s an honour given to very few indeed. His writing was the product of a searching mind and a colourful existence, and if he couldn’t always find the exact way to express his thoughts, which of us can claim that we can for ours? “Lame and weak” seems uncharacteristically churlish to me, and there are many other opinions out in there in the cloud rather more favourable to Orwell and his literary merits.

    I now live in NZ, I emigrated from Northumberland in 1986, having married a NZ girl who wanted to go home. But my rosy tinted glasses of nostalgia make me very upset by what is happening in the UK; that the UK is now governed by a clique of right-wing extremist rogues, liars and chancers and that the UK population has been persuaded to support them by the cynical and anti-democratic press and by a duplicitous and biased BBC. Orwell indeed would have something to say about it; he’s long since dead, but his principles remain and can still be usefully employed.

    I have to say you are lucky to live in Scotland. You have the chance to divest yourselves from the toxic environment of Westminster and forge a better future, so don’t you dare fail to do so. The large number of good humane English people are going to have a difficult time, if the next general election reinforces Boris’s hold on power. Prepare for an influx of English refugees and good people.

    1. Jack collatin says:

      Hemingway, who gave us ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’, his Spanish Civil War Novel published in 1940 was credited by Alan Sillitoe for his own short simple sentences in ‘Loneliness’ and other short stories, and Hemingway was famous for writing ‘sparingly and clearly ‘, q.v., the Nick Adams short stories.
      Orwell may have been influenced by the crispness and brevity of Hemingway, the war correspondent, the recorder of facts and events, stories told without too many adverbial or adjectival phrases to pad out the storyline.
      Perhaps this is what prompted Self and Chesterton to accuse him of mediocrity and ‘woodenness’?
      This from Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language”:-

      “What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”

      I’d argue that Orwell knew what he was doing when he wrote 1984 and Animal Farm.
      Clear fresh short images, with ‘ugliness’ that was unavoidable.

  9. Douglas Stuart Wilson says:

    Thanks to everybody for the links and these informative and impassioned comments which have added so much to the original article.

    Jack Collatin, especially to you for your feisty, no-holds barred defence of George Orwell the novelist. That’s the way I like it, Jack.

    I think people, particularly young people, should read Orwell, of course they should. I remember reading his novels at school and thoroughly enjoying them. Also the essays when I was maybe 18 or 19 and thinking that they were great. But that is one of the perks of being young, the tendency is to overrate things and be enthusiastic – lucky people!

    Now I am middle-aged and have read far more than was strictly necessary in retrospect, and I don’t see how anybody can seriously rate Orwell the novelists, though he is always on those lists of the best 100 novels. He is a very popular author.

    I also think the essays are overrated too, pretty patchy at times, pretty incoherent at others, and sprinkled with the odd bizarre idea – like Catholics not making good novelists for example. Which is hilarious…

    No doubt that compared to Jack Collatin’s somewhat stuffy classroom reading list Orwell felt like a breath of fresh air.

    But by the time Orwell was writing, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, D.H Lawrence, and in Scotland, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, to name just a few better novelists than George Orwell, had not only all published, they were all dead and buried…… and in America, Hemingway and Scott F Fitzgerald were already past their prime.

    Can anybody seriously argue that Orwell the novelist was anywhere near as good as any of the above mentioned? I don’t think he is even comparable. And there is nothing original about writing a fable using animals, which is as old as literature itself – Orwell would have read Aesop’s fables – nor a dystopian novel about the future.

    The great novel about totalitarianism is “The Trial” by Kafka. a man who wrote it before the term had even been coined and before the Moscow Trials even.

    It contains several different readings and has generated a huge critical response. Nobody can be entirely sure quite what it means, or why Joseph K is being processed by the State, why he is on trial. Unlike Orwell, it contains the essence of the totalitarian nightmare in its first line: “Somebody must have been telling lies about Joseph K, because one fine day, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested….”

    Orwell’s novels, on the other hand, have no complexity or depth. They are what they are, two dimensional and transparently obvious. They are vehicles for his message and are bloodless or lifeless, or so it seems to me. Maybe that’s a better way of putting it than “wooden”.

    That said, while my appreciation of Orwell the novelist and essayist has diminished over the years, my admiration for him as a human being has increased almost in equal proportion. He was, I think, essentially a witness, and he has all the qualities of a witness: courage, honesty, reliability, little or no self-regard, selflessness..

    I think as a man, he’s a bit of a hero, and as a writer, a bit of a dud… it took immense courage to stand up in 1945 and condemn the Soviet Union which was then Britain’s ally in a heroic war of resistance against the evil of Nazism. There is a great amount to admire in Orwell the man.

    Lord knows we could really do with someone with his honesty, courage and clarity of thinking today…


    1. Jack collatin says:

      We could go on and on agreeing to disagree, agreeing to agree, and tossing literary giants at each other over the fence until we are buried up to our necks in the giants of literature and polemics.
      1984 is not Ulysses, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is not I,Robot.
      I enjoyed the can o’ worms which you prised open, and My Everlovin’ laughed out loud when she came home and spotted the leaning tower of Penguins beside the PC.
      She got it immediately.
      Thanks for a stirring piece.
      We are about to enter the most turbulent era in peacetime since the Depression.
      I have unearthed my 1967 print of 1984, which cost 3s6d. ( seventeen and a half pence.)

      My last lift, honest.

      ‘For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes.
      When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden in the recesses of the building’.
      Our Dead Tree Scrolls have memory holes.
      Fake news?


      1. Douglas Stuart Wilson says:

        Thanks to you, Jack, for engaging and I’m glad to have stirred it up a bit.

        My final word on Orwell would be: he wrote the books that he had to write… maybe it’s not so important that they weren’t great books (in my opinion), but they were certainly the books that George Orwell, or Eric Blair, needed to write and was born to write…

        Maybe that’s the most important thing for a writer, and all other literary ambitions are just a waste of time and so much hot air….

        Slainte, mo charaid…

  10. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Many thanks to Douglas Stuart Wilson for this enjoyably thoughtful article.

    My 1960s secondary school was not far from Jack Collatin’s Dumbarton (comment 11:50 am). Nor was our English literature provision far removed from his (or from that of Alasdair Macdonald, 2:11 pm).

    It dawned on me in 4th or 5th year that we were being extricated from Scottish language, literature and thought. I had discovered and started reading MacDiarmid, Tom Scott, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Henryson, Dunbar etc at home. My personal reading of George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ at that time crystallized for me what was at stake.

    In the first comment on this thread Chris Ballance writes:

    “And the thesis of 1984, that whoever controls the language we use, controls our thoughts, was itself an important discovery.”

    The following words of Orwell imprinted on me as a teenager, and I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that they changed my life by fixating me on the link between language and consciousness (and thus leading me eventually to my preoccupation with Scottish and Irish Gaelic):

    “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.” (George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Harmondsworth, 1968, pp. 241-2.)

    Douglas Stuart Wilson adds (6:39 am):

    ‘The great novel about totalitarianism is “The Trial” by Kafka. […] Unlike Orwell, it contains the essence of the totalitarian nightmare in its first line: “Somebody must have been telling lies about Joseph K, because one fine day, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested….”’

    It will be no surprise that it gives me great satisfaction here to be able to quote that opening sentence of Kafka’s book from the 2017 Irish translation by Risteárd Mac Annraoi:

    “Ní foláir nó bhí duine éigin ag insint bréag faoi Joseph K mar, cé nach raibh aon rud as an tslí déanta aige, gabhadh é maidin amháin.”

    (‘An Triail’ le Franz Kafka, leagan Gaeilge le Risteárd Mac Annraoi, 2017)


    1. Jack collatin says:

      I think that we have all been pushing against Douglas’ open door here, enjoying the craic, so to speak.
      Language is everything, on the various levels of artistic merit discussed on this site.
      I’d argue that there is a PHD to be earned in postulating that Arthur Miller, like many others, was inspired by Kafka to produce great literature with a ‘message’.
      The death of salesman Willy Loman and his family’s ‘metamorphosis’ may have been inspired by salesman Gregor Samsa’s slow agonising transformation from breadwinner to giant insect ‘vermin’, and his family’s subsequent reaction to his Crack Up (q.v., Scott Fitzgerald).
      Joseph K’s Trial may have sparked something in Miller to write ‘The Crucible’, a condemnation of the McCarthy ‘witch hunts’.
      I agree whole heartedly; language is everything.
      We are in the midst of the latest Great Struggle between Laissez Faire Free Market Capitalism and the Collectivism of the Social Democratic model.
      The ‘few’, and the ‘many. (Orwell’s ‘proles’.)
      Hayek versus Keynes, or whatever.
      The Road to Scotland’s Self Determination cannot be reduced to an In or Out of the UK/EU choice.
      The Hackerie of the Dead Tree Scrolls and Broadcasters would love that
      We are much more eloquent than that.
      That we can tap in to a canon of work to draw analogies to the Boris New World and insert apposite quotes into our discussions is a mighty tool in our armoury.
      If Miller can do it, so can we, the scribblers of this world.
      Slainte, mo charaid…

  11. grafter says:

    Hope to see you all at the march for independence in Aberdeen this Saturday 17th August. Starts Albyn Place 1.30pm. Many thousands are expected. People of Aberdeen have had enough of Barney Crocket and his dysfunctional Labour/Tory administration. Their days are numbered along with the Union Jack which he flies from our Townhouse tower.

  12. The Clincher says:

    “Wooden” novels? They are classics.

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