George Orwell, left politics, modern liberals and the BBC

Robert Henderson

The “wrong” type of left wingery

The BBC has refused (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/22/bbc-george-orwell-statue-left-wing) to  accept a statue of their one-time employee George Orwell because  the outgoing director-general Mark Thompson thinks the great political novelist and essayist is “too left wing for the BBC”. Do stop sniggering at the back.

Orwell was indubitably left-wing , being in favour of  widespread state intervention both socially and economically.  Here is some of what  he thought needed to be done  to remedy the ills of English society  from  his long essay The Lion and the Unicorn  which was  published in 1941:

“I. Nationalization of land, mines, railways, banks and major industries.

II. Limitation of incomes, on such a scale that the highest tax-free income in Britain does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to on

 III. Reform of the educational system along democratic lines….. there are certain immediate steps that we could take towards a democratic educational system. We could start by abolishing the autonomy of the public schools and the older universities and flooding them with State-aided pupils chosen simply on grounds of ability… “(Part III  section II http://theorwellprize.co.uk/george-orwell/by-orwell/essays-and-other-works/the-lion-and-the-unicorn-socialism-and-the-english-genius/)

Socialism is usually defined as “common ownership of the means of production”. Crudely: the State, representing the whole nation, owns everything, and everyone is a State employee. This does not mean that people are stripped of private possessions such as clothes and furniture, but it does mean that all productive goods, such as land, mines, ships and machinery, are the property of the State….

However, it has become clear in the last few years that “common ownership of the means of production” is not in itself a sufficient definition of Socialism. One must also add the following: approximate equality of incomes (it need be no more than approximate), political democracy, and abolition of all hereditary privilege, especially in education. These are simply the necessary safeguards against the reappearance of a class-system. Centralized ownership has very little meaning unless the mass of the people are living roughly upon an equal level, and have some kind of control over the government. “The State” may come to mean no more than a self-elected political party, and oligarchy and privilege can return, based on power rather than on money. …(ibid Part II section )

These policies and concepts  would be considered hard left  and risibly impractical  by the modern liberal left,   but there was nothing outlandish or extreme  about such views in 1941.  They were mainstream  politics for the 1940s’ counterparts of those who are today part of the liberal left.   Much of what Orwell saw as necessary to rescue Britain was enacted a few years later when the Labour Party  campaigned in 1945 on a platform of nationalisation and received a massive popular vote by way of endorsement.  The Party  also kept its word with knobs on when in power between 1945 to 1951 when Clem Attlee’s government   carried through what was arguably  the most extensive nationalisation programme ever in an industrialised country with an elected government.  (The major nationalisations were coal, railways, inland waterways,  some  road haulage and passenger transport,  iron and steel,  electricity, local authority  gas providers , Cable and Wireless, Thomas Cook and Son and  the Bank of England.  It also made the large majority of health provision public through the creation of the taxpayer-funded NHS, greatly expanded publicly funded secondary education and put welfare benefits on a modern footing with the sweeping away of the remnants of the old Poor Law regime and its replacement with a system of universal insurance. )

The ideas which the mainstream left embraced in the 1940s survived long after wards.  Large scale nationalisation and state control of much of public life was not considered beyond the Pale until the Labour Party  had lost four  elections and allowed itself to be seduced into accepting globalisation hook, line and sinker  by  Tony Blair in the 1990s. Anyone doubting this should read the 1983 Labour Election manifesto (http://www.labour-party.org.uk/manifestos/1983/1983-labour-manifesto.shtml),   a document which was memorably but incorrectly described as the longest suicide note in history by the  Labour MP Gerald Kaufman.

This manifesto,  apart from laying out considerable further state involvement in industry and areas such as education and training, had two other  very interesting policies: withdrawal from what was then the European Economic Area (now the EU) and protectionist measures to safeguard British industry and commerce.

Withdrawal from Europe was justified by the manifesto because “The next Labour government, committed to radical, socialist policies for reviving the British economy, is bound to find continued membership a most serious obstacle to the fulfilment of those policies. In particular the rules of the Treaty of Rome are bound to conflict with our strategy for economic growth and full employment, our proposals on industrial policy and for increasing trade, and our need to restore exchange controls and to regulate direct overseas investment. Moreover, by preventing us from buying food from the best sources of world supply, they would run counter to our plans to control prices and inflation.” (Ibid Section Britain and the Common Market)

Protection of the British economy was necessary because it was  essential that “ we keep our exports and imports in balance. We must therefore be ready to act on imports directly: first, in order to safeguard key industries that have been seriously put at risk by Tory policy; and second, so as to check the growth of imports should they threaten to outstrip our exports and thus our plan for expansion.” (Ibid Section  A policy for imports).

The interesting thing about the  1983 Labour manifesto is that the Party was still thinking in terms of British politics. They were rejecting the internationalism represented by the EEC;  wanting  British laws to protect British industries and devising purely national economic policies.  They had not yet foresworn  all that the Party had ever stood for by embracing globalism.

Despite the massive Labour Election defeat in 1983 (which, contrary to Kaufman’s gibe,  was largely accounted for by the victory in the Falklands rather than anything in the Labour manifesto),  the Labour Party continued for the better part of  ten years with their view of politics being national not supranational.   Tony Blair, the man  who eventually sold the Labour Party down the ideological river into the chaotic political jungle of globalism,  had rather different ideas in the 1980s. Here are a few choice quotes from the young Blair:

“A massive reconstruction of industry is needed…the resources required to reconstruct manufacturing industry call for enormous state guidance and intervention…”  (The Blair Necessities  p39 1982)

“We will protect British industry against unfair foreign competition.” (The Blair Necessities p39 Blair’s 1983 Election Address)

 “There is nothing odd about subsidizing an industry”. (The Blair Necessities p40 Hansard 1983)

“Political utilities like Telecom and Gas and essential industries such as British airways and Rolls Royce were sold off  by the Tories in the closest thing, post-war, to legalised political corruption. What we all owned was taken a away from us, flogged off at a cheap price to win votes and the proceeds used to fund tax cuts. In fact, it was a unique for of corruption, since we were bribed by  our own money. “ (The Blair Necessities p51 from the News on Sunday, 1 November 1987)

It is difficult  for anyone born after 1980 to understand how different  was  the mainstream received opinion on how politics generally and  the economy in particular should  be organised  before the arrival of Thatcher and her successors.  British politics from 1945 until Thatcher took office in 1979 had been leftist regardless of who was in power. The  appetite for nationalising industries may have waned after the fall of the Attlee government in 1951,  but all British governments after Attlee and before Thatcher accepted, grudgingly or not, the situation created by Attlee. British politics in those years was essentially social democratic.

The idea that the state should take the lead in many areas of economic  life was built into British political life.  Tories as well as Labourites  often saw it as an entirely natural and laudable thing,  for example, a Tory Minister, Harold MacMillan,  was delighted to announce in the mid-fifties that 300,000 council homes had been built in a year and it was taken for granted in the 1950s that Britain would produce  through taxpayer financing  its own military technology  from the most sophisticated fighters to small arms.  There was also a form of political correctness in those years, for the native British working class  fulfilled much the same role in British politics as politically correct protected minorities – ethnic minorities, gays and women – do today, namely , as a  group virtually  beyond criticism by politicians ( see  http://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2012/08/12/the-white-working-class-and-the-british-elite-from-the-salt-of-the-earth-to-the-scum-of-the-earth/).  However, this political correctness had one great difference from that of today:  it was  to do with the large majority of the native population of Britain and a domestic matter untainted  by foreign considerations.  Moreover, there was only one politically correct group vying for attention, not the multifarious sectional interests we have today.

I shall indulge myself with a short personal anecdote to illustrate how different  the political goods of the mainstream left were before the 1990s.  I went up to university in the late 1960s to take a history and politics degree.  The default position for students and staff  (in the university generally, but especially in the politics department) was to be Marxist or at least a strongly attached fellow traveller.  I sat in tutorials and seminars where tutors would describe ideas which deviated from the leftist norm of the  time as fascist crap or some such cheery expletive adorned abuse.  (Just as racist is the left liberal buzz word  of buzz words  today , so was fascist then).  It truly was a different world.

Nationalist not Internationalist

Left wing Orwell  may have been when acting in the social and economic sphere, but he also had an immensely strong sense of nation and valued patriotism as an essential glue for a society:

“Till recently it was thought proper to pretend that all human beings are very much alike, but in fact anyone able to use his eyes knows that the average of human behaviour differs enormously from country to country.” (part 1section I http://theorwellprize.co.uk/george-orwell/by-orwell/essays-and-other-works/the-lion-and-the-unicorn-socialism-and-the-english-genius/)

“One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilization it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it. Hitler and Mussolini rose to power in their own countries very largely because they could grasp this fact and their opponents could not.  (ibid part 1 section I)  

“There is no question about the inequality of wealth in England. It is grosser than in any European country, and you have only to look down the nearest street to see it. Economically, England is certainly two nations, if not three or four. But at the same time the vast majority of the people feel themselves to be a single nation and are conscious of resembling one another more than they resemble foreigners. Patriotism is usually stronger than class-hatred, and always stronger than any kind of internationalism.” (Ibid  part 1 section 3 )

“Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism. It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same. It is the bridge between the future and the past. No real revolutionary has ever been an internationalist.” (Ibid part 3 section III)

Again, his views were reflected in the  Attlee Government  whose members,  with a few exceptions such as the  Marxist  Strafford Cripps, were people  who naturally thought in terms of the British national interest  and for policies which were purely British.  It would never have occurred to the likes of Attlee and Ernest Bevin (both deeply patriotic men in their different ways)  to embrace the idea of free trade with its inevitable diminution  of native British industry and agriculture or to conceive of domestic British politics as a matter for anyone other than the British.

Orwell’s  Englishness

Orwell was very English and admired his country and his countrymen despite their shortcomings as he saw them.  He also placed his thought  consciously on an English base. Throughout his writings, both fiction and non-fiction, his  choice of noun for the United Kingdom is England.    All his novels apart from the first Burmese Days are set in England and very English in tone, even his two great political novels Animal Farm and 1984. Animal Farm is set on what is obviously an English farm and  in 1984 the part of Oceana  which is England, a strange transmuted England  but still a very English land underneath the oddities.

Much of the Lion and the Unicorn is taken up with defining Englishness, for example:

“…there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person. 

“And above all, it is your civilization, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time. The suet puddings and the red pillar-boxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.  (Ibid Part 1 section  I)

Even where there was an aspect of England which he quarrelled with such as  the English class system or the Empire,  Orwell would recognise the ameliorating qualities of Englishness (or occasionally Britishness) in those  aspects . Here he is on the ruling class and the Empire:

“It must be admitted that so long as things were peaceful the methods of the British ruling class served them [the rest of the population] 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. The Empire was peaceful as no area of comparable size has ever been. Throughout its vast extent, nearly a quarter of the earth, there were fewer armed men than would be found necessary by a minor Balkan state. As people to live under, and looking at them merely from a liberal, negative standpoint, the British ruling class had their points. They were preferable to the truly modern men, the Nazis and Fascists. But it had long been obvious that they would be helpless against any serious attack from the outside.” (Ibid Part 1 section  IV)

One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class are morally fairly sound, is that in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed. Several dukes, earls and what-not were killed in the recent campaign in Flanders. That could not happen if these people were the cynical scoundrels that they are sometimes declared to be. It is important not to misunderstand their motives, or one cannot predict their actions. What is to be expected of them is not treachery or physical cowardice, but stupidity, unconscious sabotage, an infallible instinct for doing the wrong thing. They are not wicked, or not altogether wicked; they are merely unteachable. Only when their money and power are gone will the younger among them begin to grasp what century they are living in.” ( ibid part 1 section IV)

Orwell also had a touching belief that a socialist revolution in England would be a most unusual and English affair:

“An English Socialist government will transform the nation from top to bottom, but it will still bear all over it the unmistakable marks of our own civilization, the peculiar civilization which I discussed earlier in this book…

 It will not be doctrinaire, nor even logical. It will abolish the House of Lords, but quite probably will not abolish the Monarchy. It will leave anachronisms and loose ends everywhere, the judge in his ridiculous horsehair wig and the lion and the unicorn on the soldier’s cap-buttons. It will not set up any explicit class dictatorship. It will group itself round the old Labour Party and its mass following will be in the Trade Unions, but it will draw into it most of the middle class and many of the younger sons of the bourgeoisie. Most of its directing brains will come from the new indeterminate class of skilled workers, technical experts, airmen, scientists, architects and journalists, the people who feel at home in the radio and ferro-concrete age. But it will never lose touch with the tradition of compromise and the belief in a law that is above the State. It will shoot traitors, but it will give them a solemn trial beforehand, and occasionally it will acquit them. It will crush any open revolt promptly and cruelly, but it will interfere very little with the spoken and written word. Political parties with different names will still exist, revolutionary sects will still be publishing their newspapers and making as little impression as ever. It will disestablish the Church, but will not persecute religion. It will retain a vague reverence for the Christian moral code, and from time to time will refer to England as “a Christian country”. The Catholic Church will war against it, but the Nonconformist sects and the bulk of the Anglican Church will be able to come to terms with it. It will show a power of assimilating the past which will shock foreign observers and sometimes make them doubt whether any revolution has happened.” (ibid part 3 section II)

Orwell’s contempt for the English Left Intelligentsia

Orwell had no illusions about the mentality of many of the English left of the nineteen-thirties:

“In intention, at any rate, the English intelligentsia are Europeanized. They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow. In the general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God save the King” than of stealing from a poor box”   Ibid Part 1 section V)

“During the past twenty years the negative, fainéant outlook which has been fashionable among English left-wingers, the sniggering of the intellectuals at patriotism and physical courage, the persistent effort to chip away English morale and spread a hedonistic, what-do-I-get-out-of-it attitude to life, has done nothing but harm. It would have been harmful even if we had been living in the squashy League of Nations universe that these people imagined. In an age of Führers and bombing planes it was a disaster. However little we may like it, toughness is the price of survival. A nation trained to think hedonistically cannot survive amid peoples who work like slaves and breed like rabbits, and whose chief national industry is war. English Socialists of nearly all colours have wanted to make a stand against Fascism, but at the same time they have aimed at making their own countrymen unwarlike. They have failed, because in England traditional loyalties are stronger than new ones. But in spite of all the “anti-Fascist” heroics of the left-wing press, what chance should we have stood when the real struggle with Fascism came, if the average Englishman had been the kind of creature that the New Statesman, the Daily Worker or even the News Chronicle wished to make him? “(Ibid part 3 section III

Why today’s liberal left are wary of  Orwell

The real BBC objection to Orwell is not that he is too left-wing but rather he is left-wing in a way which does not fit with being left wing in Britain today.  The modern mainstream British  left  are committed to just about everything Orwell opposed. They have unreservedly bought into the idea of globalism at the level of both economics and politics; they loathe the idea of self-determining national states; ideas of patriotism and national identity they see as at best obsolete and at worst vicious; they purport to believe that a  racially and ethnically mixed society is morally and culturally superior to a society which is homogeneous and  they have a particular hatred and fear of England which drives them to the doublethink of simultaneously claiming  that there is no such nation as the English whilst saying the English are dangerously nationalistic.  As for  public control and ownership of virtually anything,  they have largely adopted  the Thatcherite   idea that the market is always the answer and private enterprise is invariably superior to public ownership.  Even where they have doubts about the continuing  mania to privatise everything and  lament much of what has been privatised or are privately dismayed  by the export of jobs to the developing world, they shrug their shoulders and say such things are inevitable in a globalised world.

There is a further reason why Orwell cannot sit easily with the modern liberal. He encapsulated so much of what is  wrong with them  in his later writings.  In Animal Farm he describes just the sort of corruption of purpose which has taken place in the Labour Party since the 1990s with the likes of Tony  Blair and Peter Mandelson  celebrating the “filthy rich” as they desperately sought to join them.  It would be difficult to find  a better example of Robert Michels’  iron law of oligarchy whereby organisations set up to help the working class become vehicles to advance the fortunes of  those who head them  rather than those who they are ostensibly meant to aid.

1984 is even more telling because Orwell describes a situation we know only too well in modern England: the usurpation of language by the political elite and its use as a tool of social control. This is precisely what the imposition of political correctness represents.

There is also in 1984 an emptiness of purpose  because,  as the interrogator O’Brien  points out, power becomes a recognised and desirable (for party members) end in itself.  This echoes the ideological shallowness of the politically correct for whom the mechanical policing of  what is deemed politically correct  and the punishment of the politically incorrect becomes a ritual rather than a political policy leading to a desired outcome.

The reality is that modern mainstream left  are not “left wing” in any sense recognisable to previous generations. They are simply people who have a set of ideas, ideas  which are no more than assertions, of how people should behave.  There is no questioning of whether the ideas have a beneficial effect or not.  Rather, the ideas  are simply treated as self-evident goods and imposed regardless of their effects.

But although Orwell’s ideas are anathema to them because  they clash so violently  with their own, there is something more to the modern  liberal left’s  disregard for Orwell than ideological differences.  His honest socialism reminds at least some of them of the betrayal of the Labour Party’s history and principles which has left the less well off in Britain with no mainstream party to act or speak for them.   That may even induce a sense of guilt.  For those liberals who do not feel remorse,  there is baser motive of fear that in difficult times such as these the old socialism may seem attractive to large numbers of people and,  if it does,  those people may start asking the modern leftists exactly why they are  to be considered to be on the political left.

Orwell represents danger to the modern liberal left. He both challenges everything they stand for and provides a heady  left alternative, namely socialism wrapped in a patriotic cultural blanket.  That is why the likes of Mark Thompson think he is “too left wing”.

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One Response to George Orwell, left politics, modern liberals and the BBC

  1. Antony says:

    Whatever old-style Labour’s position, socialism was always an internationalist, bankers’ doctrine. Why else would ‘capitalist’ financiers bankroll the Russian Revolution? The ambition to make the world a borderless playground for the planet’s elite families never changed. The false dichotomy of capitalist/communist, the efforts to present socialism as a campaign for social justice, they all served [and serve] the same iniquitous end.

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