What would George Orwell, the great diagnostician of the English condition, make of these last few days of the referendum campaign? And how would he vote next week?
On the second question, I believe he would have agonised long and hard, expressing reservations about the EU’s institutions, its lack of democracy, as well as the incomprehensible and deceitful language of many of its communications. As a socialist, he would have had serious doubts about the “capitalist club” nature of the EU.
But on the other side, he would have despised the xenophobia that is powering the Brexit campaign, shuddered at the UK’s uncooperative aloofness from its neighbours and suspected the motives and political character of its leadership: Orwell on Boris would have been fun. Though not generally an ad hominem writer, he would have been fascinated by Gove, Duncan Smith, Farage, Rees-Mogg and Fox and interested to see that the plausible spivs familiar in mid-century British society were still flourishing seventy years later. So would Graham Greene, incidentally.
The real achievement of Europe since Orwell’s death at the age of 46, early in 1950, is of course the enduring peace. For a lot of his life, Europe had been at war and the scene of historic barbarities. In 1947, he wrote a pessimistic essay, entitled “Towards European Unity”, in which he argued that the only way lasting peace would be achieved was through a socialist federation of European states. He was doubtful of it ever happening and viewed Europe’s future as very dark.
Yet, almost all of what he suggested came to pass, and prosperity and peace that nobody in 1947 would have sensibly predicted has prevailed. The things that he thought were unlikely in any union – the leadership that would bring it about, the cooperation between nations and the freedoms more or less guaranteed to 500 million people since the Fall of the Wall – we take for granted, and, it has to be said, are now blithely prepared to jeopardise. So, I believe it’s safe to say that George Orwell would have voted to remain, at the same time as being utterly straight about his misgivings. You are welcome to take issue with me below in the comments section, but I think the evidence is good.
Why go back to Orwell when he could not possibly have known what life would be like in 2016, and could never have envisaged our hypermobility and connectedness? The answer is simple, and it applies to only a very few writers of essays, book reviews and hack journalism, which were by far the greater proportion of his astonishingly large output. It’s his values, which hold as true today as they did seventy years ago. His perception and truthfulness and lack of political game playing shine in everything he wrote and are still the standard for anyone commenting on current affairs, although few reach his heights.
About Britain today I believe he would have been rather amazed, but also puzzled. Amazed at our wealth, the sheer amount of stuff we have, our luxurious lives and the travel we think nothing of; and pleasantly surprised by the changes in attitudes to gender equality, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity. He would have looked askance at our lack of inhibition – or, at any rate our lack of decorum – the disdain for our own privacy and the global epidemic of narcissism, and he would certainly have recoiled at the space where this all comes together in the TV show Big Brother, and not just because of its title.
He would be puzzled that so many other things have remained unchanged. The class system is absolutely intact: two products of his old school, Eton, face each other across the EU divide, and inherited peers are still making laws in the House of Lords. There has been little constitutional reform. The rich are still very rich and the poor very poor – in fact, wealth inequality is greater in the UK than most other developed countries, with the richest 10% of households holding 45% of all wealth, while the poorest 50%, by contrast, own just 8.7%.
We still have the Labour and Conservative parties slogging it out, albeit representing much diminished and less defined constituencies; and we still have the Big Men, people like Aaron Banks, Tim Martin and James Dyson, sounding off about their success and making business-type prescriptions for society that appeal to the poor and underprivileged, but are obviously against their best interests. We have plenty of Gradgrinds, too: individuals like Mike Ashley and Sir Philip Green who predate even Orwell’s time in their heartless greed.
In the forces that are at play, he would observe the steady draining of power from the British state and see the United Kingdom’s breakup as probably inevitable in the event of a vote to withdraw from the European Union, where Scotland voted Remain. And he would note that the country was not happy in itself: a pronounced scratchiness had developed, whose cause was probably as much psychological as material. In the last two weeks, like all of us, he would have felt a nasty static in the air, which almost certainly contributed to the horrifying murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox.
Even after 40 odd years of membership of the EEC and EU, Britain as a whole cannot bring itself to recognise the advantages and freedoms that membership has brought. Deep down, people seem to be yearning for the days of empire, for greater power and autonomy. And of course he would realise that the locus of the grumbling appendix was probably in England, among people usually inclined to a right-wing view of the world, even if they were lifelong members of the Labour party.
It may be unfair to yoke Orwell to one side of the current debate like this, but his speciality was always the English, and he’d have been fascinated – and at his most forensic – when he came to examining what was pushing Britain out of a union that had provided more benefits than anyone bothered to count, and which, together with some deregulation, was responsible for the revival of the country’s fortunes after years of decline. Among many strange aspects of this campaign is the sight of the Leave case being promoted by people who put profit and the health of economy above most other considerations but who are in fact arguing directly against those very interests. No one can possibly doubt that something little short of a calamity would follow a vote to leave.
In another article on this site, I asked when, exactly, was the sovereignty that the Leavers all yearn for possessed? I have never found a convinced Leaver who can answer that question intelligently. One friend replied that the sovereignty he hoped for was pre-1914, which is an astonishing admission, but most talked vaguely of gaining a new kind of autonomy and power for Britain. It is odd that they do not see – perhaps cannot see – that “in taking their country back” they will almost certainly cause the break up of the very entity whose influence and power they wish to boost. Make sense of it, if you can. There is simply no logic to it and this is what makes Leavers so clinically compelling.
Orwell might possibly have supported the drive for Scottish independence but he certainly would not have understood the Brits south of the border who haven’t thought this through. Yet this vote is not about reason. The one certainty in a plebiscite is that it reveals the molten lava beneath the surface of a culture. And there is a good deal of fakery about. The visceral case for leaving the EU attempts to appear rational, while the reasonable but unexciting case for staying strives for passion. Neither side is very convincing.
One thing that is striking about Britain now and would certainly have been the subject of Orwell’s unwavering gaze is the self-regard of the English. Scotland has its own particular brand of nationalist superiority, but in England the qualities of modesty and self-mocking humour that protected us from conceitedness are less obvious than they were. We are far more likely these days to see ourselves as the home, if not the global birthplace, of democracy, fairness, liberty, invention, justice, charity, humanity, enterprise, irony, sportsmanship and humour than we once were. We resent outside influence and feel no one can tell us anything about the areas of our supposed excellence, least of all democracy and enterprise.
There is not a lot of distance between this sense of superiority and the bubbling xenophobia that is a feature of the campaign. Oddly, despite some improvement in relations between races and communities at home, the modern Englishman feels no qualms about speaking contemptuously of Europeans, or refugees from war zones, for that matter. Here is a man talking last week on the BBC’s Your and Yours radio show about his visits to southern Italy: “You just have to be in southern Europe to understand that their way of life, and their way of working – or not working – to see why they have got such a financial deficit.” Britain has a vast deficit – and, incidentally, will have an even larger one if we leave the EU – but the point is that essentially this caller’s attitudes haven’t changed since the British squaddie of Orwell’s era referred to dagos, spics and Ities.
A cartoon, issued by the Leave campaign, tells you all you need to know about the saloon bar racism behind the Brexiteers. There’s none of the good-natured humour that Orwell wrote about in his brilliant essay on the English seaside postcard; the style is bludgeoning, the stereotypes are straight from Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer: it is a kind of racist bark from the past.
All of this feeds into the horror and fear of being “swamped” by EU migrants who are said to take our jobs, fill our schools, block up doctors’ surgeries, occupy hospital beds and rip off our benefits. There are pressures – that cannot be denied – but again there are huge elements of unreason in the call to “take back control of borders.” The English have always imported labour, whether from Ireland, Bangladesh or the Caribbean, to do the jobs they won’t do. I welcome them. In the village in the Vale of Evesham where I was born, the onions, kale, parsley, lettuce, courgettes and carrots are picked and pulled by teams of seasonal migrants from Bulgaria and Romania, because the locals won’t do the backbreaking job that we did when I was student picker (red currants and blackcurrants were my game). Many of the health workers, in and outside the NHS, who have looked after my elderly parents over the last three years, are from Eastern Europe. In the eye hospital where my wife was treated for two years, there was representation from at least five EU countries. The contribution of the EU workers here is huge and yet we can barely bring ourselves to acknowledge it.
We are watching something new in modern Britain – the rise of unabashed racism. On the day that Jo Cox was killed, Nigel Farage launched an anti-immigration poster, which in fact showed Syrian refugees, not EU migrants. The caption, endorsed by Farage’s insectivorous grin, reads “Breaking point. We must break free from the EU and take back control of our borders.” It was rightly condemned as “disgusting”, but not by the Daily Mail, which deployed similar tactics on its front page, with a photograph of illegal migrants in a truck and a headline that read “We’re from Europe – Let us in.” Orwell was familiar with the pro-Nazi antics of the paper’s owner Harold Harmsworth, but he might have been surprised to see so little has changed in the paper’s rightist propaganda. The point to underline is that racism has in the last few months entered the main stream of British politics, and a mainstream tabloid in effect sanctions this development.
Simply on this basis, we can say that the debate on Britain’s membership of the EU is not between two sides of equal merit. It is not a matter of whether you prefer one flavour of ice cream to another, either choice being valid. The emergence of the overt racism and the reliance of the Leave campaign on the tactics of hate are enough to condemn it, without even considering the very persuasive arguments about European and British stability and the UK’s economy.
There is little doubt in my mind that Orwell would have greatly regretted the emergence of the sharp cultural divide that we are seeing in these final days of the campaign. It is extremely worrying, but what I most fear is that after all of this, the rump of the United Kingdom – England – will be left powerless and impoverished, and because of our persistent need to dominate rather than cooperate – a characteristic established beyond doubt in the days of Empire – we will turn in on ourselves and come to see enemies where there are none. Orwell recognised these deeply embedded traits in these islands and not without reason set his dystopian novel “1984” in Airstrip One, once known as Britain. And it is right to remind ourselves that we have now equipped ourselves with the surveillance apparatus that was only imaginable in 1949 when he was writing the book on the Scottish island of Jura.
I may be taking a liberty here, but, yes, I think Orwell would have voted “In”, if only to protect us from ourselves.