In defence of patriotism
George Orwell's criticism of leftish disdain for patriotism still speaks to us today.
Patriotism is a contentious word; a territory disputed by left and right. Those in England who dare to admit to it these days usually qualify their allegiance with a definition that condemns colonialism, largely because patriotism is too readily confused with nationalism – a quite different condition. What makes it trickier is that patriotism is more of a sentiment than it is a concept. George Orwell described it as ‘mystical’, ‘a bridge between the future and the past’. He wrote about it a great deal in his many essays, but it is also present in the background of his fiction and other books. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is the absence of any possibility of national affection, the complete estrangement from the society, that underlies the dystopia.
Orwell’s essay ‘My Country Right or Left’ was written in the autumn of 1940, after the retreat from Dunkirk and the respite won at the Battle of Britain. Orwell had returned wounded from Spain in 1937, having fought for the republican government against Franco’s forces. He had faced fascism down the barrel of a rifle and, back in England, there was a widespread feeling that the establishment was not prosecuting the war effectively because of the impediments of an outdated class system – that in order to defeat fascism, fundamental economic and social change was required.
‘Patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism’, Orwell wrote.
‘It is devotion to something that is changing but is felt to be mystically the same, like the devotion of the ex-White Bolshevik to Russia. To be loyal both to Chamberlain’s England and to the England of tomorrow might seem an impossibility, if one did not know it to be an everyday phenomenon. Only revolution can save England…‘
Patriotism was required, but one that looked to a future England as much as it drew on its past. In the same paragraph, he writes of his own reticence and the left’s inability to relate to patriotic instincts:
‘To this day it gives me a faint feeling of sacrilege not to stand to attention during “God Save The King”. That is childish, of course, but I would sooner have had that kind of upbringing than be like the left-wing intellectuals who are so enlightened that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions.’
Orwell then makes an interesting comparison, establishing a connection between the patriotic poetry of Sir Henry Newbolt and the work of poet and former comrade John Cornford, who was killed fighting in Spain. Cornford, like Orwell, was public-school educated to defend king and country, but gave his life in another country for a different cause. In Newbolt’s There’s a Breathless Hush in the Close Tonight and Cornford’s Before the Storming of Huesca, Orwell can see an emotional content that is ‘almost exactly the same’, despite the differences of period and place. His point is that the spirit of patriotism can be enlisted for the cause of socialism – ‘the possibility of building a socialist on the bones of a Blimp’. One loyalty transmuting itself into another.
Orwell develops these themes at the end of 1940 in a pamphlet-length essay, ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, which examines the character of England and the English and sets out a programme for an English revolution. In it, we see how much we have changed over the past 80 years, but also how some traits march on.
‘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.’
The left in England today is by no means synonymous with the intelligentsia, and their anti-patriotism, like much of their politics, is part self-righteous affectation. But, if anything, it is more prevalent, more pronounced now, than in Orwell’s day. I spent many years among the leftist intelligentsia and I can report that it was considered blasphemous to support the England football team during World Cups – it even appeared as an agenda item at Socialist Workers’ Party branch meetings. Should England actually ever win the World Cup, it was believed that it would necessarily feed the right in British politics.
Culturally, the left locate their tastes overseas, which they consider a mark of sophistication. When Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was asked about his reading habits, he naturally spoke about Nigerian novelists. One couldn’t imagine him, or anyone in the current Labour leadership, citing Evelyn Waugh, and I can well remember being at an SWP meeting in the 1980s when the speaker, journalist Paul Foot, said he thought Brideshead Revisited was a great novel. Almost the entire room booed him. I have always found ‘books are weapons’ among the most depressing of political slogans.
Left politicians are suspicious if not fearful of patriotism, particularly when it is expressed by the working class
Of course, left politicians will congratulate England’s cricket team occasionally, but far from knowing how to take advantage of a sense of patriotism, they are suspicious, if not fearful, of it, particularly when it is expressed by the working class. In 2014, Emily Thornberry, now a Labour leadership candidate, tweeted a photograph of a house in Rochester with flags of St George outside. She was canvassing ahead of the Rochester and Strood by-election, and the inference of course was derogatory. She was rightfully accused of snobbery, but there is another question here. Why did she assume that the people who lived there would not be Labour supporters? That this marked Rochester out as infertile territory for socialists? Because being patriotic is now considered to be incompatible with the left. Incompatible because the left believe it to be veiled racism, and when expressed by the working class, a whisper away from fascism.
Notions of patriotism in England today are not restricted to ethnicity. That kind of ethnic patriotism is on the backfoot and almost extinct, certainly taboo. In fact, I would argue that the English patriotism of today is more likely to pride itself on its anti-racism. Black and Asian people can feel, and have every right to feel, as patriotic or as unpatriotic as white people. Instead of despairing and posting a photograph of the front of the house online, Thornberry would have been better knocking on the door and opening a dialogue. As Orwell puts it: ‘An intelligent Socialist movement will use [people’s] patriotism instead of merely insulting it.’
In ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, Orwell extols what he considers to be the innate, natural anti-authoritarianism of ordinary people in England, summed up as an attachment to liberty and to privacy:
‘All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which when they are communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the “nice cup of tea”. The liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the 19th century. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time… The most hateful of all names in an English ear is Nosey Parker.’
Orwell would despair at the England of today, where people are reported and even arrested for what they have written online, for expressing an opinion, for refusing to write something on a wedding cake. He would recognise it as befitting the totalitarian regimes he satirised in his fiction. While he says that ‘the English are hypocritical about their Empire’ – something I think is no longer true – he maintains that ordinary people are averse to the glorification of militarism. English literature, he writes, ‘like other literature, is full of battle-poems, but it is worth noticing that the ones that have won for themselves a kind of popularity are always a tale of disasters and retreats. The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction.’
Eighty years and numerous wars later, I think this is still the case — we have remembrance rather than glorification. Yet the left’s antipathy towards patriotism in England is more exaggerated than ever. It is at the heart of their reaction to Brexit. The Leave vote can usefully be described as intrinsically patriotic since it expresses a desire for national sovereignty; characteristically, the left defamed the vote as racist and did all they could to block the implementation of the result.
Indeed, during the General Election, Labour engaged in Orwellian doublethink, by talking about ‘the many, not the few’ while campaigning against the will of the majority. It made Labour increasingly sound like an Eastern European Communist Party, and a major part of its problem is its growing remoteness from ordinary people.
Being patriotic is now considered veiled racism, a whisper away from fascism
In Orwell’s day, the trade-union movement provided at least some Labour MPs. Emily Thornberry is a former barrister married to a High Court Judge — they are millionaires with a ‘property portfolio’. Corbyn has seen very little working life outside of politics and the membership of his party is skewed towards the public sector and students. I left Labour after the referendum result, but though it was growing in numbers, I also felt it was increasingly insular.
Orwell, though he went to Harrow, made it his quest to live among and learn from ordinary people, poor people. He did so to write The Road to Wigan Pier, Down and Out in Paris and London, and he took a bullet through the throat for Homage to Catalonia. He wandered between the intelligentsia and the common people writing in a style that was deliberately plain, particularly in the context of his era, because he sought a readership that was lower middle-class and self-educated working-class. He was not an intellectual writing for other intellectuals. He believed the common man and woman, not the politicised proletariat or a professional elite, were the best hope for civilisation.
Orwell’s essays were required reading on the left I grew up in. We discussed him and decided our socialism would be different to the one he lamented. Ours would be more human, for we were Trotskyists. But in many ways, we were the same. We could be found on his pages, wagging fingers at people who wore poppies, verbally cuffing comrades for listening to the overtly religious Van Morrison.
As we approach the 80th anniversary of ‘My County Right or Left’, those on the contemporary left should take a look at it and the two volumes of his essays that were published in his lifetime. Indeed, we all should, for Irving Howe called Orwell the ‘the greatest English essayist since Hazlitt, maybe since Dr Johnson’. His essays are not accessories to his other books. They lay claim to his greatness as a writer, covering a wide field of culture and politics, from Dickens and Yeats to ‘Anti-Semitism in Britain’ to ‘How the Poor Die’.
He said he wanted to make political writing into art and he succeeded – his work has endured and, if anything, become more prescient. His writing is plain, but also splendid because of its vision. He sees into the recesses of our humanity and its opposite. He writes speculatively, mockingly, without self-regard. He is understated and those who arrogantly claim his mantel, to be the nation’s conscience, need to read him, for they will find themselves on his pages and thus may find a new direction. At the risk of sounding patriotic, he is among the greatest of Englishmen, a patriot and an internationalist – and that is a perfectly possible and admirable thing to be.
As Orwell wrote in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’:
‘England is not the jewelled isle of Shakespeare’s much-quoted message, nor is it the inferno depicted by Dr Goebbels. More than either it resembles a family… with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. A family with the wrong members in control – that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.’
Michael Crowley is an author and dramatist. Visit his website here.
Picture by: Getty Images.
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