The comparison of the British status in the EU to one of slaves was a vile insult, mean, low and just wrong. But all the bleating and booing will avail of nothing in the struggle to establish the truth about our position in the EU if we do not make an attempt to analyse and understand the myths and ideology of England. Why such a thing can be said by a person like Ann Widdecombe, and how such views would hold sway with so many? It is the country that, after all, holds 90% of the population of this island.
And that might be why in order to clearly see Brexit we should return to the writings of George Orwell, which were published largely in the 30s and 40s, a period before the idea of the Common Market was even a twinkle in the eye of General de Gaulle.
If the split in the 2016 referendum vote represents something of the schizophrenic character of the English population, then Orwell does not so much ‘embody’ that dualism (his story is too complex for that ..) as project himself wholeheartedly into it.
The last three out of four prime ministers of Britain (and the next one to come…) –that’s Blair, Cameron, May and Johnson – belong to an elite strata of English society which are rich, attend certain schools and Universities, and make up a minute percentage of the population. That’s the ruling class, and its functionaries, and we all know who they are. Eric Blair (1903-50) also belonged to that class, or at any rate, he grew up among them and knew them intimately. He was born in India to a family who for generations were part of the imperialist administration there, he attended Eton (as did Cameron and Johnson), and in the 1920s he served for five years himself in the Indian Imperial Police Force –the enforcers of colonial rule in the sub-continent.
Eric Blair was supremely aware of the class system. He speaks of England economically as two nations, described his family of Imperial functionaries as ‘lower upper middle class’ and resorts to a well-known trope when he describes England as ‘a family with the wrong members in control’.
Eric Blair invents the pseudonym and the personage of ‘George Orwell’ in order to launch himself not just into the literature of the struggle for justice, but physically and bodily into its battles through exposure of his person to poverty, suffering, revolution and war. Orwell doesn’t simply make contact and join political force with the working classes (quite a feat for someone from his background in that age) but he spends time working in the lowest of jobs -a dishwasher in Paris and in London (and subsequently writes about it) – and volunteers to fight for the anarchist/left militia in the Spanish Civil War. All this while writing committed journalism and literature to promote the cause.
He says of that period ‘I felt I had to escape not merely from imperialism, but from every form of man’s dominion over man’.
It’s not unproblematic –indeed it’s at least paradoxical if not morally suspect that he used a fictional person (‘George Orwell’) in order to launch himself into real time discoveries and political commitment to the ‘real’ truth about the organisation and rule of society. It’s also a paradox that we see running through his most successful ‘novels’. In 1984 and Animal Farm –and others – the distinction between fictional and factual, documentary and imaginative writing, social and aesthetic standpoints is never made clear.
There are several important lessons that we can learn from Orwell about Brexit here, and that attitude typified in a puerile version by Widecombe’s speech. Firstly that – in line with that quotation above on escaping ‘dominion’ –Orwell demonstrates the fine English radical tradition of distrusting, questioning and rejecting all forms of institutional authority. He never rests from his distrust , and this runs through all his literary work: 1984, Animal Farm, Homage to Catalonia etc. One other aspect is that in the endless critical rejection of power structures –and the search for the ‘real’ England’ beyond imposed political and power formations ( those Imperial and Fascist for Orwell, and EU and Europe for Widdecombe) there is no shirking the personal embrace with certain failure. Winston Smith fails , the revolution in Animal Farm collapses into corruption, the left falls in on itself in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell and Widdecombe accept and seek out authentic failure (as Britain will surely fail ex-EU) rather than suffer what they feel are unreal and oppressive political structures.
Neither surely, is it merely
Here’s what Orwell had to say about that in the 1930s
‘the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world’
‘…a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future, but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ – well it never happened. If he says, two and two are five – well two and two are five.’
That all sounds very familiar of course, and that’s why we should be tooling up for the truth about England and Brexit –whatever happens in October – by reading, re-reading and thinking about ‘George Orwell’ the fictional and documentary class-warrior, and understanding the resonance that Widdecombe holds for so many in that strange land of England, their England.