I don’t believe in turning George Orwell’s writing into Holy Scripture – he would have hated the reverence as much as anything else. But if the Brexit right is going to crow and quote his dislike of the communist-influenced left intelligentsia of the 1930s and 1940s it should read the rest of his work first.
Orwell believed in a united socialist Europe. ‘Democratic Socialism must be made to work throughout some large area,’ he wrote just after the Second World War. ‘But the only area in which it could conceivably be made to work, in any near future, is Western Europe’.
If you can forget his belief in a post-war socialism that has gone, Orwell’s arguments for European unity stand up well. He noted the ‘Russians cannot but be hostile to any European union not under their own control’. Communism has been replaced by gangster capitalism but the hostility is ever present, as alleged Kremlin support for far right and far left parties across Europe shows.
‘If the United States remains capitalist, and especially if it needs markets for exports, it cannot regard a Socialist Europe with a friendly eye,’ Orwell continued. Notice Trump and Bannon’s visceral hostility to the EU today and how, if we leave, the US wants to force us to accept American trade and animal welfare standards, most notably in the case of chlorinated chicken. The last thing America intends is for Britain to take back control: it wants us to be integrated into a US-dominated trading bloc.
Orwell then went into a long discussion on how workers in Britain, France etc did not realise that their standard of living was built on imperialism. They voted for labour and socialist parties and thought themselves hard done by, and did not realise that they benefited from the exploitation of others. ‘To the masses everywhere ‘Socialism’ means, or at least is associated with, higher wages, shorter hours, better houses, all-round social insurance. But it is by no means certain that we can afford these things if we throw away the advantages we derive from colonial exploitation.’ A socialist Europe would have to lose its empires, but the British and French might prefer to keep them and play second fiddle to America.
Not much of that applies today. I don’t buy the view that Brexit is the result of nostalgia for empire. A remarkable feature of Britain is how the empire has disappeared from the popular imagination. I doubt there is more one television drama a year about it, and maybe not even that. The Brexit vote was a reaction to mass immigration and an assertion of Parliamentary sovereignty – an assertion that still appears to hold, however contemptuously the leading advocates of Brexit and the right-wing press treat Parliament. The Second World War, rather than empire, dominates the British imagination because memories of victory emphasise that Britain, unlike every other large European country, was not invaded in the 20th century by Germany or Russia and never had to endure communism or fascism.
But the failure to understand Britain’s true place in the world remains. The fury on the right that Ireland now has more sway in European politics than a Britain that has walked off in a huff is one symptom of the delusion. But the true blind spot is the inability to see the rise of new powers. In 1947, when Orwell wrote Toward European Unity, the USSR and the United States dominated the continent and much of the world. Now the world is dominated by China and America, both led by ultra nationalist leaders with India, itself governed by the aggressively nationalist Modi, moving up fast. Population projections for 2030, which isn’t so far away, show China and India with populations over 1.3 billion, and the US in third place with 350 million. Many of the growing countries that come next are barely thought about in the West: Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria.
The United Kingdom, with a projected population of 70 million, does not even make the top 20. Nor does France, while Germany sneaks in at number 20. Demography is destiny and in the coming Asian century Europeans, who once dominated the world, must stick together or the world will dominate them.
I’m all for using Orwell to attack left-wing intellectuals. They can indeed produce excuses for barbarism and love every country but their own. But if they were looking for examples of ideological folly today, rational critics would have to concentrate on Steve Baker, Douglas Carswell, Lord Lawson, Boris Johnson, the Institute of Economic Affairs and all the others who have assured us we can go naked into a world dominated by nationalist powers, cut favourable trade deals as easily as a knife slices through cake, and crash out of the EU without even noticing.
‘So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot,’ Orwell wrote in 1940. In 2019, the same applies to right-wing thought. The only difference being that the left had no power in 1940 while the right today is in a position to inflict irreversible and unforgivable damage on the lives of its fellow citizens.