Orwell, Scottish Independence, and the English Revolution
While rereading the Penguin Modern Classics collection of George Orwell’s essays (named: George Orwell Essays, appropriately) I was struck by two main things while rereading the essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’. First by Orwell’s intelligence, warranting Lionel Trilling’s comment that Orwell is good because he is not a genius, and secondly I was struck by how amazingly unprophetic, and how hopeless at prophesy he was.
Orwell was, and still is, a great commenter on his own time, and as a literary critic he is not without merit, but as a prophet he was hopeless. Nineteen Eighty-Four, sometimes claimed to be a prophesy by some, is not so, and those who claim it to be a prophesy often have not read anything other than that novel and Animal Farm. Those of us who have read Orwell’s other works understand that Nineteen Eighty-Four is partly a novel of its time, party a Swiftian satire, but mostly a novel against Totalitarian thought in any form it may take, about which Orwell himself, in the essay ‘Why I Write’ said: ‘Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.’ (Orwell 2000: 5). This misunderstanding it not unique to Orwell, it also affects his friend, and former Eaton French Teacher, Aldous Huxley. The only real difference here is it appears that Huxley’s Brave New World is even less seriously read than Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The ‘predictions’ (for lack of a better word) in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ concerns an English Revolution apparently taking place during his life time. In it, Orwell claims that the way to a more Socialist England (not Ingsoc of course) is the defeat of Hitler, (Orwell 2000: 170) and the Nazi party. However, earlier in the essay he claims two of the main forces at work, unconsciously, in English everyday life is Patriotism and Stagnation (Orwell 2000: 146-147 & 155-156). This is as true today as Orwell says it was then. The English, as a people, seem naturally resistant to change, and it is both this unconscious Patriotism and Political Stagnation that Orwell says causes this resistance, despite, he claims, the Leftist Intelligentsia, which consciously tries to be as progressive and unBritish as possible. Up until the 1970s this was certainly the case.
Orwell's 'English Revolution' obviously never happened. The ruling class are still in power and preference in Britain, the idea of the Empire (which still exists) still has power in Britain, and Britain continues to have a capitalist, unplanned economy that survives on capital and profit (not a bad thing, in this writer’s eye). The English are, or more accurately have been, a nation of hobbyists, of engineers and builders rather than radicals. To have a private interest in abstract concepts such as Poetry or Philosophy has been felt something to explain, or even apologise for, though this attitude has actually been changing in the past 20 years. However, while the English people might be resistant to change, this is merely the people of one nation in a union of nations. And of all the nations under the Union Flag the Scottish are the most progressive.
As I write this we are a few years away from a Scottish referendum, to decide to remain within the Union. Such a Referendum is risky to Scotland, to say the least, and if Scotland is to withdraw from the Union then it must be because of careful consideration, not overwhelming nationalist feeling, as seems to be the case. Scotland relies heavily on England for economic and political support, and as a figurehead the Queen still has great influence over parts of Scotland, particularly in the Highlands. But a worry is that Scotland might be too poor by itself, too underdeveloped, and too lacking in national resources to be independent and keep its current standard of living.
Scotland may depend on England in terms of economy, military tradition, and political influence, but one area in which the Scottish are amazingly strong and efficient is that of culture. In the border regions of England there is a strong and clear influence of Scotland, and in the very north of Northumberland it is common to hear accents that sound indistinguishable from Scottish to an outside ear. Many Northumbrians also consider themselves more Scottish than English, when they are not calling themselves Northumberians. This battle of culture between Scotland and England is not anything direct, or even easily identifiable, but it is an unconscious preference for Edinburgh over London. This is of course influenced by the North/South divide in England, but it is not because of it.
Culturally Scotland is very strong in the British Isles but economically it is not, and this overwhelming nationalist feeling that is calling for this coming referendum, and leading to the rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) could prove risky. It should be made clear that Scottish nationalism is very different from English or British nationalism. The Scottish National Party is a pro-democratic and rather liberally minded party, and its main aim is purely Scotland’s withdrawal from the Union. The British National Party (BNP) or UK Independence Party (UKIP) are notoriously anti-Europe, and the BNP have been described as racist, and fascist. Even UKIP, an apparently Libertarian party, have to describe themselves as ‘non-racist’, which is highly suspect to say the least.
The SNP may have a good reputation, may have a good amount of support from across Scotland (the Scottish as a people appear to very much desire independence) and to be honest, they could even gain independence from the union. This very real possibility of this break from the union is obviously a great gamble for Scotland. And it is partly because of some of the attributes about the English that Orwell identified: political stagnation, unconscious patriotism among the English, and a mistrust of the ruling, privileged class. That Orwell did not see this eventual stagnation and potential breakup of the union, that he thought some kind of Socialist movement in England would result in a shift in power toward the people, away from the traditional ruling class, and that this ‘Revolution’ did not actually happen says more about his own time than ours. Orwell miscalculated how much the English enjoy homeliness and tradition (something that was parodied in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories) and so far it seems there is nothing that can actually change the English character other than something drastic. Maybe, this Scottish withdrawal from the union could be the beginning of a change in attitude that England does not really want. Nothing can tell us what is the best course to take, for the sake of the British union, and to some it will not seem worth gambling with the future of two nations to find this out. But maybe this was the revolution Orwell was writing about, and could feel happening (even though he was 80 years off) when he wrote ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’: a change in English attitudes and way of thinking, rather than an actual Socialist leaning, like Orwell promoted.
G. Orwell, (2000) George Orwell: Essays, Penguin Modern Classics, Penguin Publishing, London.
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