Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Orwell and a Tory

Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Tories in Scotland, made a speech about Orwell (you can read the whole thing on the Tory website if you so desire but you don't have to) and what struck me is that no-one picked her up on what Orwell actually said.  The BBC covered it with a bit of a whizz-bang and quoted her saying
"Nationalism is about power, and its obsessive pursuit, and the dichotomisation of a population into the authentic and the inauthentic.
"Here in the second decade of the 20th century, despite his [George Orwell] efforts, nationalism is still confused with patriotism.
"That is because, too often, there are political movements that deliberately ensure that is the case."
She was referring to Orwell's essay Notes on Nationalism which is dragged up often by politicians trying to do in the SNP.  You can almost hear them say "Aha! Orwell said this and he wrote 1984!" and they frequently seem very pleased with themselves.  Firstly, here's a wee list of some of the 'nationalisms' that Orwell was critiquing - 

  • British Toryism
  • White supremacism
  • Semitism
  • Anti-semitism
  • Communism
  • Catholicism
  • Scottish nationalism
  • British jingoism
  • Neo-Toryism
  • Zionism
  • Pacifism
  • Class feeling
  • Colour feeling (almost the antithesis of white supremacy)
  • The feeling that you belong to the Proletariat
Orwell was writing while the Second World War was still being fought - the essay was first published in the month that Germany surrendered.  He gave an indication of some of the thinking that he was criticising in a section that referred to that war - 

If one harbours anywhere in one's mind a nationalistic loyalty or hatred, certain facts, although in a sense known to be true, are inadmissible. Here are just a few examples. I list below five types of nationalist, and against each I append a fact which it is impossible for that type of nationalist to accept, even in his secret thoughts:
BRITISH TORY: Britain will come out of this war with reduced power and prestige.
COMMUNIST: If she had not been aided by Britain and America, Russia would have been defeated by Germany.
IRISH NATIONALIST: Eire can only remain independent because of British protection.
TROTSKYIST: The Stalin regime is accepted by the Russian masses.
PACIFIST: Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.
He also said -
In England, if one simply considers the number of people involved, it is probable that the dominant form of nationalism is old-fashioned British jingoism.
 That sentence, though, if read in its place in the essay, doesn't mean what it seems to mean when it's taken out and laid on its own like that.  It's important to get things in context, just as Ms Davidson failed to do in her speech when she said
However, all those caveats aside, the truth is that the nationalist politics identified by Orwell – the attempt to classify and label human beings into groups marked “good” and “bad” – has become a key part of our political practice in Scotland.
Someone less generous than me might ask whether she means good like the family making a tax credit claim that only contains two children and bad like the family doing the same that has three (unless the third is as a result of rape in which case they can climb back into the good group after filling in an eight page form).  Is it the disabled who are being told they are fit for work who are bad and millionaires paying less now in capital gains tax who are good?  Are immigrants bad but people stashing their money in tax havens good?

I don't know what Orwell would have made of modern politics or of the constitutional debates and it doesn't really matter, Notes on Nationalism is an essay written at the end of a global conflict at a time when the atrocities committed during that conflict were just being discovered.  It was five years before the United Nations was created and six years before the fledgling trade agreements from which the EU grew.  Orwell had been an anarchist, a socialist, a combatant on the Republican side in the war against Franco before working for the BBC creating propaganda during the Second World War.  His essay is a decent old read, but it is an old read and it doesn't say that nationalism is bad and unionism is good - he says that unthinking and amoral judging of groups of other people is wrong and that politics should be a thinking past-time.  This is the final paragraph of the essay and is worth reading - 
The reason for the rise and spread of nationalism is far too big a question to be raised here. It is enough to say that, in the forms in which it appears among English intellectuals, it is a distorted reflection of the frightful battles actually happening in the external world, and that its worst follies have been made possible by the breakdown of patriotism and religious belief. If one follows up this train of thought, one is in danger of being led into a species of Conservatism, or into political quietism. It can be plausibly argued, for instance — it is even possibly true — that patriotism is an inoculation against nationalism, that monarchy is a guard against dictatorship, and that organised religion is a guard against superstition. Or again, it can be argued that no unbiased outlook is possible, that all creeds and causes involve the same lies, follies, and barbarities; and this is often advanced as a reason for keeping out of politics altogether. I do not accept this argument, if only because in the modern world no one describable as an intellectual can keep out of politics in the sense of not caring about them. I think one must engage in politics — using the word in a wide sense — and that one must have preferences: that is, one must recognise that some causes are objectively better than others, even if they are advanced by equally bad means. As for the nationalistic loves and hatreds that I have spoken of, they are part of the make-up of most of us, whether we like it or not. Whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe that it is possible to struggle against them, and that this is essentially a moral effort. It is a question first of all of discovering what one really is, what one's own feelings really are, and then of making allowance for the inevitable bias. If you hate and fear Russia, if you are jealous of the wealth and power of America, if you despise Jews, if you have a sentiment of inferiority towards the British ruling class, you cannot get rid of those feelings simply by taking thought. But you can at least recognise that you have them, and prevent them from contaminating your mental processes. The emotional urges which are inescapable, and are perhaps even necessary to political action, should be able to exist side by side with an acceptance of reality. But this, I repeat, needs a moral effort, and contemporary English literature, so far as it is alive at all to the major issues of our time, shows how few of us are prepared to make it.
It's a point of view, and an interesting one, but it's not the opinion that unionists would have you think he espoused.

Never trust a Tory - they're all bad ...

2 comments:

Hetty Angal said...

Tories and red tories have nothing to offer Scotland, nothing at all positive, nothing life affirming. They are therefore reliant on propaganda, lies and demonisation of anyone disagreeing with them. They call the SNP, the, 'Scottish Nationalist Party' in the HoC's. An attempt to portray the SNP and their MPs as anti anyone outwith their own party. The opposite is true of course, but it is for the benefit of the people outwith Scotland, to portray Scotland as somehow, a rogue state, it is dangerous and orchestrated by the tory and red tory parties. When you demonise a people by whatever means, making them and their politically democratic government your enemy, it is easy to justify and rouse supoort for some kind of interference, even if that means violence. By painting the government and people of another country as dangerous 'nationalists' while in fact appealing to a heightened and dangerous level of nationalism in your own country, you can get away with anything.

A neighbour at my allotment would say, 'oh no, don't even think it, don't even put it out into the ether', but english nationalism is a threat to Scotland, Scotland's people and Scotland's democratically elected government.

We have to counter that at every opportunity.

Great article, and interesting quote by Orwell which shows up the tories for what they are, a self serving, determined and dangerous propaganda machine.

Peter A Bell said...

I have to say that, when I read the words "dichotomisation of a population into the authentic and the inauthentic" my mind went, not to Orwell, but immediately to the distinction insisted upon by Better Together/Project Fear between the "real Scots" who chose British nationalism with all its mindless jingoism and those who opted for the civic nationalism of the SNP and the Yes movement.