I’ve been reading a new biography of George Orwell that’s been published to coincide with the 70th anniversary of his death. Many books have been written about him, including at least six biographies, so there isn’t much new to say. Instead, author Richard Bradford focuses on what Orwell would have thought about the contemporary world and which aspects of it he would have disliked.
Some of the items on Bradford’s list are predictable: China’s surveillance state, Donald Trump’s ‘-alternative facts’, Islamo-fascism. But the thing that would have really got Orwell’s goat, apparently, is our departure from the EU. The world ‘Brexit’ occurs 35 times in Bradford’s book, while there are only 16 references to ‘Isis’. Whole passages are devoted to telling us how ‘rabid’, ‘feral’ and ‘racist’ Leavers are, with scarcely a reference to Orwell. And when Bradford does quote him, it’s in an attempt to show how prescient he was in anticipating the ‘dim-witted materialism’, ‘brainless nationalism’ and ‘xenophobia’ of the Brexiteers.
For instance, Bradford includes Orwell’s account of attending a meeting in Barnsley Town Hall hosted by Oswald Mosley in 1936, but only as a pretext for then comparing him with the villains of the drama that has engulfed us for the past three-and-a-half years. ‘[T]he speaker could be Nigel Farage MEP, or any other senior member of Ukip, the Brexit party or the ERG,’ he writes.
The real lesson of Nineteen Eighty-Four, for Bradford, is the sheer, unadulterated ghastliness of England’s lumpen proletariat and their willingness to be duped by shameless demagogues. ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four is routinely treated as an attack on Soviet totalitarianism, and so it is — to an extent,’ he writes. But scratch the surface and we discover Orwell’s real target. ‘The closer we look at the parallels between the novel and his journalism, the more we have to wonder if he was predicting a country, his own, gone bad without the assistance of Stalin. He had observed the real proles and forewarned us of their 21st–century successors long before he invented their enslaved counterparts.’
The irony of this gobbledegook is twofold. First, Orwell himself warned against the indiscriminate use of the word ‘fascist’. In his essay ‘What is Fascism?’ he pointed out that so many things had been described as ‘fascist’ — including the Boy Scouts, the police, MI5 and the Home Guard — that it had ‘lost the last vestige of meaning’. In what could be a direct rebuke to Bradford, he writes: ‘Organisations of what one might call a patriotic and traditional type are labelled crypto-Fascist or “Fascist-minded”.’ Second, and more seriously, Bradford seems to be taking at face value one of the most dishonest criticisms of Orwell made by defenders of Stalinism, namely that he was a fearful snob who depicted the ‘proles’ as sub-human to justify their cruel exploitation by evil capitalists.
In fact, Orwell wrote numerous articles and essays expressing his affection for the working class and ‘low’ culture, including ‘Good Bad Books’, ‘The Decline of the English Murder’ and ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’. Yes, they’re Bacchanalian, sex-obsessed and suspicious of intellectuals, but that is the soil in which liberty thrives. ‘I never read …Temperance tracts, papal encyclicals and sermons against gambling and contraception, without seeming to hear in the background a chorus of raspberries from all the millions of common men to whom these high sentiments make no appeal,’ he wrote.
It is not ordinary people he despises, but the ‘boiled rabbits of the left’, the ‘Europeanised intelligentsia’ who ‘get their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow’. When Orwell rails against these purse-lipped puritans, who would feel ‘more ashamed of standing to attention during “God Save the King” than of stealing from a poor box’, he could be talking about Gina Miller and Jolyon Maugham. Notwithstanding Orwell’s distaste for nationalism, I’m almost certain he would have been a Brexiteer.
What’s so disappointing about Bradford’s book is that Orwell does have an urgent message for us, which is to resist the growing encroachments on free speech, particularly the tendency of the left to destroy the reputation of anyone who dissents from progressive orthodoxy (such as describing them as ‘fascists’). If we’re going to fight against cancel culture, he is the talisman we need. Forget about Brexit. What Orwell would have disapproved of is the Maoist climate of intolerance sweeping through our institutions.