Charles Moore

What would George Orwell make of Brexit?

What would George Orwell make of Brexit?
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In the London Review of Books this month, James Meek wrote a long article about Jacob Rees-Mogg and his ‘curious duality’ in being both a high Catholic, fogey Brexiteer and a founder of Somerset Capital Management, which the author sees as globalist and ruthless. The piece is elegantly done, but entirely sneery. It makes not the slightest attempt to enter into the Mogg’s (or any Brexiteer’s) mind with any sympathy. I was thinking about this because the LRB’s publicity emphasised that Meek is an Orwell Prize winner. How we need an Orwell on the subject of Brexit. Although he came from a declaredly socialist view, he understood what it is — to use the modern Goodhart distinction — to be a person from somewhere rather than a person from anywhere. In his famous wartime book The Lion and The Unicorn (its very title is pleasing for Brexiteers since Remainers are unremittingly unpleasant about unicorns), Orwell tries to enter into the patriotism both as felt by the upper and military classes and by the working classes. On the whole, he compares such patriotism favourably with the attitudes of the left-wing intellectuals among whom he moves. ‘The insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously,’ he writes, ‘is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time. But it plays its part in the English mystique, and the intellectuals who have tried to break it down have generally done more harm than good. At bottom it is the same quality in the English character that repels the tourist and keeps out the invader.’

That was 1941. Orwell began the book with the words ‘As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.’ It is dangerous to apply the feelings of the war to now, and I understand why some Remainers see this as offensive to their modern fellow Europeans. But the comparison became pertinent once referendum voters had made up their mind in 2016. Until then, it was fair — indeed it was intended by the process — that each side should argue its case as hard as possible. Once the result was in, however, arguing against it became a different sort of thing — an attempt to deny what the voters had, by the rules, decided. That is when too many Remainers embarked on a character assassination of their fellow countrymen, particularly the less educated ones. MPs who had denigrated the concept of the sovereignty of parliament since at least 1972 suddenly invoked it against their own people in a way they were never prepared to do against the European Union. Just now, I am reading Julian Jackson’s fascinating biography of de Gaulle (A Certain Idea of France). When trying to rally recruits to his Free French, de Gaulle was advised that he should try to uphold the parliament of the Third Republic. He did not want to because, as he put it, ‘Parliament abdicated’. In his view, it had given in to an exterior power, at the expense of the people it was supposed to represent. Our situation today is not nearly as bad as that, but if the majority of MPs do in the end block Brexit, they will indeed have abdicated their role as representatives, upon which their legitimacy rests.

This article is an extract from Charles Moore’s Spectator Notes, available in this week’s magazine