Should I feel guilty at doing this? In the Year of Grace
1984 at podiums on the Orwell trail, the scholarly biographer had his answer
pat. 'If Orwell were alive today, how would he stand on...?' - some burning
issue of the moment. 'He would stand with difficulty, being 84,' I would reply,
'probably with a stick like his young friend, Michael Foot, but a biographer
can only say where he stood or lay at the time of his death.'
While dying of TB in University College Hospital in 1949, he still fulminated
against the reappearance of Rolls-Royces on the streets of London, praised
Aneurin Bevan for refusing to wear a dinner jacket at the Palace and scolded
Clement Attlee for being half-hearted in the advance towards 'democratic socialism'.
Yet he told his American friends of the Partisan Review that considering
the postwar state of the economy, Attlee had done as well as could be expected.
Now it is hazardous, as well as taking a scholarly liberty, to use Orwell's
name (he was born Eric Blair) in the topical debate. He has been so often
body-snatched by contradictory figures of Left, Right and centre. But the
present war tempts me to offer at least a reasoned speculation about where
he would be unlikely to have stood, by analogy to where he did stand. My fellow
judges for this year's Orwell Prize egged me on when I carted my conscience
to them. David Hare, Carmen Cahill and I last week had been agreeing the short-list
and pondering with with growing amazement how differently some publishers
must read the thematic chord, Orwell's dictum: 'What I have most wanted to
do... is to make political writing into an art.' Some books were turgid academic
prose and others, while well written, had little or no political import.
But next year's judges will face a bombardment of postwar, post-mortem tomes
Orwell had both literary art and politics, as well as common sense. 'Liberty
is telling people what they do not want to hear,' he said, so I don't think
he would have blamed our latterday Blair for taking an unpopular stand as
such. Old phrases from public-school Protestantism probably clanked in the
back of both their skulls: 'Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone' and
'Fight the good fight'. Eric Blair, having been at Eton in the First World
War, frustrated by ill health not to have fought in the Second, and living
into the first years of the Cold War, might just have had some doubts whether
Iraq was truly a threat to national interests and civilisation, as was Hitler
or some had thought the Kaiser.
All his writings on propaganda and on Spain, and his own sardonic comments
on making propaganda for two years for the BBC Far Eastern Service ('Cross
between a lunatic asylum and a whorehouse, but at least we told less lies
than the Nazis'), all this experience might just have made him sceptical of
claims of real threat, invisible smoking guns and Saddam's connection with
terrorism and the Twin Towers. If still writing in The Observer and Tribune,
he would have followed the shifting justifications for war and the shifting
war aims as Blairy excuses for policy already determined by Big Brother Bush
for domestic political reasons. Orwell was humanist with a regrettably dirty
As for deterrence, he argued as early as October 1945 that the invention
of the atom bomb would lead to stalemate in the struggle of the great powers,
mutual uselessness even if a huge boost to the armaments trade. In Nineteen Eighty-Four
, he drops an atomic
bomb on Colchester in 1955, but, after a brief flurry of exchanges, the three
world powers desist, fearing mutual destruction.
In the book, Goldstein's Testimony tells Winston Smith that the perpetual
but indecisive war is only to burn off surplus value which would otherwise
relieve poverty and stimulate democracy, threatening the power of the elite.
Yes, he wouldn't have been with CND. He hated the imperialism of the great
powers, but realistically accepted that deterrence prevented war.
No pacifist he, certainly. 'Someone's got to kill fascists,' he said as
he left for Spain, even if he couldn't squeeze the trigger when he caught
a fascist in his sights with trousers down defecating. And he did see fighting
to save the Spanish Republic as a war to try to stop fascism and Nazism spreading.
But he might have asked what is supposed to be spreading now. Saddam is a
vicious tyrant, but he is showing no signs or capability of attempting world
Having lived in the 1930s, Orwell would have a sardonic contempt for the
'appeasement of Hitler' analogy - some rather obvious differences between
Germany then and Iraq at any period since the Persian Empire. Bush and Blair
adopting Churchillian poses would have turned his tummy.
Most of all, Orwell might have lamented the decay of the Labour Party. 'A
writer can never be a loyal member of a political party', the stress on 'loyal',
for in 1937 he was a member of the old Independent Labour Party. He might
have been sad, even bitter, at the final victory (with Tory support) of the
office-holders and seekers ('The backstairs creeps and the arse-lickers of
the parliamentary Labour Party') over the moralists and public-spirited.
And he might have asked what wide consultation there had been, as he did
in an essay of 1938 belligerently called 'Not Counting the Niggers'; had the
vast majority of the inhabitants of the British Empire been consulted on
their enthusiasm for a European war? And now, to return to native earth, had
the majority of the the inhabitants of our country been consulted on tying
ourselves to Bush's tail and breaking with the United Nations and the European
Union? Had the Labour Party been consulted even? He might have spotted that
we have, if perhaps only for a while, not Cabinet government but presidential
government. 'Democratic government?' I hear a sarcastic chuckle from the grave,
or the mocking laughter of a free man.
Oh, one other thing. The lover of English, plain words and plain speaking,
would have had a field day with exposing platitudes, truisms and all those
Blairy verbal forms used to hide rather than express meaning. 'We hope, indeed
we pray that, even at this last minute...' Some hope, some prayer.
to the Orwell