Remembering George Orwell
1903, June 25. - 1950, January 21.


E Blair on T Blair's call to arms 

George Orwell's biographer considers what our greatest political writer would make of today

Bernard Crick
Sunday March 23, 2003
The Observer

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 on Iraq.

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 mind politically.

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 domination.

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.



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