Reviewed by Karen Langley
Although George Orwell’s name resonates most strongly with us nowadays because of his great novels – in particular Nineteen Eighty Four, which seems to become more relevant every day – it shouldn’t be forgotten that he was a superb essayist. There is even a prize in his name for political writing, and Orwell constantly tackled important questions during his lifetime. So the reissue of one of his greatest pieces of political writing, The Lion and the Unicorn, is particularly welcome at the moment.
Subtitled “Socialism and the English Genius”, this book collects together three pieces penned by Orwell during one of the worst periods of the Blitz. While bombs were dropped, aircraft swooped overhead and artillery tried to fight them off, Orwell turned his mind to the vexed subject of the English character, the state of the modern world and where England would go in the future.
This slim but vital volume contains three sections: “England, Your England”, “Shopkeepers at War” and “The English Revolution”. The first essay was put out as a pamphlet last year but now the whole little book has received a timely reissue as a Penguin Modern Classic (whom I have to commend for their wonderfully ironic choice of cover image), and it’s clear that Orwell’s writing is just as essential as ever.
(England is) a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family… A family with the wrong members in control.
In the first section Orwell considers patriotism, the relationship between the English and other countries, the state of the Empire, whether there are national characteristics, and if we are a homogenous nation. He even berates himself for using the words “England” and “English”, because of course he is considering the UK. Many of his arguments touch on class and the division of wealth, and this is where I think he’s still very much spot on.
What was it that at every decisive moment made every British statesman do the wrong thing with so unerring an instinct?
Although the class system has broken down to a certain extent, we still live in a country where there is apparently democracy, and also a Royal Family, a House of Lords, and the Eton-type public school system which still produces so many of those who are supposed to be providing sensible government but don’t.
England is a country in which property and financial power are concentrated in very few hands.
And somehow, despite the decline of the aristocracy, they have managed to survive by absorbing up and coming wealthy manufacturers, financiers and the like (the subject of so many 20th century middlebrow novels about mixed-class marriages!) However, Orwell does not reserve his ire exclusively for the monied and the upper classes; he is equally scathing about those left-wing intellectuals who toe the Soviet party line and refused to believe anything wrong about Russia and what was really happening there. He has strong words about the inability of the English working class to ever do anything as decisive as starting a revolution, and he cites this as one of the differences between this country and, say, the working classes of France or Russia (both of which have managed multiple revolutions).
The second part of the book, “Shopkeepers at War” delves more deeply into Orwell’s views of capitalism, and frankly he has little time for it or faith in its effectiveness to provide a safe or civilised world. He points out how futile the actions of the country’s leaders have been and how Britain is basically being run by people who aren’t competent to do so (which again sounds chillingly familiar…)
England is a family with the wrong members in control. Almost entirely we are governed by the rich, and by people who step into positions of command by right of birth. Few if any of these people are consciously treacherous, some of them are not even fools, but as a class they are quite incapable of leading us to victory.
And after discussing specific political characters, he comments darkly with one of his wonderful turns of phrase, “A generation of the unteachable is hanging upon us like a necklace of corpses.”
Orwell clearly believes that the privileged classes have no real interest in winning the war against Germany; in fact that many would be happy with appeasement as long as their comfortable life wasn’t changed at all. Which leads him on to his thoughts in “The English Revolution”…
Right through our national life we have got to fight against privilege, against the notion that a half-witted public-schoolboy is better for command than an intelligent mechanic.
In Part Three, Orwell lays out his view of a socialist future for the country, a fairer place for all, and it’s a bracing, invigorating and inspiring read. He eloquently states his case for a kind of socialism he believes in, not based on any of the existing parties or set ups (he is clear on the fact that he believes the communist experiment to have failed); instead, he wants a throwing out of all cant and pomp, a decent country where all have a fair deal and a good life. He is clear-eyed enough to know that complete equality of everything is impractical, but supports a kind of commonsing of resources. And I think some of these ideals were actually put in place after the War was over, but we all know what has happened to them since.
The Lion and the Unicorn was published in 1941 and with the War in full swing it’s worth remembering that it was not a given that Germany would be beaten. In some ways the book is a rallying cry, with Orwell calling for the people of his country to ignore the idiots in charge and pull together (as they so often do) to beat an unthinkably awful enemy (and let’s not forget that the worst excesses of the Nazi regime were still unknown to the Allied countries). He even tackles the complex subject of the British Empire, well aware that this was a rotting organism that had to go.
I actually read “England, Your England” on its own in the pamphlet edition and it certainly does stand alone; however it has much more strength and resonance as part of this book and the focus becomes less on just the national character and instead more on what we need to do to change the country for the better. Some elements of this book have by necessity become dated, but there are many things in it that ring true.
Orwell ends his bracing polemic on a note of optimism, urging for an English revolution and change. He states “This war, unless we are defeated, will wipe out most of the existing class privileges“. Looking around me today, I don’t think, alas, that that is the case. We seem to me to be living in a world just as riddled with inequality as it was in Orwell’s day, The post-war period saw the country edge in that direction with the construction of the NHS, nationalisation of industries and attempts to dissolve class differences. These gains were lost, and what is terrifying is that we find ourselves in a similar situation to that of Orwell, in the land of snobbery and privilege; and I really wish we still had commentators of the calibre of Orwell taking on those in power…
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and thinks it’s about time we started to kick over some statues…
George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn (Penguin Modern Classics, 2018). 978-0241307397, 182pp, paperback.
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