Orwell Was Wrong (Just Occasionally)

This article also features at Bella Caledonia.

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I have been an Orwell obsessive since I was 11 years old when I read Down & Out in Paris & London. I was obviously too young to get all of it but I got a taste for his work early and it has stayed with me throughout my life. In fact, I know large sections of it by memory and went on a sort of pilgrimage to the house where he wrote 1984. Furthermore, I used to have a picture of him on my living room wall. It has now been moved to the office (or “smallest room” as it otherwise known) at the insistence of my girlfriend.

That doesn’t mean to say that I don’t think he was occasionally wrong (I’m even breaking one of his writing rules in the first half of this sentence just to see if anyone notices),  but I think most people would agree that he left an amazing body of work behind.

I have also, since a young age, been a firm supporter of Scottish Independence. That said, for a long time the use of the word ‘nationalist’ has sat uncomfortably with me. It is clear to anyone who looks that the Independence movement is not nationalist in the way Orwell described it in Notes on Nationalism

“Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

A very short and on the money general criticism of this essay came from the writer Philip Challinor when I interviewed him and he said…

I’ve never got patriotism at all. I mean I know Orwell approved of it but the essay he wrote about patriotism and nationalism is one of the ones I disagree with because I think the aspects of patriotism he disapproves of he has called ‘nationalism’, and the aspects of nationalism that he approves of he has called ‘patriotism’.

I don’t think Orwell could have been counted as a sympthathizer with regards to Scottish Independence. As far as I know the only time he talked about it in his writing was in the same essay…

“Welsh, Irish and Scottish nationalism have points of difference but are alike in their anti-English orientation. Members of all three movements have opposed the war while continuing to describe themselves as pro-Russian, and the lunatic fringe has even contrived to be simultaneously pro-Russian and pro-Nazi. But Celtic nationalism is not the same thing as anglophobia. Its motive force is a belief in the past and future greatness of the Celtic peoples, and it has a strong tinge of racialism. The Celt is supposed to be spiritually superior to the Saxon — simpler, more creative, less vulgar, less snobbish, etc. — but the usual power hunger is there under the surface. One symptom of it is the delusion that Eire, Scotland or even Wales could preserve its independence unaided and owes nothing to British protection. Among writers, good examples of this school of thought are Hugh McDiarmid and Sean O’Casey. No modern Irish writer, even of the stature of Yeats or Joyce, is completely free from traces of nationalism.”

There are so many ‘Orwell was right’ articles out there that it is refreshing to do an ‘Orwell was wrong’ one.  In the paragraph I quoted above there is a lot you can take issue with.

For example in the modern context, given that we now all live in the American Empire, and that in many ways the UK is now a satellite territory of the USA (or Airstrip One if you like), ideas about protection of independence simply don’t count. Furthermore, from a historical point of view you could point out that because the UK exists, Scottish Independence does not.

You could point out that there is a lunatic fringe everywhere. You might also say that, in the UK, the majority of the type of right-wing nationalism that he describes is to be found in England.

I think it is also clear that the charge of “power-hunger” doesn’t make a lot of sense. A power-hungry Scottish politician would head straight to London in order to work in the bigger, stronger unit and would not see the benefits in working in a smaller state.

I’ll leave it to others to talk about MacDiarmid, Joyce and O’Casey.

Time of writing is important here though. The first appearance of the Notes on Nationalism essay was in May 1945 so it is safe enough to assume it was written sometime before the end of the war. Orwell during the war had called for a type of “honest propaganda”. We can’t say for sure but maybe this is what he was attempting with the essay.

So in what he says above, I do think he was wrong. Nevertheless, I think people who want independence should be very careful about word choice as the “nationalist” label is still one that is occasionally used to deliberately create false perceptions about what is going on. If not that, then from ignorance of the real situation people immediately assume that because the word nationalist is there then something rightwing and nasty is afoot. The Orwell essay I have been talking about is frequently brought up in these discussions.

After so long it is always difficult to change a name but it might serve if more people would refer to it as The Independence Movement rather than the nationalist one. And what is more… The Independence Movement sounds sexier anyway.

Post Script

With this background I was rather surprised to come across a diary written by Orwell in Cranham Sanatorium in Gloucestershire a few months before his death.

Cranham, 17 April 1949
Curious effect, here in the sanatorium, on Easter Sunday, when the people in this (the most expensive) block of “chalets” mostly have visitors, of hearing large numbers of upper-class English voices. I have been almost out of the sound of them for two years, hearing them at most one or two at a time, my ears growing more & more used to working-class or lower-middle class Scottish voices. In the hospital at Hairmyres, for instance, I literally never heard a “cultivated” accent except when I had a visitor. It is as though I were hearing these voices for the first time. And what voices! A sort of over-fedness, a fatuous self-confidence, a constant bah-bahing of laughter about nothing, above all a sort of heaviness & richness combined with a fundamental ill-will—people who, one instinctively feels, without even being able to see them, are the enemies of anything intelligent or sensitive or beautiful. No wonder everyone hates us so.

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4 comments

  1. I first heard of Orwell at about the same age — a teacher read us an extract about a sordid landlord whose kitchen was a paradise for black beetles and who left a black thumbprint in the middle of any sandwich he made. I assume the book was either Down and Out… or The Road to Wigan Pier; what made an impression aside from the charming details noted above was the cover, which was that of a rather ugly but quite distinctive Penguin edition. How I got from that to Nineteen Eighty-Four, which has always been the work of his that made the greatest impression on me, I can’t now remember; it can’t have been all that long afterwards, because the first copy I owned had that same cover design. I think I read Homage to Catalonia, Burmese Days and Coming Up For Air considerably later, about the same time as I got into his essays.

    I think the point about power hunger is that they would rather be the biggest turd in a small pile than just another little shit in the Greater London Cloaca, if you’ll excuse the metaphor.

  2. .The SNP knows the UK supreme court will oppose a referendum but independence affects everyone not just the Scottish. Alex Salmond has more than enough support in the Scottish parliament for a referendum on independence. He also has the support of David Cameron who If the Scottish parliament votes to have an independence referendum thats a vote that we would have to respect and we would have to allow that and enable that to happen. And so there is ostensibly nothing stopping Salmond from having the referendum he wants.

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