Orwell on Patriotism

Chris Townsend
October 17, 2016

During the Conservative Party Conference last week, the prime  minister gave a speech critical of those in the political class who turn  up their noses at the public’s patriotism, national pride, and  pro-British sentiment:

They find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns  about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal, your  attachment to your job security inconvenient. They find the fact that  more than seventeen million people voted to leave the European Union  simply bewildering. Because if you’re well off and comfortable, Britain  is a different country and these concerns are not your concerns.

The speech, which transparently aimed to draw in post-Brexit Leave  voters from Labour and Ukip alike, contained the message that it is okay  to be a patriot, and that it is not okay to suggest that patriotism is  akin to xenophobia or racism. Read alongside the home secretary Amber  Rudd’s speech at the same conference, which suggested that British  companies with high numbers of migrant workers should be ‘named and  shamed’, the whole conference felt a like a large-scale version of the  familiar phrase “I’m not racist, but…”. However, if we can take anything  useful from May’s speech it might be the idea that there is a more  subtle distinction to be made between the negative forces of nationalism  and the positive potential of patriotism. May’s acceptance of  patriotism, indeed, recalls that greatest of left-wing thinkers: Blair.

I mean, of course, Eric Arthur Blair, or, as he’s more commonly  known, George Orwell. In his seminal 1941 essay ‘The Lion and the  Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’, Orwell was concerned with  precisely the ways in which patriotism can be harnessed and used to  serve systems of government.* Written in London during the Blitz ( “As I  write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to  kill me”), Orwell’s essay offers a reconsideration of patriotism in the  face of national crisis. He begins with the assertion that there are  discernible differences between national characters, that “anyone able  to use his eyes knows that the average of human behaviour differs  enormously from country to country”. The English, or British (all but  interchangeable for Orwell), might be divided by region, class, wealth,  and power, but, for Orwell, “somehow these differences fade away the  moment that any two Britons are confronted by a European”.

Orwell’s point is that there is something like a common English or  British ‘character’ after all, one bound up with the idea of the nation.  This he takes to be the reality of an individual’s relationship with  place and nation, and of the relationship between the people within  nation. For Orwell, a sense of national belonging and of collective  identity is deep-rooted to the point of inextricability: “However much  you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from [Britain]  for any length of time. The suet puddings and the red pillar-boxes have  entered into your soul”. We might be deceiving ourselves when we try to  think ourselves out of the culture and history of the nations into which  we were born. In seeing nations as only sets of restrictive and  othering cultural boundaries, we come to want to shrug ourselves free of  nationality; for Orwell, this is both unachievable, and largely undesirable.

The main point of the discussion of patriotism in ‘The Lion and the  Unicorn’ is not to show that we identify with nations (even when we  think or claim that we do not), but that national pride is a powerful  political force that must be acknowledged. Providing a historical  footing for his own essay, Orwell writes:

One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one  recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In  certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of  civilization it does not exist, but as a POSITIVE force there is nothing  to set beside it. Christianity and international Socialism are as weak  as straw in comparison with it. Hitler and Mussolini rose to power in  their own countries very largely because they could grasp this fact and  their opponents could not.

Orwell does not want to suggest that the ‘positivity’ of patriotism  is made manifest in the rise of fascism. Rather, in the move from  national characteristics towards pride in those commonalities, Orwell  sees the good that could come out of patriotism: a profound sense of  unification that might lead to progressive political action. Patriotism  can (Orwell does not think it always does) create a sense of  togetherness that cuts across differences and generates positive change  with unparalleled force. It is this sense of patriotism that Orwell  thinks can drag a nation out of extreme circumstances and crisis; “There  can be moments when the whole nation suddenly swings together and does  the same thing, like a herd of cattle facing a wolf”.

The reason Orwell believes the left is not used to seeing these  changes work for them is because the left detests patriotism, and  doesn’t take up the banner of Britishness as do its opposites. “England  is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of  their own nationality”, he said. In this sense, intellectualism is  hopelessly at odds with the view of the public. In one of the only areas  of thought where Orwell could be said to agree with Theresa May, he  identifies in the left a common dislike of patriotism and Britishness,  and an over-readiness to conflate the former concept with nationalism  and racism. Is this true of the left today? It is hard to speak with  certainty, but ask yourself what associations are called to mind when  you meditate on the term ‘patriotism’. If we are honest with ourselves,  we are probably more ready to think of Nigel Farage as a patriot than we  are Jeremy Corbyn, and a slew of negative associations follow.

The popular idea that the left hates patriotism makes it very easy  for figures like May on the right to attack the left for being ‘out of  touch’ with the public in the wake of Brexit — a result which in large  part has been understood to be a consequence of patriotic sentiment. Of  course, racist sentiment was also a factor in play during the Brexit  referendum, as was made clear by the spike in racially-motivated crimes  that occurred in the days following the vote to leave the European Union  (as the Independent has only recently reported). But neither Orwell nor  May want us to oversimplify the relation between patriotism and  nationalism to the extent that they become indistinguishable. When  figures on the left in politics and the media appear to blur that  distinction, the right will waste no time in accusing them of elitism  and anti-Britishness. The then-Labour MP Emily Thornberry lost her job a  few years ago for merely tweeting a photo of a house adorned with three  St. George’s flags — an act of implicit snobbery and anti-Englishness  that was met with widespread anger, and which, David Cameron suggested,  showed that the “Labour party sneers at people who work hard, who are  patriotic and who love their country”.

For Orwell, the left’s sense of shame at being British is wrong, and  he believes that the conflation of patriotism with unthinking  nationalism acts as an impediment to political (for him, socialist)  progress:

It is obvious that this preposterous convention cannot  continue. The Bloomsbury highbrow, with his mechanical snigger, is as  out-of-date as the cavalry colonel. A modern nation cannot afford either  of them. Patriotism and intelligence will have to come together again.

Orwell might be on to something. It is certainly true that when we  interrogate our own relation with patriotism as a concept, our phobia of  it can feel as deeply-entrenched as national pride is in the mind of  patriots. Orwell wants us to ask: how can the left better understand  patriotism and the patriotic? Can there be a love of one’s country  reached through intellectualism? This would entail dropping what Orwell  termed the “grossly over-simplifying” equation between patriotism and  fascism that he saw in the leftist intellectuals of his day. Orwell does  not instruct us how to reconcile intellectual enquiry with patriotic  sentiment, only that it must happen.

Today, another question is prompted by Orwell’s essay: how can  someone be pro-English or British and also be pro-Europe, or pro-world?  This is a question Theresa May cannot answer positively, as she outlined  in her speech: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a  citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word  ‘citizenship’ means”. Orwell, who felt a unity with the other citizens  of his nation based on a shared interest in drinking tea and on the  commonality of bad teeth — and for whom the act of upholding manners and  queuing respectfully were signs of a British tendency towards socialism  and empathy for fellow humans —could not agree with May. And with the  role that patriotism is apparently playing in current politics here and  elsewhere (“Make America Great Again”), we might do well to look for  more nuanced ways of understanding national pride than as essentially  racist in character. Or else we can sit back and watch the Conservatives  win around the votes of post-Brexit patriots. I will close with  Orwell’s image of England as a family, one that seems to speak to our  current concerns over how the country is being run:

[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. It has its private language  and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its  ranks. A family with the wrong members in control –that, perhaps, is as  near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.

*All quotations of Orwell’s text refer to the original 1941 publication, as reproduced on The Orwell Prize website.


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