Skip to content

Global Thinking Review – Winter 2001

Article by Foreign Policy Centre

September 15, 2006

(Penguin Classics, 2001, pb, £7.99, ISBN- 0-141-18518-X)

Since his premature death from tuberculosis nearly fifty years ago, George Orwell has become an archetype, a universal symbol of the fight against totalitarianism and political cant. This new edition, Orwell and Politics, places him back where he belongs – in the murky politics of England in the thirties and forties. Those monumental essays are buried between anxious letters to friends, book reviews for long-extinct left wing journals and snatches of personal diaries. The book is replete with period detail: constructing the Anderson Shelters and complaining about the National Loaf, digging for Britain and fitting the gas-mask.

A more jagged and cussed Orwell emerges from the one appropriated by the Left (as the master documenter of urban poverty) and the Right (as a Cold War Warrior). He is ever alive to an awkward truth, a complex question or an unpalatable political choice. Even those who share his beliefs on the evils of Empire or the failures of capitalism are excoriated for failing to see the consequences of their radical solutions. Though he passionately wants Britain to shed its Empire, he acknowledges that a retreat would leave India “incapable of feeding itself” and vulnerable to invasion from Japan. Glib voices on the left who argue that an independent India would quickly become prosperous and create a vast-market for British shoe-makers are also slapped down – in Orwell’s world there are no pain-free choices between money and morality.

His socialism seems as natural as breathing, an inescapable, practical reaction against a hidebound ruling class. England is a “blimpocracy” in which the products of public schools dominate all positions of authority. Talent that could make a real difference is elbowed aside by placemen who are “quite incapable of leading us to victory”. But if Conservatism makes him angry, the “Pansy Left” leaves him apoplectic. He sees most socialists as effete and self-indulgent: “frivolous people who have never been shoved up against much reality”. In the thirties he characterises them as armchair Generals demanding blood sacrifices that others will pay. Later, more culpably, they are cowed and silent in the face of Stalinist repression – even when the evidence is irrefutable.

But he also sees much of the Left’s analysis as hopelessly simple-minded. The subtle and quirky gradations of the English class system mock their attempts to lump the world into “bourgeois” and “proletariat” categories. This was not only inaccurate, it was stupid: their constant baiting of the middle-classes prevented the creation of a powerful political movement. The patriotism that ran “like a connecting thread” through Britain had no place in their worldview.

When railing against imperialism he also refused to ignore inconvenient facts. Though Indian Justice is a “huge machine to protect British interests” he acknowledges the “high traditions” and fair-mindedness of the Indian Civil Service. The Police may occasionally harass those selling the Daily Worker in Hyde Park, but those who argue that they are no different from the Gestapo are just ignorant. Temperamentally, Orwell was unsuited to the kind of philistinism that would denounce Eliot and Joyce as “bourgeois” whist celebrating the mind-numbing tracts of the Left Book Club.

Some of this volume feels like sifting through yellowing newspapers, too pre-occupied with old debates to be of interest to casual readers. The essays that will be reread show off his journalist’s eye for the killer line, the memorable image that invest a cause with moral force. In A Hanging he describes a condemned man stepping aside to avoid a puddle on his way to the gallows. Nothing better describes the wrongness and incomprehensibility of cutting a life short in full tide. The degradations of Empire for both the colonisers and the colonised is brilliantly described in Shooting an Elephant. An autobiographical piece dating from his time as a policemen in Burma, he is forced to kill a rampaging elephant to appease a baying mob. The colonial master has to put on a display of machismo to avoid being laughed at. As he ruefully notes: “when a white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom he destroys”

Orwell is at his weakest when he tries his hand as a soothsayer. During the late thirties he is suspicious of the Khaki wearing left who want a confrontation with the fascists. He is still looking for signs of a mass anti-war movement in 1938. Throughout the early war years he predicts Britain is “bound to be defeated” without a socialist revolution. At times, he echoes the Communist line that a European war is an imperialist sham to “extend and maintain our possessions” at the expense of the working classes. Later, when he produces a list of grandees who cosied up to Mussolini, his criticism seems a touch sanctimonious.

It has become a kind of pointless literary parlour game to guess what Orwell would think of modern Britain. We can guess at a few answers. He would be relieved to find a more meritocratic, footloose society where birth counts for far less. But his belief in a kind of folk-wisdom, the decency and respectability of the majority might have taken a battering. He hated the fripperies of the rich, so how would he respond to our age of consumer abundance and mobile phones? Whatever his radical politics, his views on personal morality were orthodox. How would he react to a saltier, more hedonistic world of all day drinking and sexual liberation?

Doubtless he would still be taking on euphemism and evasion wherever he found it. Instead of the language of Marxism, it might be the language of Therapy that earned his scorn. The kind of platitudes that Sinn Fein spokesmen specialise in – a mixture of sociology, managerialism and menace – would be marked out for special attention. Similarly, South West Trains, who prefer to apologise for “any inconvenience the delayed service may have caused to you”, rather than say sorry, would be a prime target. One thing is certain – no one would be safe – especially those most secure in their own righteousness.

Rob Blackhurst

by David Cannadine
(The Penguin Press, 2001, hb, £16.99, ISBN 0-713-99506-8)

Not race but rank was the guiding principle of the British imperial mission, argues David Cannadine in his latest work, Ornamentalism. More than imposing white domination, the British ruled by making the unfamiliar familiar and homogenising the heterogeneity of the ‘vast interconnected world’ by applying the same class-obsessed principles dominating British culture and society.

The caste system in India, the pashas of Egypt, the rulers of Malay, the sheikhs of the Middle East and even the tribal lords of Africa were seen as “comfortingly familiar” structures for British rule. Far from extirpating or even discrediting them, the British allied with their colonised counterparts, gave them their slice of the pie, lavished them with pomp and ceremony, garnered them with medals and titles and worked through them to administer these vast territories.

While high on this summer’s press reading lists, Cannadine’s wittily argued account has been met with some discomfort. Fellow historian Sunil Khilnani pokes fun at Cannadine for taking seriously the ridiculous “dressing up and kowtowing” of the “empire’s exotic menagerie”, while Richard Goff has gone as far as accusing him of “shifting imperial guilt”.

What makes it hard for liberal critics to stomach is not only that Cannadine’s remit extends no further than “those who dominated and ruled the empire” but that at no point does he chastise the imperial elites. Ornamentalism is in fact at its best when recording the splendour of palaces and courts in distant lands, the grandiosity of their Jubilees, the luxury of dress and the intricacy of the honours system. The selection of pictures which populate this beautifully presented book vividly portrays the bizzareness of the period – bewildered local chiefs in full Imperial regalia, massive Indo-Saracenic castles, the tented extravaganzas of New Delhi and a Nigerian sarong commemorating King George V’s Silver Jubilee.

Despite the lack of chest-beating, Cannadine does set out the deeply flawed nature of the Imperial project, one which was so stagnant and self-deceived that it was overtaken by the social revolutions taking place in the colonies themselves. These saw the emergence of a colonial middle class which was nationalist, liberal and educated and which scoffed at their pomposity. The irony though, he observes, was that the British themselves were “the agent of the great transformations that in the long run would help to bring about the subversion and termination of the whole imperial enterprise”.

Phoebe Griffith

by John R. Lampe
(Cambridge University Press, 2000, pb, $24.95, ISBN 0-521-77401-2)

As Neville Henderson, British ambassador to Yugoslavia in 1933, once wryly remarked, “It is easier to say Yugoslavia than to make it”. The last century saw two attempts to build a Yugoslavia, the unified state of the South Slavs. Both failed, the last one amidst a series of bloody conflicts whose horrors we are still living out.

Faced with the puzzle of explaining conflict and tensions extending into 21st century Europe, Western commentators encouraged what quickly became the received opinion: that Yugoslavia was a country doomed from the start, a historical aberration made possible only through the Serbian domination and oppression of minorities, and whose bloody end was an inevitable consequence of “age-old” ethnic antagonisms. In the second edition of “Yugoslavia as History: Twice There Was a Country” John Lampe invites us to adopt a different approach and to consider the history of a unified Yugoslavia that was once the aspiration of members from all its ethnicities – not just of imperialist Serbs.

Lampe’s argument that it was in no way doomed to failure is convincing. His account balances fairly between explaining the sources and features of its peoples’ separate identities, and highlighting the emergence of a real and often overlooked Yugoslavian identity, reinforced after the war by Communist rule and widespread acknowledgement of Tito as its leader. A valuable primer for those who always meant to read up on Yugoslavia and didn’t know where to begin.

Lucy Ahad

RIGHTEOUS VICTIMS: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999
by Benny Morris
(John Murray Publishers Ltd, 2000, hb, £25, ISBN 0-7195-6222-8)

Both Israel and the Arabs have constructed a justifying narrative for their current bloodstained policies. For the Arabs Israel stole their land, for Israel the land came to them via proper international procedures and wars of defence. As Morris makes clear in this scrupulously fair and balanced book, neither side’s story is wholly accurate, although he seems to incline towards an amended Zionist point of view. This is particularly significant coming in the wake of post-Zionism, a movement in which leading Israeli academics and pundits have sought through revisionist histories to debunk the traditional Zionist interpretation of history and which has succeeded in the minds of many in undermining Israel’s right to exist.

Zionist history was far from wholly accurate, and it needed revision but the pendulum swung too far, as is often the case in initial periods of historical revisionism. Morris has revised revisionism and produced a much fairer account.

He arrives at the unsurprising but beautifully documented conclusion that there were tragedies on both sides, cruelties on both sides, but that Israel’s existence is justified and something the Arab nations must get used to. Indeed the whole of Morris’ approach is contained in the title. It is often argued that Jews, as victims of the Holocaust made victims of the Arabs. As Morris make clear both sides were to an extent righteous and to an extent victims.

Ben Elton

GANDHI’S PASSION: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi
by Stanley Wolpert
(Oxford University Press, 2001, hb, $27.50, ISBN 0-1951-3060-X)

The failure of the historic summit between India and Pakistan has been another reminder of the enduring animosity that has existed between the two countries since the partition of South Asia in 1947. It was never a more appropriate time for the world to be reminded of the life and legacy of that most radical of pacifist socialist reformers: Mahatma Gandhi.

Drawing parallels in his title and introduction with the non-violent sufferings of Christ, Wolpert focuses in this rigorous and sophisticated biography on the beliefs which underpinned Gandhi’s political struggles. The cause of Indian Liberation (swaraj) was, for Gandhi, a “religious movement” for which he fasted and courted suffering. The achievement of political objectives was only possible and legitimate if it emerged through grassroots social renewal – what Gandhi called the “Uplift of All” in which Muslim-Hindu unity and the inclusion of India’s “untouchables” were as important as liberation from colonial oppressors.

Wolpert’s rigorous analysis does not shy away from the less well considered sides of Gandhi’s personality: the touches of vanity in his extreme asceticism and the irrational puritanism which caused him to mourn the marriage of his children and the birth of his grandchildren. Moreover, it was perhaps his strange superstitions, such as the belief that all disease was caused by sin, which alienated him from friends and potential allies such as Nehru and Jinnah and weakened his cause.

However, these facets of Gandhi’s philosophy illustrate what Wolpert outlines as the principle lesson to be learnt from the life of Mahatma Gandhi – that politics needs a moral vision. Albert Einstein wrote in response to Gandhi’s assassination words relevant to a new generation of Indian leaders: “If present day India were to reconsider the teaching of their greatest statesman, they would certainly show that this country still has much to teach the rest of the world”

James Walters

By John Campbell
(Pimlico, 2000, pb,£7.99, ISBN 0712674187)

Everyone knows where Margaret Thatcher learned her politics. As with Lincoln’s log cabin or Joe Kennedy’s pep talks, the story is wearisomely familiar: market economics inculcated in the corner shop, a suspicion of public spending learned from her Alderman father, and Victorian fastidiousness taught at chapel. John Campbell’s biography of Thatcher covering the years up to 1979 deconstructs these folksy roots to reveal her in a succession of more complex guises: a Thatcher with far more ambivalent attitudes and instinctive caution than the swashbuckling cartoon.

For all the platitudes about her childhood, this bright and ambitious teenager couldn’t wait to get away. But if Grantham was deadening in its provinciality, then wartime Oxford was a hostile and snide world. She was a misfit, her Samuel Smiles philosophy mocked by her boarding school contemporaries. As with Nixon, this early condescension at the hands of the “liberal elite” stayed with her for life. Her response was the only one that would allow her to pursue political ambitions: she found financial backing through marriage and became an archetypal home counties wife – wearing Penelope Keith hats, sending her son to Harrow and adopting the kind of strangulated vowels normally confined to Pathe news reels. Traces of her Lincolnshire past were expunged. It was only when as Leader of the Opposition she was recast as a brassy heroine for the tabloids that the “grocer’s daughter” legend was born.

In her junior ministerial jobs at the Department for Social Security and later as Education Secretary, she kept her right-wing credentials largely hidden. She even intervened to save Wilson’s Open University from closure at a time when most Conservatives distrusted its egalitarian overtones. There are no hints before her premiership, either, of the anti-Europeanism that would help to destroy her premiership. When the Macmillan Government announced its intention to join the EEC, Thatcher mounted arguments on sovereignty which would do Britain in Europe proud: “it is no good being independent in isolation if it involves running down our economy”. Perhaps someone should send a text to the Bruges group.

She even deployed arguments familiar to today’s pro-Euro enthusiasts. If we didn’t join the Common Agricultural Policy at the beginning then others would set the terms. Most startling of all, she harried Callaghan in 1978 for failing to join the European Monetary System. This, according to Campbell, was rooted in national pride. If there was to be European integration, then Britain should lead it.

Despite its perennially fascinating subject, The Grocer’s Daughter can be hard to digest. Thatcher’s staggering work rate – developed while she was still at school – left no time for any kind of private sphere at all. She seems never to have had any close friends, no spontaneity, no hinterland, no memorable incidents. There is a void in these four hundred pages where a three dimensional life should be.

Rob Blackhurst

    Related Articles

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre