“As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me”
As we can tell from the first line, Orwell wrote England Your England during the conflict of World War II yet the essay turns out not to be about the war but about something very dear to Orwell’s heart: the British people.
Orwell states that the people in the planes trying to kill him must be very much like the British people; but patriotism and national loyalty trumps all, a fact that Hitler and Mussonlini were able to grasp. Differences between nations are based on differences in outlook and the English are highly differentiated, distinctive and recognizable from their country terrain, to their visual appearance, to their manners. Yet while these attributes can vary substantially from area to area, the English have a common national identity. How is that possible among so many differences? Orwell investigates.
|source Wikipedia & Dennis Redfield
CC BY 2.0
Orwell makes some generalizations about the English:
- They are not artistically gifted
- They are not intellectual
- In the face of an emergency, “the whole nation can suddenly draw together and act upon a species of instinct, really a code of conduct which is understood by almost everyone, though never formulated”
- They have a love of flowers
- They have an addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations
- They believe in the liberty of the individual
- They are not puritanical; they have their weaknesses and astonishingly have to work against hypocritcal laws to enjoy them
- They do not have definite religious beliefs yet “have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ”
- Power-worship has never infected the common people
There is a gentleness in the landscape that is mirrored in its people. They have a distaste for anything military; in fact in their histories one learns more about British defeat instead of British victory. Considering the British Empire, to foreigners English attitudes seem like sheer hypocrisy, yet the common people do not seem to know that the Empire exists. A military display, such as the goose-step, would be laughed at by the British people.
|source Wikipedia & Robert Scarth
CC BY 2.0
However, despite the gentleness, there is also barbarianism and anachronisms. For example, British criminal law is antiquated:
- belief that the law is above the State and the individual
- the electoral system is “all but open fraud”
- there is one law for the rich, another for the poor
However, there is balance within this system too.
While there are differences in British “races” and class distinction, they consider themselves a single nation. Patriotism “takes a different form in different classes, but it runs like a connecting thread though nearly all of them.” They cling to their culture with a tenacity that is at once astounding as it is admirable and national unity is almost a world-view. In spite of class distinctions, suddenly the whole country can “swing together” in a surprising move from sleep to action then back to sleep.
He references the English people’s reaction to Chamberlain during WWII:
“…. it is fairly certain that the bulk of the English people were behind Chamberlain’s foreign policy. More, it is fairly certain that the same struggle was going on in Chamberlain’s mind as in the minds of ordinary people. His opponent professed to see in him as a dark and wily schemer, plotting to sell England to Hitler, but it is far likelier that he was merely a stupid old man doing his best according to his very dim lights. It is difficult otherwise to explain the contradictions of his policy, his failure to grasp any of the courses that were open to him. Like the mass of the people, he did not want to pay the price either of peace or of war. And public opinion was behind him all the while, in policies that were completely incompatible with one another ….”
Is England a genuine democracy? Orwell gives an emphatic, No!
“England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly.”
Yet it has an emotional unity that prevents it not only from committing certain atrocities, but allows for an unusual freedom of speech. There is no worry because the country will act as one. Corruption in England is not a deliberate corruption, but more a corruption born of self-deception. “And being unconscious, it is limited.” England is not a jewel nor a hell but more a family with “all its cupboards bursting with skeletons ………. a family with the wrong members in control —- that, perhaps is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.”
The ability of the English ruling class has been decaying at an astronomical rate, especially during the years between 1920 and 1940, where domestic problems abounded and the foreign policy was atrocious. “What was it that at every decisive moment made every British statesman do the wrong thing with so unerring an instinct?” This ruling class had long since been unjustifiable, this fact becoming realized in the 1920s and obvious in the 1930s. Since this class had a long and dignified tradition, it could not turn into the unconscionable bandits, like American millionaires. “They had to feel themselves true patriots, even while they plundered their countrymen.” So instead they decided to retreat into stupidity, making themselves unable to grasp that any change was possible. This explains:
- the decay of country life due to clinging to sham-feudalism
- immobility of the public schools which have remained stagnant
- military incompetence punctuated by disasters
The ruling class served well in peacetime but because they lived in the past they could not grasp any of the present threats such as Hitler, Mussolini, Communism, Fascism, etc. Yet in spite of their flaws, they are morally sound and do not hesitate to get themselves killed for their country if the occasion calls for it.
“What is to be expected of them is not treachery or physical cowardice, but stupidity, unconscious sabotage, an infallible instinct for doing the wrong thing.”
In the between-war years, the Empire stagnated affecting two sub-sections of the middle class: the military and imperialist middle class, or the Blimps; and the left-wing intelligentsia. The Blimps began to lose vitality 30 years before as the telegraph buried their heros under mounds of paper and red tape and no other able, intelligent young men rose to take part in imperial administration. This weakening of imperialism, and therefore perhaps British morale, was partly caused by the left-wing intelligentsia, a growth that formed with the stagnation of the Empire. Most intellectuals were seen as left-wing and in an Empire that was stagnant and among people who were stupid, anyone understanding modern theory was suspect and kept out of important jobs. Their voice was only heard in literary reviews and left-wing political parties.
“The mentality of the English left-wing intelligentsia can be studied in half a dozen weekly and monthly papers. (They) … are generally negative, querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion. There is little in them except the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power. Another marked characteristic is the emotional shallowness of people who live in a world of ideas and have little contact with physical reality ….. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.” The Left, with their anti-British sentiment, made it easier for the Fascist nations to decide to plunge into war and with their Blimp-baiting made it more difficult for intelligent young men to enter the armed forces. With the stagnation of the Empire, the decay of the ruling class would have occurred in any case, but the Left hastened the process. Yet they were also a by-product of the ruling class stupidity. A modern nation cannot afford to have Blimps or left-wing intelligentsia if it is to prosper.
The spread of the middle-class both upwards and downwards, have made them nearly impossible to classify. This extension of the middle-class with their ideas and habits has enormously benefited the British working class. The differences in life between the classes has been greatly diminished. Yet while things are changing, “England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.”
I so enjoy Orwell’s witty style of writing but also his directness in that he colours the issues exactly as he sees them without prevaricating or glossing them, while at the same time employing insight and intelligence. He’s also adept at seeing the pros and cons within the issues and again, lays them out with a delightful clarity. He’s definitely becoming one of my favourite essayists!
And lastly, do you think England still retains all or many of the characteristics Orwell describes? I’d love to hear some thoughts on this topic!
Next up in the Deal Me In Challenge will be the essay Death of a Pig by E.B. White