Orwell as a British Imperialist

1984 and all that

by Gwydion M. Williams

The year 1984 should have been celebrated as the centenary of British democracy. Only in 1884 did a majority of adult males living in Britain have a vote. Even then it was maybe 60%, with poorer men and all women still excluded.

England had had a parliament from mediaeval times, as had many other mediaeval kingdoms in the Latin-Christian tradition. Self-governing city states, sometimes cited as the birth-place of modern democracy, were never found in any part of Britain. Self-governing communities of any sort were absent until they occurred half-accidentally in the English settlement in North America.

Before the 1832 Reform Act, a few hundred rich men had functional control over the House of Commons. In the 17th century, when Parliament and King fought for supremacy, the House of Commons was less ‘sewn up’ by the rich. But the House of Commons was also not representative of the people as a whole. Nor was the Cromwellian army, though it may have represented a rather larger minority.

The bulk of the population were not then politicised, but would have supported the King if asked to choose. That was why Charles the First was able to govern England for 10 years without a parliament, until he foolishly tried to change the politics of Scotland and disrupt a radical Presbyterian social order that had strong popular roots in Lowland Scotland. Cromwell broke the Scots, and Cromwell had earlier put down the Levellers in the Army, pointing out that the bulk of the population would restore the monarchy, given a choice. Cromwell managed a kind of revolutionary dictatorship for several years, but this failed after his death.

British democracy definitely did not begin before 1884. It’s moot if it was even established then. Voters went on electing members of the traditional ruling class, in most cases. Britain also governed a huge Empire where democracy was confined to places where white people had a comfortable majority. Canada and Australia and New Zealand could become self-governing territories, because white settlers had swamped the earlier inhabitants. India was allowed a kind of electoral system from 1935, but without real power. Canada and Australia and New Zealand chose to back Britain in World War Two: India was brought in by its British-appointed Viceroy. Mahatma Ghandi reacted by staying neutral for the entire war; more militant Indian nationalists like Chandra Bose chose to fight on the Axis side. There was some logic to both reactions: India demonstrated that it could not be passively ruled any more. The Japanese capture of Singapore was also a massive blow to British prestige. Britain after the war would have faced a wider insurgency if it hadn’t agreed to quit India and indicated that the rest of the Empire would soon become self-governing or be allowed to go its own way.

There’s a good case for saying that Britain was no democracy until 1947, when India actually became independent. (Tragically partitioned along sectarian lines that British India had done a lot to encourage in its last few decades.)

Meantime George Orwell in 1947 was working on 1984, a tale build on the assumption that the best days were over and that the future was very bleak. He regarded himself as a man of the left, a supporter of the British Labour Party. He had complained about how Animal Farm had been used as a general anti-left text. But actions speak louder than words: ‘actions’ in this case being the content of Orwell’s final novel. The bleak future of England is vaguely explained by an atomic war in the 1950s, but no mention is made of the democratic socialism that Orwell claimed to support. Indeed, the dictatorial creed of Big Brother is not Marxism but a kind of mad parody of left-Labour values of the Tribunite sort. The aversion to sex has nothing in common with Marxism, or Fascism either: it was something you found on the British left up until the 1960s.

Orwell came from the class that had lost out when Continental ideas of democracy and popular rule seeped into England. A class of functionaries, the people who ruled India and Burma and other colonies as a distinct stratum alien to both the home society and the people they ruled. In the 1940s this was clearly coming to an end, there had been signs of it even in the 1930s, when Orwell became a rebel with his own class. But in the last analysis, Orwell was just a mass of resentments with no clear focus.

If I ever complete a fuller study of him, I will call it Orwell Against. It is not necessary to say what he was against, because he was always against and never in fact in favour of anything. The former colonial policeman preferred to think about a world endlessly under the heel of nasty little bullies, rather than a future in which democracy might triumph and the world carries on very nicely without people of his sort.

Meantime ‘big brother’ in the sense of continuous monitoring has become part of normal commercial life. Surveillance cameras made necessary because of high crime that Thatcherism created with 1984 as part of the propaganda tool-kit. 1984 was seen just in that sense and not as the centenary of a British democracy that remains very incomplete.


This was written in 2006. I’m not sure if it was ever published.

There is more about Orwell at the Fascism & World Wars menu.

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