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George Orwell > The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism And The English Genius > Essay

The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism And The English Genius


Part I

England Your England


As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to
kill me.

They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against
them. They are 'only doing their duty', as the saying goes. Most of them,
I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream
of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them
succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never
sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the
power to absolve him from evil.

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.

Also, one must admit that the divisions between nation and nation are
founded on real differences of outlook. Till recently it was thought
proper to pretend that all human beings are very much alike, but in fact
anyone able to use his eyes knows that the average of human behaviour
differs enormously from country to country. Things that could happen in
one country could not happen in another. Hitler's June purge, for
instance, could not have happened in England. And, as western peoples go,
the English are very highly differentiated. There is a sort of
back-handed admission of this in the dislike which nearly all foreigners
feel for our national way of life. Few Europeans can endure living in
England, and even Americans often feel more at home in Europe.

When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have
immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. Even in the first
few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling. The
beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the
advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their
mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from
a European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you
lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single
identifiable character. Are there really such things as nations? Are we
not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of
it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the
to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the
Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old
maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning--
all these are not only fragments, but CHARACTERISTIC fragments, of the
English scene. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?

But talk to foreigners, read foreign books or newspapers, and you are
brought back to the same thought. Yes, there is something distinctive and
recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as
that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy
Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red
pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it
stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that
persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in
common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with
the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece?
Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.

And above all, it is YOUR civilization, it is you. However much you hate
it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of
time. The suet puddings and the red pillar-boxes have entered into your
soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the
grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.

Meanwhile England, together with the rest of the world, is changing. And
like everything else it can change only in certain directions, which up
to a point can be foreseen. That is not to say that the future is fixed,
merely that certain alternatives are possible and others not. A seed may
grow or not grow, but at any rate a turnip seed never grows into a
parsnip. It is therefore of the deepest importance to try and determine
what England IS, before guessing what part England CAN PLAY in the huge
events that are happening.


National characteristics are not easy to pin down, and when pinned down
they often turn out to be trivialities or seem to have no connexion with
one another. Spaniards are cruel to animals, Italians can do nothing
without making a deafening noise, the Chinese are addicted to gambling.
Obviously such things don't matter in themselves. Nevertheless, nothing
is causeless, and even the fact that Englishmen have bad teeth can tell
something about the realities of English life.

Here are a couple of generalizations about England that would be accepted
by almost all observers. One is that the English are not gifted
artistically. They are not as musical as the Germans or Italians,
painting and sculpture have never flourished in England as they have in
France. Another is that, as Europeans go, the English are not
intellectual. They have a horror of abstract thought, they feel no need
for any philosophy or systematic 'world-view'. Nor is this because they
are 'practical', as they are so fond of claiming for themselves. One has
only to look at their methods of town planning and water supply, their
obstinate clinging to everything that is out of date and a nuisance, a
spelling system that defies analysis, and a system of weights and
measures that is intelligible only to the compilers of arithmetic books,
to see how little they care about mere efficiency. But they have a
certain power of acting without taking thought. Their world-famed
hypocrisy--their double-faced attitude towards the Empire, for instance
--is bound up with this. Also, in moments of supreme crisis 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. The phrase that Hitler coined for the Germans, 'a
sleep-walking people', would have been better applied to the English. Not
that there is anything to be proud of in being called a sleep-walker.

But here it is worth noting a minor English trait which is extremely well
marked though not often commented on, and that is a love of flowers. This
is one of the first things that one notices when one reaches England from
abroad, especially if one is coming from southern Europe. Does it not
contradict the English indifference to the arts? Not really, because it
is found in people who have no aesthetic feelings whatever. What it does
link up with, however, is another English characteristic which is so much
a part of us that we barely notice it, and that is the addiction to
hobbies and spare-time occupations, the PRIVATENESS of English life. We
are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors,
pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players,
crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres
round things which even when they are communal are not official--the
pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the 'nice cup
of tea'. The liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in
the nineteenth century. But this has nothing to do with economic liberty,
the right to exploit others for profit. It is the liberty to have a home
of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own
amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above. The most
hateful of all names in an English ear is Nosey Parker. It is obvious, of
course, that even this purely private liberty is a lost cause. Like all
other modern people, the English are in process of being numbered,
labelled, conscripted, 'co-ordinated'. But the pull of their impulses is
in the other direction, and the kind of regimentation that can be imposed
on them will be modified in consequence. No party rallies, no Youth
Movements, no coloured shirts, no Jew-baiting or 'spontaneous'
demonstrations. No Gestapo either, in all probability.

But in all societies the common people must live to some extent AGAINST
the existing order. The genuinely popular culture of England is something
that goes on beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned
on by the authorities. One thing one notices if one looks directly at the
common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not
puritanical. They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their
wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the
foulest language in the world. They have to satisfy these tastes in the
face of astonishing, hypocritical laws (licensing laws, lottery acts,
etc. etc.) which are designed to interfere with everybody but in practice
allow everything to happen. Also, the common people are without definite
religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church
never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed
gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities. And yet
they have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost
forgetting the name of Christ. The power-worship which is the new
religion of Europe, and which has infected the English intelligentsia,
has never touched the common people. They have never caught up with power
politics. The 'realism' which is preached in Japanese and Italian
newspapers would horrify them. One can learn a good deal about the spirit
of England from the comic coloured postcards that you see in the windows
of cheap stationers' shops. These things are a sort of diary upon which
the English people have unconsciously recorded themselves. Their
old-fashioned outlook, their graded snobberies, their mixture of
bawdiness and hypocrisy, their extreme gentleness, their deeply moral
attitude to life, are all mirrored there.

The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked
characteristic. You notice it the instant you set foot on English soil.
It is a land where the bus conductors are good-tempered and the policemen
carry no revolvers. In no country inhabited by white men is it easier to
shove people off the pavement. And with this goes something that is
always written off by European observers as 'decadence' or hypocrisy, the
English hatred of war and militarism. It is rooted deep in history, and
it is strong in the lower-middle class as well as the working class.
Successive wars have shaken it but not destroyed it. Well within living
memory it was common for 'the redcoats' to be booed at in the streets and
for the landlords of respectable public houses to refuse to allow
soldiers on the premises. In peace time, even when there are two million
unemployed, it is difficult to fill the ranks of the tiny standing army,
which is officered by the country gentry and a specialized stratum of the
middle class, and manned by farm labourers and slum proletarians. The
mass of the people are without military knowledge or tradition, and their
attitude towards war is invariably defensive. No politician could rise to
power by promising them conquests or military 'glory', no Hymn of Hate
has ever made any appeal to them. In the last war the songs which the
soldiers made up and sang of their own accord were not vengeful but
humorous and mock-defeatist[Note, below]. The only enemy they ever named
was the sergeant-major.

[Note: For example:

'I don't want to join the bloody Army,
I don't want to go unto the war;
I want no more to roam,
I'd rather stay at home,
Living on the earnings of a whore.

But it was not in that spirit that they fought.

In England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the 'Rule Britannia' stuff,
is done by small minorities. The patriotism of the common people is not
vocal or even conscious. They do not retain among their historical
memories the name of a single military victory. English literature, like
other literatures, is full of battle-poems, but it is worth noticing that
the ones that have won for themselves a kind of popularity are always a
tale of disasters and retreats. There is no popular poem about Trafalgar
or Waterloo, for instance. Sir John Moore's army at Corunna, fighting a
desperate rearguard action before escaping overseas (just like Dunkirk!)
has more appeal than a brilliant victory. The most stirring battle-poem
in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong
direction. And of the last war, the four names which have really engraved
themselves on the popular memory are Mons, Ypres, Gallipoli and
Passchendaele, every time a disaster. The names of the great battles that
finally broke the German armies are simply unknown to the general public.

The reason why the English anti-militarism disgusts foreign observers is
that it ignores the existence of the British Empire. It looks like sheer
hypocrisy. After all, the English have absorbed a quarter of the earth
and held on to it by means of a huge navy. How dare they then turn round
and say that war is wicked?

It is quite true that the English are hypocritical about their Empire. In
the working class this hypocrisy takes the form of not knowing that the
Empire exists. But their dislike of standing armies is a perfectly sound
instinct. A navy employs comparatively few people, and it is an external
weapon which cannot affect home politics directly. Military dictatorships
exist everywhere, but there is no such thing as a naval dictatorship.
What English people of nearly all classes loathe from the bottom of their
hearts is the swaggering officer type, the jingle of spurs and the crash
of boots. Decades before Hitler was ever heard of, the word 'Prussian'
had much the same significance in England as 'Nazi' has today. So deep
does this feeling go that for a hundred years past the officers of the
British army, in peace time, have always worn civilian clothes when off

One rapid but fairly sure guide to the social atmosphere of a country is
the parade-step of its army. A military parade is really a kind of ritual
dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life.
The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the
world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. It is simply an
affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and
intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face. Its
ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is 'Yes, I am
UGLY, and you daren't laugh at me', like the bully who makes faces at his
victim. Why is the goose-step not used in England? There are, heaven
knows, plenty of army officers who would be only too glad to introduce
some such thing. It is not used because the people in the street would
laugh. Beyond a certain point, military display is only possible in
countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army. The
Italians adopted the goose-step at about the time when Italy passed
definitely under German control, and, as one would expect, they do it
less well than the Germans. The Vichy government, if it survives, is
bound to introduce a stiffer parade-ground discipline into what is left
of the French army. In the British army the drill is rigid and
complicated, full of memories of the eighteenth century, but without
definite swagger; the march is merely a formalized walk. It belongs to a
society which is ruled by the sword, no doubt, but a sword which must
never be taken out of the scabbard.

And yet the gentleness of English civilization is mixed up with
barbarities and anachronisms. Our criminal law is as out-of-date as the
muskets in the Tower. Over against the Nazi Storm Trooper you have got to
set that typically English figure, the hanging judge, some gouty old
bully with his mind rooted in the nineteenth century, handing out savage
sentences. In England people are still hanged by the neck and flogged
with the cat o' nine tails. Both of these punishments are obscene as well
as cruel, but there has never been any genuinely popular outcry against
them. People accept them (and Dartmoor, and Borstal) almost as they
accept the weather. They are part of 'the law', which is assumed to be

Here one comes upon an all-important English trait: the respect for
constitutionalism and legality, the belief in 'the law' as something
above the State and above the individual, something which is cruel and
stupid, of course, but at any rate INCORRUPTIBLE.

It is not that anyone imagines the law to be just. Everyone knows that
there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. But no one
accepts the implications of this, everyone takes it for granted that the
law, such as it is, will be respected, and feels a sense of outrage when
it is not. Remarks like 'They can't run me in; I haven't done anything
wrong', or 'They can't do that; it's against the law', are part of the
atmosphere of England. The professed enemies of society have this feeling
as strongly as anyone else. One sees it in prison-books like Wilfred
Macartney's WALLS HAVE MOUTHS or Jim Phelan's JAIL JOURNEY, in the solemn
idiocies that take place at the trials of conscientious objectors, in
letters to the papers from eminent Marxist professors, pointing out that
this or that is a 'miscarriage of British justice'. Everyone believes in
his heart that the law can be, ought to be, and, on the whole, will be
impartially administered. The totalitarian idea that there is no such
thing as law, there is only power, has never taken root. Even the
intelligentsia have only accepted it in theory.

An illusion can become a half-truth, a mask can alter the expression of a
face. The familiar arguments to the effect that democracy is 'just the
same as' or 'just as bad as' totalitarianism never take account of this
fact. All such arguments boil down to saying that half a loaf is the same
as no bread. In England such concepts as justice, liberty and objective
truth are still believed in. They may be illusions, but they are very
powerful illusions. The belief in them influences conduct, national life
is different because of them. In proof of which, look about you. Where
are the rubber truncheons, where is the castor oil? The sword is still in
the scabbard, and while it stays there corruption cannot go beyond a
certain point. The English electoral system, for instance, is an all but
open fraud. In a dozen obvious ways it is gerrymandered in the interest
of the moneyed class. But until some deep change has occurred in the
public mind, it cannot become COMPLETELY corrupt. You do not arrive at
the polling booth to find men with revolvers telling you which way to
vote, nor are the votes miscounted, nor is there any direct bribery. Even
hypocrisy is a powerful safeguard. The hanging judge, that evil old man
in scarlet robe and horse-hair wig, whom nothing short of dynamite will
ever teach what century he is living in, but who will at any rate
interpret the law according to the books and will in no circumstances
take a money bribe, is one of the symbolic figures of England. He is a
symbol of the strange mixture of reality and illusion, democracy and
privilege, humbug and decency, the subtle network of compromises, by
which the nation keeps itself in its familiar shape.


I have spoken all the while of 'the nation', 'England', 'Britain', as
though forty-five million souls could somehow be treated as a unit. But
is not England notoriously two nations, the rich and the poor? Dare one
pretend that there is anything in common between people with £100,000 a
year and people with £1 a week? And even Welsh and Scottish readers are
likely to have been offended because I have used the word 'England'
oftener than 'Britain', as though the whole population dwelt in London
and the Home Counties and neither north nor west possessed a culture of
its own.

One gets a better view of this question if one considers the minor point
first. It is quite true that the so-called races of Britain feel
themselves to be very different from one another. A Scotsman, for
instance, does not thank you if you call him an Englishman. You can see
the hesitation we feel on this point by the fact that we call our islands
by no less than six different names, England, Britain, Great Britain, the
British Isles, the United Kingdom and, in very exalted moments, Albion.
Even the differences between north and south England loom large in our
own eyes. But somehow these differences fade away the moment that any two
Britons are confronted by a European. It is very rare to meet a
foreigner, other than an American, who can distinguish between English
and Scots or even English and Irish. To a Frenchman, the Breton and the
Auvergnat seem very different beings, and the accent of Marseilles is a
stock joke in Paris. Yet we speak of 'France' and 'the French',
recognizing France as an entity, a single civilization, which in fact it
is. So also with ourselves. Looked at from the outsider even the cockney
and the Yorkshireman have a strong family resemblance.

And even the distinction between rich and poor dwindles somewhat when one
regards the nation from the outside. There is no question about the
inequality of wealth in England. It is grosser than in any European
country, and you have only to look down the nearest street to see it.
Economically, England is certainly two nations, if not three or four. But
at the same time the vast majority of the people FEEL themselves to be a
single nation and are conscious of resembling one another more than they
resemble foreigners. Patriotism is usually stronger than class-hatred,
and always stronger than any kind of internationalism. Except for a brief
moment in 1920 (the 'Hands off Russia' movement) the British working
class have never thought or acted internationally. For two and a half
years they watched their comrades in Spain slowly strangled, and never
aided them by even a single strike[Note, below]. But when their own
country (the country of Lord Nuffield and Mr Montagu Norman) was in
danger, their attitude was very different. At the moment when it seemed
likely that England might be invaded, Anthony Eden appealed over the radio
for Local Defence Volunteers. He got a quarter of a million men in the
first twenty-four hours, and another million in the subsequent month. One
has only to compare these figures with, for instance, the number of
conscientious objectors to see how vast is the strength of traditional
loyalties compared with new ones.

[Note: It is true that they aided them to a certain extent with money.
Still, the sums raised for the various aid-Spain funds would not equal
five per cent of the turnover of the football pools during the same
period. (Author's footnote.)]

In England patriotism takes different forms in different classes, but it
runs like a connecting thread through nearly all of them. Only the
Europeanized intelligentsia are really immune to it. As a positive
emotion it is stronger in the middle class than in the upper class--the
cheap public schools, for instance, are more given to patriotic
demonstrations than the expensive ones--but the number of definitely
treacherous rich men, the Laval-Quisling type, is probably very small. In
the working class patriotism is profound, but it is unconscious. The
working man's heart does not leap when he sees a Union Jack. But the
famous 'insularity' and 'xenophobia' of the English is far stronger in
the working class than in the bourgeoisie. In all countries the poor are
more national than the rich, but the English working class are
outstanding in their abhorrence of foreign habits. Even when they are
obliged to live abroad for years they refuse either to accustom
themselves to foreign food or to learn foreign languages. Nearly every
Englishman of working-class origin considers it effeminate to pronounce a
foreign word correctly. During the war of 1914-18 the English working
class were in contact with foreigners to an extent that is rarely
possible. The sole result was that they brought back a hatred of all
Europeans, except the Germans, whose courage they admired. In four years
on French soil they did not even acquire a liking for wine. The
insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is
a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time. But it
plays its part in the English mystique, and the intellectuals who have
tried to break it down have generally done more harm than good. At bottom
it is the same quality in the English character that repels the tourist
and keeps out the invader.

Here one comes back to two English characteristics that I pointed out,
seemingly at random, at the beginning of the last chapter. One is the
lack of artistic ability. This is perhaps another way of saying that the
English are outside the European culture. For there is one art in which
they have shown plenty of talent, namely literature. But this is also the
only art that cannot cross frontiers. Literature, especially poetry, and
lyric poetry most of all, is a kind of family joke, with little or no
value outside its own language-group. Except for Shakespeare, the best
English poets are barely known in Europe, even as names. The only poets
who are widely read are Byron, who is admired for the wrong reasons, and
Oscar Wilde, who is pitied as a victim of English hypocrisy. And linked
up with this, though not very obviously, is the lack of philosophical
faculty, the absence in nearly all Englishmen of any need for an ordered
system of thought or even for the use of logic.

Up to a point, the sense of national unity is a substitute for a
'world-view'. Just because patriotism is all but universal and not even
the rich are uninfluenced by it, there can be moments when the whole
nation suddenly swings together and does the same thing, like a herd of
cattle facing a wolf. There was such a moment, unmistakably, at the time
of the disaster in France. After eight months of vaguely wondering what
the war was about, the people suddenly knew what they had got to do:
first, to get the army away from Dunkirk, and secondly to prevent
invasion. It was like the awakening of a giant. Quick! Danger! The
Philistines be upon thee, Samson! And then the swift unanimous action--
and, then, alas, the prompt relapse into sleep. In a divided nation that
would have been exactly the moment for a big peace movement to arise. But
does this mean that the instinct of the English will always tell them to
do the right thing? Not at all, merely that it will tell them to do the
same thing. In the 1931 General Election, for instance, we all did the
wrong thing in perfect unison. We were as single-minded as the Gadarene
swine. But I honestly doubt whether we can say that we were shoved down
the slope against our will.

It follows that British democracy is less of a fraud than it sometimes
appears. A foreign observer sees only the huge inequality of wealth, the
unfair electoral system, the governing-class control over the press, the
radio and education, and concludes that democracy is simply a polite name
for dictatorship. But this ignores the considerable agreement that does
unfortunately exist between the leaders and the led. However much one may
hate to admit it, it is almost certain that between 1931 and 1940 the
National Government represented the will of the mass of the people. It
tolerated slums, unemployment and a cowardly foreign policy. Yes, but so
did public opinion. It was a stagnant period, and its natural leaders
were mediocrities.

In spite of the campaigns of a few thousand left-wingers, 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
opponents professed to see in him 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. It was behind him when he
went to Munich, when he tried to come to an understanding with Russia,
when he gave the guarantee to Poland, when he honoured it, and when he
prosecuted the war half-heartedly. Only when the results of his policy
became apparent did it turn against him; which is to say that it turned
against its own lethargy of the past seven years. Thereupon the people
picked a leader nearer to their mood, Churchill, who was at any rate able
to grasp that wars are not won without fighting. Later, perhaps, they
will pick another leader who can grasp that only Socialist nations can
fight effectively.

Do I mean by all this that England is a genuine democracy? No, not even a
reader of the DAILY TELEGRAPH could quite swallow that.

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. But in any
calculation about it one has got to take into account its emotional
unity, the tendency of nearly all its inhabitants to feel alike and act
together in moments of supreme crisis. It is the only great country in
Europe that is not obliged to drive hundreds of thousands of its
nationals into exile or the concentration camp. At this moment, after a
year of war, newspapers and pamphlets abusing the Government, praising
the enemy and clamouring for surrender are being sold on the streets,
almost without interference. And this is less from a respect for freedom
of speech than from a simple perception that these things don't matter.
It is safe to let a paper like PEACE NEWS be sold, because it is certain
that ninety-five per cent of the population will never want to read it.
The nation is bound together by an invisible chain. At any normal time
the ruling class will rob, mismanage, sabotage, lead us into the muck;
but let popular opinion really make itself heard, let them get a tug from
below that they cannot avoid feeling, and it is difficult for them not to
respond. The left-wing writers who denounce the whole of the ruling class
as 'pro-Fascist' are grossly over-simplifying. Even among the inner
clique of politicians who brought us to our present pass, it is doubtful
whether there were any CONSCIOUS traitors. The corruption that happens in
England is seldom of that kind. Nearly always it is more in the nature of
self-deception, of the right hand not knowing what the left hand doeth.
And being unconscious, it is limited. One sees this at its most obvious
in the English press. Is the English press honest or dishonest? At normal
times it is deeply dishonest. All the papers that matter live off their
advertisements, and the advertisers exercise an indirect censorship over
news. Yet I do not suppose there is one paper in England that can be
straightforwardly bribed with hard cash. In the France of the Third
Republic all but a very few of the newspapers could notoriously be bought
over the counter like so many pounds of cheese. Public life in England
has never been OPENLY scandalous. It has not reached the pitch of
disintegration at which humbug can be dropped.

England is not the jewelled isle of Shakespeare's much-quoted message,
nor is it the inferno depicted by Dr Goebbels. More than either it
resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black
sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has
rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are
horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the
source of the family income. It 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.


Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton,
but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there. One
of the dominant facts in English life during the past three quarters of a
century has been the decay of ability in the ruling class.

In the years between 1920 and 1940 it was happening with the speed of a
chemical reaction. Yet at the moment of writing it is still possible to
speak of a ruling class. Like the knife which has had two new blades and
three new handles, the upper fringe of English society is still almost
what it was in the mid nineteenth century. After 1832 the old land-owning
aristocracy steadily lost power, but instead of disappearing or becoming
a fossil they simply intermarried with the merchants, manufacturers and
financiers who had replaced them, and soon turned them into accurate
copies of themselves. The wealthy shipowner or cotton-miller set up for
himself an alibi as a country gentleman, while his sons learned the right
mannerisms at public schools which had been designed for just that
purpose. England was ruled by an aristocracy constantly recruited from
parvenus. And considering what energy the self-made men possessed, and
considering that they were buying their way into a class which at any
rate had a tradition of public service, one might have expected that able
rulers could be produced in some such way.

And yet somehow the ruling class decayed, lost its ability, its daring,
finally even its ruthlessness, until a time came when stuffed shirts like
Eden or Halifax could stand out as men of exceptional talent. As for
Baldwin, one could not even dignify him with the name of stuffed shirt.
He was simply a hole in the air. The mishandling of England's domestic
problems during the nineteen-twenties had been bad enough, but British
foreign policy between 1931 and 1939 is one of the wonders of the world.
Why? What had happened? What was it that at every decisive moment made
every British statesman do the wrong thing with so unerring an instinct?

The underlying fact was that the whole position of the moneyed class had
long ceased to be justifiable. There they sat, at the centre of a vast
empire and a world-wide financial network, drawing interest and profits
and spending them--on what? It was fair to say that life within the
British Empire was in many ways better than life outside it. Still, the
Empire was underdeveloped, India slept in the Middle Ages, the Dominions
lay empty, with foreigners jealously barred out, and even England was
full of slums and unemployment. Only half a million people, the people in
the country houses, definitely benefited from the existing system.
Moreover, the tendency of small businesses to merge together into large
ones robbed more and more of the moneyed class of their function and
turned them into mere owners, their work being done for them by salaried
managers and technicians. For long past there had been in England an
entirely functionless class, living on money that was invested they
hardly knew where, the 'idle rich', the people whose photographs you can
look at in the TATLER and the BYSTANDER, always supposing that you want
to. The existence of these people was by any standard unjustifiable. They
were simply parasites, less useful to society than his fleas are to a

By 1920 there were many people who were aware of all this. By 1930
millions were aware of it. But the British ruling class obviously could
not admit to themselves that their usefulness was at an end. Had they
done that they would have had to abdicate. For it was not possible for
them to turn themselves into mere bandits, like the American
millionaires, consciously clinging to unjust privileges and beating down
opposition by bribery and tear-gas bombs. After all, they belonged to a
class with a certain tradition, they had been to public schools where the
duty of dying for your country, if necessary, is laid down as the first
and greatest of the Commandments. They had to FEEL themselves true
patriots, even while they plundered their countrymen. Clearly there was
only one escape for them--into stupidity. They could keep society in its
existing shape only by being UNABLE to grasp that any improvement was
possible. Difficult though this was, they achieved it, largely by fixing
their eyes on the past and refusing to notice the changes that were going
on round them.

There is much in England that this explains. It explains the decay of
country life, due to the keeping-up of a sham feudalism which drives the
more spirited workers off the land. It explains the immobility of the
public schools, which have barely altered since the eighties of the last
century. It explains the military incompetence which has again and again
startled the world. Since the fifties every war in which England has
engaged has started off with a series of disasters, after which the
situation has been saved by people comparatively low in the social scale.
The higher commanders, drawn from the aristocracy, could never prepare
for modern war, because in order to do so they would have had to admit to
themselves that the world was changing. They have always clung to
obsolete methods and weapons, because they inevitably saw each war as a
repetition of the last. Before the Boer War they prepared for the Zulu
War, before the 1914 for the Boer War, and before the present war for
1914. Even at this moment hundreds of thousands of men in England are
being trained with the bayonet, a weapon entirely useless except for
opening tins. It is worth noticing that the navy and, latterly, the air
force, have always been more efficient than the regular army. But the
navy is only partially, and the air force hardly at all, within the
ruling-class orbit.

It must be admitted that so long as things were peaceful the methods of
the British ruling class served them well enough. Their own people
manifestly tolerated them. However unjustly England might be organized,
it was at any rate not torn by class warfare or haunted by secret police.
The Empire was peaceful as no area of comparable size has ever been.
Throughout its vast extent, nearly a quarter of the earth, there were
fewer armed men than would be found necessary by a minor Balkan state. As
people to live under, and looking at them merely from a liberal, NEGATIVE
standpoint, the British ruling class had their points. They were
preferable to the truly modern men, the Nazis and Fascists. But it had
long been obvious that they would be helpless against any serious attack
from the outside.

They could not struggle against Nazism or Fascism, because they could not
understand them. Neither could they have struggled against Communism, if
Communism had been a serious force in western Europe. To understand
Fascism they would have had to study the theory of Socialism, which would
have forced them to realize that the economic system by which they lived
was unjust, inefficient and out-of-date. But it was exactly this fact
that they had trained themselves never to face. They dealt with Fascism
as the cavalry generals of 1914 dealt with the machine-guns--by ignoring
it. After years of aggression and massacres, they had grasped only one
fact, that Hitler and Mussolini were hostile to Communism. Therefore, it
was argued, they MUST be friendly to the British dividend-drawer. Hence
the truly frightening spectacle of Conservative M.P.s wildly cheering the
news that British ships, bringing food to the Spanish Republican
government, had been bombed by Italian aeroplanes. Even when they had
begun to grasp that Fascism was dangerous, its essentially revolutionary
nature, the huge military effort it was capable of making, the sort of
tactics it would use, were quite beyond their comprehension. At the time
of the Spanish Civil War, anyone with as much political knowledge as can
be acquired from a sixpenny pamphlet on Socialism knew that, if Franco
won, the result would be strategically disastrous for England; and yet
generals and admirals who had given their lives to the study of war were
unable to grasp this fact. This vein of political ignorance runs right
through English official life, through Cabinet ministers, ambassadors,
consuls, judges, magistrates, policemen. The policeman who arrests the
'red' does not understand the theories the 'red' is preaching; if he did
his own position as bodyguard of the moneyed class might seem less
pleasant to him. There is reason to think that even military espionage is
hopelessly hampered by ignorance of the new economic doctrines and the
ramifications of the underground parties.

The British ruling class were not altogether wrong in thinking that
Fascism was on their side. It is a fact that any rich man, unless he is a
Jew, has less to fear from Fascism than from either Communism or
democratic Socialism. One ought never to forget this, for nearly the
whole of German and Italian propaganda is designed to cover it up. The
natural instinct of men like Simon, Hoare, Chamberlain etc. was to come
to an agreement with Hitler. But--and here the peculiar feature of
English life that I have spoken of, the deep sense of national
solidarity, comes in--they could only do so by breaking up the Empire
and selling their own people into semi-slavery. A truly corrupt class
would have done this without hesitation, as in France. But things had not
gone that distance in England. Politicians who would make cringing
speeches about 'the duty of loyalty to our conquerors' are hardly to be
found in English public life. Tossed to and fro between their incomes and
their principles, it was impossible that men like Chamberlain should do
anything but make the worst of both worlds.

One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class are MORALLY
fairly sound, is that in time of war they are ready enough to get
themselves killed. Several dukes, earls and what nots were killed in the
recent campaign in Flanders. That could not happen if these people were
the cynical scoundrels that they are sometimes declared to be. It is
important not to misunderstand their motives, or one cannot predict their
actions. 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. They are not wicked, or not altogether wicked;
they are merely unteachable. Only when their money and power are gone
will the younger among them begin to grasp what century they are living


The stagnation of the Empire in the between-war years affected everyone
in England, but it had an especially direct effect upon two important
sub-sections of the middle class. One was the military and imperialist
middle class, generally nicknamed the Blimps, and the other the left-wing
intelligentsia. These two seemingly hostile types, symbolic opposites--
the half-pay colonel with his bull neck and diminutive brain, like a
dinosaur, the highbrow with his domed forehead and stalk-like neck--are
mentally linked together and constantly interact upon one another; in any
case they are born to a considerable extent into the same families.

Thirty years ago the Blimp class was already losing its vitality. The
middle-class families celebrated by Kipling, the prolific lowbrow
families whose sons officered the army and navy and swarmed over all the
waste places of the earth from the Yukon to the Irrawaddy, were dwindling
before 1914. The thing that had killed them was the telegraph. In a
narrowing world, more and more governed from Whitehall, there was every
year less room for individual initiative. Men like Clive, Nelson,
Nicholson, Gordon would find no place for themselves in the modern
British Empire. By 1920 nearly every inch of the colonial empire was in
the grip of Whitehall. Well-meaning, over-civilized men, in dark suits
and black felt hats, with neatly rolled umbrellas crooked over the left
forearm, were imposing their constipated view of life on Malaya and
Nigeria, Mombasa and Mandalay. The one-time empire builders were reduced
to the status of clerks, buried deeper and deeper under mounds of paper
and red tape. In the early twenties one could see, all over the Empire,
the older officials, who had known more spacious days, writhing
impotently under the changes that were happening. From that time onwards
it has been next door to impossible to induce young men of spirit to take
any part in imperial administration. And what was true of the official
world was true also of the commercial. The great monopoly companies
swallowed up hosts of petty traders. Instead of going out to trade
adventurously in the Indies one went to an office stool in Bombay or
Singapore. And life in Bombay or Singapore was actually duller and safer
than life in London. Imperialist sentiment remained strong in the middle
class, chiefly owing to family tradition, but the job of administering
the Empire had ceased to appeal. Few able men went east of Suez if there
was any way of avoiding it.

But the general weakening of imperialism, and to some extent of the whole
British morale, that took place during the nineteen-thirties, was partly
the work of the left-wing intelligentsia, itself a kind of growth that
had sprouted from the stagnation of the Empire.

It should be noted that there is now no intelligentsia that is not in
some sense 'left'. Perhaps the last right-wing intellectual was T. E.
Lawrence. Since about 1930 everyone describable as an 'intellectual' has
lived in a state of chronic discontent with the existing order.
Necessarily so, because society as it was constituted had no room for
him. In an Empire that was simply stagnant, neither being developed nor
falling to pieces, and in an England ruled by people whose chief asset
was their stupidity, to be 'clever' was to be suspect. If you had the
kind of brain that could understand the poems of T. S. Eliot or the
theories of Karl Marx, the higher-ups would see to it that you were kept
out of any important job. The intellectuals could find a function for
themselves only in the literary reviews and the left-wing political

The mentality of the English left-wing intelligentsia can be studied in
half a dozen weekly and monthly papers. The immediately striking thing
about all these papers is their 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. Many
intellectuals of the Left were flabbily pacifist up to 1935, shrieked for
war against Germany in the years 1935-9, and then promptly cooled off
when the war started. It is broadly though not precisely true that the
people who were most 'anti-Fascist' during the Spanish Civil War are most
defeatist now. And underlying this is the really important fact about so
many of the English intelligentsia--their severance from the common
culture of the country.

In intention, at any rate, the English intelligentsia are Europeanized.
They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow. In the
general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident
thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals
are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always
felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman
and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse
racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably
true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of
standing to attention during 'God save the King' than of stealing from a
poor box. All through the critical years many left-wingers were chipping
away at English morale, trying to spread an outlook that was sometimes
squashily pacifist, sometimes violently pro-Russian, but always
anti-British. It is questionable how much effect this had, but it
certainly had some. If the English people suffered for several years a
real weakening of morale, so that the Fascist nations judged that they
were 'decadent' and that it was safe to plunge into war, the intellectual
sabotage from the Left was partly responsible. Both the NEW STATESMAN and
the NEWS CHRONICLE cried out against the Munich settlement, but even they
had done something to make it possible. Ten years of systematic
Blimp-baiting affected even the Blimps themselves and made it harder than
it had been before to get intelligent young men to enter the armed
forces. Given the stagnation of the Empire, the military middle class
must have decayed in any case, but the spread of a shallow Leftism
hastened the process.

It is clear that the special position of the English intellectuals during
the past ten years, as purely NEGATIVE creatures, mere anti-Blimps, was a
by-product of ruling-class stupidity. Society could not use them, and
they had not got it in them to see that devotion to one's country implies
'for better, for worse'. Both Blimps and highbrows took for granted, as
though it were a law of nature, the divorce between patriotism and
intelligence. If you were a patriot you read BLACKWOOD'S MAGAZINE and
publicly thanked God that you were 'not brainy'. If you were an
intellectual you sniggered at the Union Jack and regarded physical
courage as barbarous. 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. It is the fact that we are fighting a war, and a very peculiar
kind of war, that may make this possible.


One of the most important developments in England during the past twenty
years has been the upward and downward extension of the middle class. It
has happened on such a scale as to make the old classification of society
into capitalists, proletarians and petit bourgeois (small
property-owners) almost obsolete.

England is a country in which property and financial power are
concentrated in very few hands. Few people in modern England OWN anything
at all, except clothes, furniture and possibly a house. The peasantry
have long since disappeared, the independent shopkeeper is being
destroyed, the small businessman is diminishing in numbers. But at the
same time modern industry is so complicated that it cannot get along
without great numbers of managers, salesmen, engineers, chemists and
technicians of all kinds, drawing fairly large salaries. And these in
turn call into being a professional class of doctors, lawyers, teachers,
artists, etc. etc. The tendency of advanced capitalism has therefore been
to enlarge the middle class and not to wipe it out as it once seemed
likely to do.

But much more important than this is the spread of middle-class ideas and
habits among the working class. The British working class are now better
off in almost all ways than they were thirty years ago. This is partly
due to the efforts of the trade unions, but partly to the mere advance of
physical science. It is not always realized that within rather narrow
limits the standard of life of a country can rise without a corresponding
rise in real wages. Up to a point, civilization can lift itself up by its
boot-tags. However unjustly society is organized, certain technical
advances are bound to benefit the whole community, because certain kinds
of goods are necessarily held in common. A millionaire cannot, for
example, light the streets for himself while darkening them for other
people. Nearly all citizens of civilized countries now enjoy the use of
good roads, germ-free water, police protection, free libraries and
probably free education of a kind. Public education in England has been
meanly starved of money, but it has nevertheless improved, largely owing
to the devoted efforts of the teachers, and the habit of reading has
become enormously more widespread. To an increasing extent the rich and
the poor read the same books, and they also see the same films and listen
to the same radio programmes. And the differences in their way of life
have been diminished by the mass-production of cheap clothes and
improvements in housing. So far as outward appearance goes, the clothes
of rich and poor, especially in the case of women, differ far less than
they did thirty or even fifteen years ago. As to housing, England still
has slums which are a blot on civilization, but much building has been
done during the past ten years, largely by the local authorities. The
modern council house, with its bathroom and electric light, is smaller
than the stockbroker's villa, but it is recognizably the same kind of
house, which the farm labourer's cottage is not. A person who has grown
up in a council housing estate is likely to be--indeed, visibly is--
more middle class in outlook than a person who has grown up in a slum.

The effect of all this is a general softening of manners. It is enhanced
by the fact that modern industrial methods tend always to demand less
muscular effort and therefore to leave people with more energy when their
day's work is done. Many workers in the light industries are less truly
manual labourers than is a doctor or a grocer. In tastes, habits, manners
and outlook the working class and the middle class are drawing together.
The unjust distinctions remain, but the real differences diminish. The
old-style 'proletarian'--collarless, unshaven and with muscles warped by
heavy labour--still exists, but he is constantly decreasing in numbers;
he only predominates in the heavy-industry areas of the north of England.

After 1918 there began to appear something that had never existed in
England before: people of indeterminate social class. In 1910 every human
being in these islands could be 'placed' in an instant by his clothes,
manners and accent. That is no longer the case. Above all, it is not the
case in the new townships that have developed as a result of cheap motor
cars and the southward shift of industry. The place to look for the germs
of the future England is in light-industry areas and along the arterial
roads. In Slough, Dagenham, Barnet, Letchworth, Hayes--everywhere,
indeed, on the outskirts of great towns--the old pattern is gradually
changing into something new. In those vast new wildernesses of glass and
brick the sharp distinctions of the older kind of town, with its slums
and mansions, or of the country, with its manor-houses and squalid
cottages, no longer exist. There are wide gradations of income, but it is
the same kind of life that is being lived at different levels, in
labour-saving flats or council houses, along the concrete roads and in
the naked democracy of the swimming-pools. It is a rather restless,
cultureless life, centring round tinned food, PICTURE POST, the radio and
the internal combustion engine. It is a civilization in which children
grow up with an intimate knowledge of magnetoes and in complete ignorance
of the Bible. To that civilization belong the people who are most at home
in and most definitely OF the modern world, the technicians and the
higher-paid skilled workers, the airmen and their mechanics, the radio
experts, film producers, popular journalists and industrial chemists.
They are the indeterminate stratum at which the older class distinctions
are beginning to break down.

This war, unless we are defeated, will wipe out most of the existing
class privileges. There are every day fewer people who wish them to
continue. Nor need we fear that as the pattern changes life in England
will lose its peculiar flavour. The new red cities of Greater London are
crude enough, but these things are only the rash that accompanies a
change. In whatever shape England emerges from the war it will be deeply
tinged with the characteristics that I have spoken of earlier. The
intellectuals who hope to see it Russianized or Germanized will be
disappointed. The gentleness, the hypocrisy, the thoughtlessness, the
reverence for law and the hatred of uniforms will remain, along with the
suet puddings and the misty skies. It needs some very great disaster,
such as prolonged subjugation by a foreign enemy, to destroy a national
culture. The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will
give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into
children's holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten,
but 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.

Part II

Shopkeepers at War


I began this book to the tune of German bombs, and I begin this second
chapter in the added racket of the barrage. The yellow gunflashes are
lighting the sky, the splinters are rattling on the housetops, and London
Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down. Anyone able to read a
map knows that we are in deadly danger. I do not mean that we are beaten
or need be beaten. Almost certainly the outcome depends on our own will.
But at this moment we are in the soup, full fathom five, and we have been
brought there by follies which we are still committing and which will
drown us altogether if we do not mend our ways quickly.

What this war has demonstrated is that private capitalismthat is, an
economic system in which land, factories, mines and transport are owned
privately and operated solely for profit--DOES NOT WORK. It cannot deliver
the goods. This fact had been known to millions of people for years past,
but nothing ever came of it, because there was no real urge from below to
alter the system, and those at the top had trained themselves to be
impenetrably stupid on just this point. Argument and propaganda got one
nowhere. The lords of property simply sat on their bottoms and proclaimed
that all was for the best. Hitler's conquest of Europe, however, was a
PHYSICAL debunking of capitalism. War, for all its evil, is at any rate
an unanswerable test of strength, like a try-your-grip machine. Great
strength returns the penny, and there is no way of faking the result.

When the nautical screw was first invented, there was a controversy that
lasted for years as to whether screw-steamers or paddle-steamers were
better. The paddle-steamers, like all obsolete things, had their
champions, who supported them by ingenious arguments. Finally, however, a
distinguished admiral tied a screw-steamer and a paddlesteamer of equal
horse-power stern to stern and set their engines running. That settled
the question once and for all. And it was something similar that happened
on the fields of Norway and of Flanders. Once and for all it was proved
that a planned economy is stronger than a planless one. But it is
necessary here to give some kind of definition to those much-abused
words, Socialism and Fascism.

Socialism is usually defined as "common ownership of the means of
production". Crudely: the State, representing the whole nation, owns
everything, and everyone is a State employee. This does NOT mean that
people are stripped of private possessions such as clothes and furniture,
but it DOES mean that all productive goods, such as land, mines, ships
and machinery, are the property of the State. The State is the sole
large-scale producer. It is not certain that Socialism is in all ways
superior to capitalism, but it is certain that, unlike capitalism, it can
solve the problems of production and consumption. At normal times a
capitalist economy can never consume all that it produces, so that there
is always a wasted surplus (wheat burned in furnaces, herrings dumped
back into the sea etc etc) and always unemployment. In time of war, on
the other hand, it has difficulty in producing all that it needs, because
nothing is produced unless someone sees his way to making a profit out of
it. In a Socialist economy these problems do not exist. The State simply
calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them.
Production is only limited by the amount of labour and raw materials.
Money, for internal purposes, ceases to be a mysterious all-powerful
thing and becomes a sort of coupon or ration-ticket, issued in sufficient
quantities to buy up such consumption goods as may be available at the

However, it has become clear in the last few years that "common ownership
of the means of production" is not in itself a sufficient definition of
Socialism. One must also add the following: approximate equality of
incomes (it need be no more than approximate), political democr

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