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12 January 2022

From the NS archive: Mr Blair and Mr Blair

23 October 2000: What the PM doesn’t have in common with George Orwell.

By Ben Pimlott

George Orwell, says Ben Pimlott in a piece from 2000, is “virtually the only socialist whose name it is safe to evoke”, and indeed was and is regularly invoked by both Labour and Conservatives. Pimlott thinks Orwell’s appeal to Tony Blair’s New Labour was that he opposed class and aligned himself to no particular faction – while his occasional sexism and homophobia could be overlooked. Pimlott was equally sure that Orwell would have been no supporter of Blair’s version of socialism with its graduate and professional cadres, and easy relationship to untaxed wealth and income. Nor would he have found much in common with New Labour’s idea of democracy: for Orwell, the fight was to protect threatened democracy, for his successors liberal democracy was a system for export to every corner of the globe. The first Mr Blair understands that democracy is not a commodity; the second Mr Blair, says Pimlott, doesn’t.

How much does Mr Blair (Tony) have in common with Mr Blair (Eric)? The earlier Mr Blair, known to the world as George Orwell, has acquired a unique status in higher government counsels: as virtually the only socialist hero whose name it is safe to invoke. The question is a pertinent one, at a time of media revolution – and in a year that has turned Big Brother into a voyeuristic parlour game.

Superficially, the second Mr Blair looks like a natural heir. Both have enjoyed an inclusive popularity across the spectrum of “democratic” opinion. The reputation of Orwell has been one that no other self-describing socialist of the 20th century begins to rival. Not so long ago, an Orwellian gobbet cropped up in an anthology edited by Kenneth Baker on British Conservatism. Philip Gould could not have asked for better! But there is even more to it. If Orwell is acceptable to New Labour partly for the very good reason that he is acceptable to everybody, there is also a genuine element of ideology. Orwell is particularly acceptable and quotable to the Blair entourage because of his attitude to class.

Class lies at the heart of Orwell’s writing – not theoretical class, as in Marx, but the practical day-to-day, old-boy-net, nose-in-the-air subdivision of the British Isles in which he found himself embalmed. In 1984, Orwell sees British society as rigidified in a series of immutable castes. Critically however, from the New Labour point of view Orwell is against class without being against a particular class. Unlike other bourgeois socialists, he does not present himself as on the side of the working class against the upper or middle class.

Such a doctrine was provocative on the left in the 1930s, when Oxbridge types competed to be as proletarian as possible: half a century later, it chimes absolutely with New Labourism. The modern lexicon stresses gender, ethnicity, social exclusion as causes of unhappiness, but not class. At the same time the current Mr Blair espouses a kind of rough-hewn British anti-intellectualism, roast-beef-and-Yorkshire-pudding common sense that seeks to appeal to the ordinary people. Orwell, at least on the surface, was much the same.

Yet Orwell was really a quite different species of political animal. Not only did the first Mr Blair have a passion for using language to unearth painful truths – not exactly a feature of contemporary rhetoric. On many of the issues that New Labour holds dear, he was disconcertingly – indeed, embarrassingly – illiberal. He was both sexist and unthinkingly homophobic. He repeatedly placed “birth controllers” in a catch-all category of crank who gave socialism a bad name; he typically described unmarried women as “old maids biking to Holy Communion”; and his attitude to homosexuality was summed up in his sneering resentment of those he called “the nancy poets” of the left-wing literary Establishment.

Yet Orwell was politically incorrect in another way a well. If he abhorred the class system, he also rejected the underpinning of class. Unfashionably and uncomfortably for many 21st-century post-socialists who think of themselves as his admirers, the real George Orwell was a redistributionalist and an egalitarian. Orwell’s pre-war writings, and many of his essays, make clear his view that a happy society needs to be an economically fair one. Thus he would probably take with a pinch of salt Blairite aspirations to community, dismissing them as double think, and point unerringly at the socially distorting effects on society of increasing numbers of huge untaxed and unearned income.

In sum, Orwell was scarcely the John the Baptist of present-day fashionable causes. He was much closer to the kind of person who – if he was teaching at an American university today – would get himself hounded out of the faculty. But what matters here is not that the first Mr Blair had values and prejudices that would embarrass the second, but that values are not static. Thus the progressive thought of one generation rapidly became the unacceptable thought of the next, often without people noticing.

[See also: George Orwell outside the whale]

Which brings me to the question of Orwell and democracy. If Orwell is the icon of liberal democracy, that is because his two best books, Animal Farm and l984, are again totalitarianism. Above everything, Orwell opposed the oppression of the individual by the state: the boot tamping on a human face – for ever.

What would Orwell think of Britain today? We can guess. He would frown at the tinsel of affluence and be merciless about a “Labour” Party made up of graduates and professionals. Mainly, however, he would be startled by the attitude toward democratic institutions. When Orwell wrote his greatest books, Big Brother was manifestly an external, more than internal, enemy. In the 1940s, only a tiny proportion of the world’s population was involved in the free election of its own government. If Orwell wrote in defence of democracy, and saw democracy as threatened from within, it was in the context of a beleaguerment from outside that we can barely comprehend.

Today – if anything – the beleaguerment is the other way round. Despite periodic eruptions, democracy is not under threat as a world system. On the contrary, its military, economic and ideological armies are mopping up the last pocket of resistance. In a few places, ancien régimes hold out, but their days are numbered. At the same time, the model systems in Europe and America at the core of this exercise in ideological imperialism have altered in front of our eyes.

The reality indeed, is one of shifting sands. Just as books designed for one purpose – in Orwell’s case directed against 1930s poverty and 1940s jackboots – end up being for another, so systems and institutions that had one historic function shed it, and acquire a new raison d’être. “Liberal democracy” the system that a couple of world wars, and countless sub-world wars in the 20th century, have allegedly been waged to defend – has been presented as a given, with an eternal set of verities. To be sure, structures may change, but (according to the universal assumption) a core of values remains that is as sacred to the faith as the Resurrection is to Christianity.

I should like to suggest, in practice and whether we like it or not, that this core is not unhanging, that it has already changed, that it will go on changing, and needs – however alarming it may seem – to be treated in historical perspective, like everything else.

British democracy is currently under inspection. Arguably, indeed, there has never been a time since 1832 that “the constitutional agenda” has dominated politics quite as much as it does today. Values that are supported include those categorised as equal opportunities – to do with race, ethnicity, gender, age, disability. A familiar shopping list of remedies include devolution, proportional representation, regulation of public utilities, public accountability and transparency, reform of elected and unelected assembles, reform or abolition of the monarchy.

There were various points of origin. On the left, what may be called “the new Republicanicanism” began as a solace and a substitute for old state-controlled socialism, which could no longer be defended. At the same time, it appealed to minority activists, and to all those who objected to the bureaucratising tendencies of big government. And for those who aspired to power, the agenda had the additional advantage that it offered the electorate something for nothing – a busy programme of reform, without a price tag of new taxes. On the right, the Chicago School and their European followers, upholding free markets and objecting to any impediments, supported some of the movement’s libertarian aims.

Since it first came together a generation ago, this unlikely alliance has been triumphant in changing priorities. Today, the New Republicanism in Britain embraces a new consensus, in some ways more powerful and all-embracing than the two previous post-Second World War consensuses – the Butskellite/planning consensus of the 1950s and 1960s, and the Thatcherite consensus of the 1980s and early 1990s. This is partly because it is a programme of reform anybody can sign up to, without changing allegiance on economics: Keynesians and anti-Keynesians are able to join hands. It is because the targets of the New Republicanism are, on the whole, soft ones – bits of paper or constitutional rules, rather than organisations or powerful individuals. But it is also a result of the successful orchestration of the campaign around an idea of liberal democracy – which everybody favours, because of its intrinsic merits, because it fits current Western conditions, and because, in geopolitical terms, it has been so spectacularly successful.

Just before the Berlin Wall fell 11 years ago, the futurologist Francis Fukuyama wrote an article called “The End of History”. Dismissing Marx, Fukuyama resurrected Hegel: in particular, he re-examined the Hegelian concept of history as a series of types of human consciousness – value systems, religions, ideologies – leading up to a universal belief in principles of liberty, beyond which no further progress would occur. The result would be a degree of international stability, which would resolve the contradictions of earlier forms of social organisation, and bring the historical dialectic to a close. Fukuyama suggested that a version of the Hegelian system was approaching in the modern world, a liberal democracy became the normal form of government and external threat disappeared, creating a new, long-lasting and even permanent equilibrium.

Most people were sceptical of “the end of history” at the time, but the idea stuck, and sticks. Today, indeed, the goal of an equilibrium of democratic states lies at the heart of the philosophy of the new world order. “A glance at the extension of democracy across the world in the Nineties shows how amazingly the Fukuyama thesis has been acted out in almost every continent,” wrote the right-wing historian Andrew Robert recently.

[From the NS archive: The left’s betrayal of Michael Foot]

Yet the reality of the “end of history” is the end of resistance to Euro-American, supplemented by Pacific Rim, capital. US-backed organisations such as the IMF, the World Bank, Nato and the European Community once existed in part to protect the west against Russian or Chinese dictatorship. Sometimes, this involved shoring up right-wing authoritarian regimes, for example in southern Europe or South America. Today, the same organisations exist to spread the gospel to every corner of the world that liberal democracy is the only acceptable form of government. Not since Arab hordes poured across the sands of North Africa in the seventh century has political influence dressed up as high-minded thought moved so rapidly. Those nations and those leaders who openly reject the doctrine of “liberal democracy” have become international pariahs: nowhere to go, nowhere to hide.

We read 1984, and find many thing that we recognise – Newspeak, government duplicity, surveillance cameras. We tend to forget the utterly different environment in which Orwell’s novel was written. But what is democracy? The Fukuyamaian and New Republican perspectives confidently assume that we know. They acknowledge a constant need for vigilance, improvement and reform. But the liberal guidelines are regarded as a given – hewn in stone by Rousseau, Paine, Jefferson, Mill and Bentham, given practical effect by Lincoln, Roosevelt, Churchill. If anybody is in any doubt, the UN Charter, the European Convention, the Helsinki Agreement exist for their enlightenment.

Yet am I alone in finding something eerie about the world’s conversion, and our largely unthinking celebration, of the progress of advanced-nation hegemony? Should we not wonder at a worldwide structure, made out of a Eurasian-American house of card? Ought we not to pause at the universality of a political religion underpinning a set of fiercely enforced, unspoken rules? If an eastern European state asks for a loan to stop it going bankrupt, or an ex-fascist one wants to join an international body, the sine qua non has become that first it should look up the rule book, and get its democratic house in order. Once being against Moscow was the acid test; now membership of the club is reserved for those who hold elections. Thus the Hegelian/Fukuyamaian equilibrium of sovereign democracies owes as much to a post-cold war appreciation that to enjoy the benefit of capitalism it is necessary to adopt capitalism’s current ideology as it does to a spontaneous demand from within the countries themselves. The world may now be a patchwork quilt of little Westminsters and Washingtons, but the picture of worldwide and ever-extending commitment to Western values is misleading – endemic corruption and pandemic minority problems are symptoms of fragility, a much as causes of it.

More important, however, than the way countries have acquired “democracy” is the concept of democracy itself, which has become fossilised in a world that changes economically and demographically as we speak. Not only should we wonder at the viability of applying the same criteria for what constitutes democracy, and appropriate democratic values, in one decade as in the previous one: it is not necessarily desirable that we should do so.

In the first place, modern technology and modern wealth have thrown up a plethora of problems of which the classical thinker never dreamt. Just as Athenian democracy was not designed to resolve the issue of state rights in North America, so the sustaining of Western values of the Cold War may not now, or ever, have much long-term applicability to the West Bank. In reality, democracy-under-duress often becomes a strange mongrel. In Russia, for example, the West desperately seeks to identify a democratic aspiration, and institutions exist to give substance to the idea. Yet whatever system the Russian Federation is stumbling towards, it is likely to have little relation to liberal democracy as we understand it.

[From the NS archive: The theory of decadence]

But what we understand as democracy has, in reality, been ever on the move. In Britain, mid 20th-century democracy was substantially different from 1900 democracy, when the term was seldom used. Universal male suffrage did not come until 1928. Anybody with a cursory knowledge of Parliament, MPs, No 10, monarchy, trade unions, local government, the press, opinion polls, the electronic media, must acknowledge – while there are lines of continuity – that British democracy in 1950 and British democracy in 2000 are distinct systems.

What are we moving towards? The recent semi-incorporation of the European Convention takes us several steps along the New Republican road. Yet this occurs at a time when parliament is more docile than at any time since the Cromwellian Rump. On paper, Britain is more “democratic” than ever before. Yet it would be stretching language to claim that the citizens feel much ownership of the institution which, in theory, make it so. In the mid-20th century MPs frequently left school at 16, sometimes lived in cheap lodging houses, two to a bed, and had no secretarial help. Today, they have bundles of degrees, pieds-à-terre, busy offices. Yet the Commons has virtually ceased to operate as a deliberative or debating chamber. At the same time, opinion polls reveal a helter-skelter public decline in respect for politicians, the Civil Service, the press, organised religion and the professions – all the groups and institutions, in fact, on which “democracy” has historically depended. The membership of parties, meanwhile, is confined to aspirants and the elderly.

Will parliament be more, or less, important in 50 years’ time? Will the cabinet or prime minister? Will they matter at all? It is customary to bemoan unintended change, especially those that threaten institutions that underpin hallowed principles. The reaction is to reform the institutions, not the principles. Yet it may be that the concern is actually the wrong way round. Instead of trying to fit our system to principles of government constructed for a different era, we should worry more about the failure of the 20th century to come up with any new ideas about how to grasp and cope with a tumbling world. All of us are democrats. All of us favour equal rights. But we should not take it for granted that “democratic”, as in majority rule, is necessarily inviolable. Those who are euphoric about recent events in Belgrade should remember Israel and Ulster.

In sum, much of the commendable energy of today’s New Republicanism is misdirected. An interesting political movement could be one that starts from where we are now, and builds on structuring an approach to democratic values that appreciates how rapidly they change. Such a movement would acknowledge that any sustainable political system in 2050 – in a world of computer and biological technologies only dimly conceivable – will be scarily different from any system we know today. It would also be aware that two-thirds of the world’s supposedly democratic systems cannot be relied on to survive the first serious global gale that hits them.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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