Posts Tagged ‘Duchess of Bute and Argyll’

George Orwell on How the Upper Classes and Tories Hindered Britain in World War 2

October 17, 2013

One of Margaret Thatcher’s electoral strategies was to hark back to the Second World War, and present herself very much in the mould of her hero, Winston Churchill. Back in the 1990s the BBC did a documentary series showing how she had taken over Churchill’s own, heroic view of British history in his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. She modelled both her own personal image and her style of politics on it, and on Churchill’s own image as the great statesman and warleader, who had kept Britain free during the Second World War. This was particularly clear – indeed, you were repeatedly hit over the head with it, metaphorically speaking, in the Conservative Party Political Broadcast for the 1987 election. This featured black and white film footage from the War of Spitfires zooming about the clouds, and ended with an enthusiastic actor’s voice declaring that ‘it’s great to be great again!’ Alan Coren on that week’s edition of the News Quiz described it as showing how Britain was saved by ‘the Royal Conservative Airforce’. He then reminded the nation that all the servicemen, whose courage and sacrifice Thatcher was using to promote her party, had then all come back and voted Labour in the 1946 election.

This constant presentation of herself as the incarnation of Churchillian statesmanship was not without problems. While the Second World War really was the great man’s finest hour, in many respects Churchill himself was an unpleasant figure. He started politics as a Liberal, but joined the Conservatives when they introduced old age pensions and sickness insurance for the workers, claiming that it was ‘socialism by the back door’. During the 1922 General Strike, Stanley Baldwin deliberately gave him in a job in the Telegraph Office to get him out of the way after he announced the army’s willingness to step in against the strikers. Amongst some on the Left, he is also remembered – falsely – as the man, who sent the army in against a demonstration by workers in Newport. It’s a myth, but such was his reputation for hostility towards organised labour that it’s still widely believed. Speaking on the above-mentioned BBC documentary, a former member of the Irish nationalist terrorist organisation, the INLA, stated that he found it easier to recruit members under Thatcher than under Ted Heath, because of Thatcher’s deliberate association with Churchill. Churchill might be a great hero in Britain, but to Irish nationalists he was hated for sending the brutal Black and Tans to suppress the Irish rebellion.

George Orwell was also unimpressed with Churchill and the Conservative party’s stance on Fascism. As a Socialist, he believed Churchill’s stance as the defender of democracy to be mere pretence. He also stated that the Stock Exchange had cheered Franco’s side when they rebelled against the Republican Government.

In his article, ‘England, Your England’ of 1941, Orwell attacked the political power and aims of the aristocracy, and the claim that everyone was equally making sacrifices for the war effort. He wrote

‘England is a family with the wrong members in control. Almost entirely we are governed by the rich, and by people who step into position of command by right of birth. Few if any of these people are consciously treacherous, some of them are not even fools, but as a class they are quite incapable of leading us to victory. They could not do it, even if their material interests did not constantly trip them up. As I pointed out earlier, they have been artificially stupefied. Quite apart from anything else, the rule of money sees to it that we shall be governed largely by the old – that is, by people utterly 8unable to grasp what age they are living in or what enemy they are fighting. Nothing was more desolating at the beginning of this war than the way in which the whole of the older generation conspired to pretend that it was the war of 1914-18 over again. All the old duds were back on the job, twenty years older, with the skull plainer in their faces. Ian Hay was cheering up the troops, Belloc was writing articles on strategy, Maurois doing broadcasts, Bairnsfather drawing cartoons. It was like a tea-party of ghosts. And that state of affairs has barely altered. The shock of disaster brought a few able men like Bevin to the front, but in general we are still commanded by people who managed to live through the years 1931-9 without even discovering that Hitler was dangerous. A generation of the unteachable is hanging upon us like necklace of corpses.

As soon as one considers any problem of this war – and it does not matter whether it is the widest aspect of strategy or the tiniest detail of home organization – one sees that the necessary moves cannot be made while the social structure of England remains what it is. Inevitably, because of their position and upbringing, the ruling class are fighting for their own privileges, which cannot possibly be reconciled with the public interest. It is a mistake to imagine that war aims, strategy, propaganda and industrial organisation exist in watertight compartments. All are interconnected. Every strategic plan, every tactical method, even every weapon will bear the stamp of the social system that produced it. The British ruling class are fighting against Hitler, whom they have always regarded and whom some of them still regard as their protector against Bolshevism. That does not mean that they will deliberately sell out; but it does mean that at every decisive moment they are likely to falter, pull their punches, do the wrong thing.

Until the Churchill Government called some sort of halt to the process, they have done the wrong thing with an unerring instinct ever since 1931. They helped Franco to overthrow the Spanish Government, although anyone not an imbecile could have told them that a Fascist Spain would be hostile to England. They fed Italy with war materials all through the winter of 1939-40, although it was obvious to the whole world that the Italians were going to attack us in the spring. For the sake of a few hundred thousand dividend drawers they are turning India from an ally into an enemy. Moreover, so long as the moneyed classes remain in control, we cannot develop any but a defensive strategy. Every victory means a change in the status quo. How can we drive the Italians out of Abyssinia without rousing echoes among the coloured peoples of our own Empire? How can we even smash Hitler without the risk of bring the German Socialists and Communists into power? The left-wingers who wail that ‘this is a capitalist war’ and that ‘British Imperialism’ is fighting for loot have got their heads screwed on backwards. The last thing the British moneyed class wishes for is to acquire fresh territory. It would simply be an embarrassment. Their war aim (both unattainable and unmentionable) is simply to hang on to what they have got.

Internally, England is still the rich man’s Paradise. All talk of ‘equality of sacrifice’ is nonsense. At the same time as factory workers are asked to put up with longer hours, advertisements for ‘Butler, One in family, eight in staff’ are appearing in the press. The bombed-out populations of the East End go hungry and homeless while wealthier victims simply step into their cars and flee to comfortable country houses. The Home Guard swells to a million men in a few weeks, and is deliberately organised from above in such a way that only people with private incomes can hold positions of command. Even the rationing system is arrange that it hits the poor all the time, while people with over £2,000 a year are practically unaffected by it. Everywhere privilege is squandering good will. In such circumstances even propaganda becomes almost impossible. As attempts to stir up patriotic feeling, the red posters issued by the Chamberlain Government at the beginning of the war broke all depth-records. Yet they could not have been much other than they were, for how could Chamberlain and his followers take the risk of rousing strong popular feeling against Fascism? Anyone who was genuinely hostile to Fascism must also be opposed to Chamberlain himself and to all the others who had helped Hitler into power. So also with external propaganda. In all Lord Halifax’s speeches there is not one concrete proposal for which a single inhabitant of Europe would risk the top joint of his little finger. For what war-aim can Halifax, or anyone like him, conceivably have, except to put the clock back to 1933?

It is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free. Revolution does not mean red flags and street fighting, it means a fundamental shift of power. Whether it happens with or without bloodshed is largely an accident of time and place. Nor does it mean the dictatorship of a single class. The people in England who grasp what changes are needed and are capable of carrying them through are not confined to any one class, though it is true that very few people with over £2,000 a year are among them. What is wanted is a conscious open revolt by ordinary people against inefficiency, class privilege and the rule of the old. It is not primarily a question of change of government. British governments do, broadly speaking, represent the will of the people, and if we alter our structure from below we shall get the government we need. Ambassadors, generals, officials and colonial administrators who are senile or pro-Fascist are more dangerous than Cabinet ministers whose follies are committed in public. Right through our national life we have got to fight against privilege, against the notion that a half-witted public-schoolboy is better fitted for command than an intelligent mechanic. Although there are gifted and honest individuals among them, we have got to break the grip of the moneyed class as a whole. England has got to assume its real shape. The England that is only just beneath the surface, in the factories and the newspaper offices, in the aeroplanes and the submarines, has got to take charge of the nation.’

Fortunately, the allies did win the War, and in a few instances the opposite was true. Instead of pulling our punches, we also committed war crimes. The bombing of Dresden is the classic example, though many others have also denounced the carpet bombing of civilians. One of these is the Conservative journalist, Peter Hitchens. I strongly disagree with Hitchens on most issues, but here I think he is fundamentally correct. In his opinion the bombing of Nazi Germany’s civilian population was a murderous act. It did not hinder the Nazi war machine, nor did it demoralise the German population any more than their bombing of ours reduce our determination for victory.

But Orwell, when he was writing, could not have known that we would win. Indeed, as subsequent historians have pointed out, at one point in 1942 the majority of the cabinet turned against him and demanded that we make piece with Germany. It’s to Churchill’s immense credit that he refused and managed to turn the cabinet completely around to his opinion. Orwell was right about the way many of the moneyed classes did favour Nazi Germany. Martin Pugh on his book on British Fascism between the two world wars, notes that much of the aristocracy was discreetly pro-Nazi. The upper classes also generally supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War. The one notable exception to this was the Duchess of Bute and Argyll. Known as the Red Duchess for her pamphleteering in support of the Spanish Republicans, she repeatedly attempted to point out that the Spanish government certainly wasn’t solely occupied with Anarchists and Communists, but that most of them were liberals and democrats. Pugh also points out that Churchill himself wasn’t anti-Fascist, and admired Franco. He was hostile to Nazi Germany because he feared that it would be a rival to British imperial power, ignoring the fact that a Fascist Spain could also block or impeded British imperial access to the Mediterranean. And Orwell was right that the Second World War did encourage the subject races of the British Empire to seek independence. India was the first, followed by Ghana and the others. It’s actually one of the reasons Hitchen’s believes we should not have entered the War. He appears to believe that if we had not fought Hitler, we would still possess an Empire. Well, the Empire was in decline anyway, and its loss was a fair price for keeping Europe free.

What is striking about Orwell’s piece is just how much is relevant today. We are still ruled by the moneyed class. Literally, in fact. Both Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and their associates have backgrounds in finance, rather than manufacturing. They are also public schoolboys, and if not half-witted, certainly believe absolutely that they have a better right to govern than the mechanic, no matter how intelligent. The Conservatives and their Liberal lickspittles are still claiming that everyone is suffering equally, while working conditions are made worse and people turned out of their homes. And the Tory party has repeatedly sold arms to nations that have then used them against us, like Iraq during the Gulf Wars.

Orwell was like just about every other writer and commentator in that his views weren’t always right. But they are still very much worth reading. The novelist, journalist and freedom fighter is still very relevant now, nearly sixty years after his death.

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