Perhaps the most important sentence in George Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius is the opener: “As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”
Orwell wrote The Lion and the Unicorn (‘very quickly’ according to his editor Tosco Fyvel) in London and at Scarlett’s Farm in Berkshire, in mid to late 1940 at the height of the Battle of Britain. It was published in February 1941, as the Junkers and Heinkels filled the night skies. The threat of death with which he begins his book is more than a rhetorical flourish. Orwell’s wartime diaries are filled with air raids, shelters, shattered glass and casualties. His own home in Mortimer Crescent, Kilburn was hit by a flying bomb in 1944, destroying it completely and burying the manuscript of Animal Farm in the rubble.
This context – Hitler, Dunkirk, the Blitz – is everything. Orwell’s motive was not a lasting work of literature, but an immediate, and to his mind vital, change of policy. A change, since he believed Britain was losing the war because working people were not in the saddle, and vital, because he abhorred the totalitarianism that a Nazi conquest would herald.
In 1948, Orwell described the purpose of writing a political pamphlet as being: “Never written primarily to give entertainment or to make money. It is written because there is something that one wants to say now…”
The same can be said of The Lion and the Unicorn. The first sentence, written in the present tense, conveys the urgency of his argument. He believes ‘anyone able to read a map knows we are in deadly danger’ and the answer is straightforward, if paradoxical: “We cannot win the war without introducing Socialism, nor establish Socialism without winning the war.”
The book was published by Secker & Warburg as the first of a new imprint of ‘Searchlight Books’ (there’s the Blitz, again), with Orwell and TR Fyvel as editors. The stated aim of Searchlight Books was to appeal to a new generation who ‘can recognise the spirit of the new world’. Other writers were lined up, including Michael Foot, Cyril Connelly and Arthur Koestler. The Searchlight project collapsed when the Germans bombed the Mayflower Press in Plymouth in April 1941, destroying all the books and paper (and the entire Stanley Gibbons stamp catalogue). The Lion and the Unicorn had a hard cover, with dust jacket, and went to two reprints in 1941. Yet for decades, it languished out of print, appearing in the collected works, but not as a standalone book.
Should it have stayed as a period piece, a quirky by-product of blacked-out, bomb-strewn London? Certainly aspects of Orwell’s book are highly anachronistic, faintly embarrassing, and typical of the ethno-national stereotypes of the time. The first part, England Your England, is Orwell’s attempt to describe the English character, culture and temperament. Robert Colls, a recent Orwell biographer, calls it ‘the best few hundred words on English national identity ever written’. To co-opt the people’s patriotism to his revolutionary ends, he must first define it, and describe an England worth fighting for. Yet the portrait he paints is unrecognisable to our modern eyes. The much-repeated, ringing phrases are vintage Orwell, but who and what on earth is he describing? “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 pintables in the Soho pubs, the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning.”
For him, they may have been the ‘characteristic fragments’ of Englishness, but to us they hold no connection and stir little nostalgia. Clogs? Pintables? The Great North Road? There are few alive for whom Orwell’s England is a living memory. There are glimpses of the familiar in Orwell’s Englishness – the love of tea, crosswords, gardening, drinking, gambling, swearing, DIY, and (unfortunately) a distrust of foreigners. And there are some recognisable scenes – green grass, bad teeth, red pillar-boxes. But most of it – the Picture Post, suet puddings, unarmed police – is dead and buried.
There are two redeeming features, aside from the beautiful writing, in this section of the book. First, Orwell recognises that this is a snapshot. English culture ‘stretches into the future and the past’ and that the England of 1940 has as little in common with the England of 1840. By extension, the England of 2021 has little to do with Orwell’s England. He poses the question: “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.”
Second, Orwell recognises that things are changing. He is not conservative, labelling the facets of Englishness to preserve them under glass, like a lepidopterist. Nor is he guilty of the mistake associated with so much of the so-called left, namely mythologising the ‘working class’ as noble miners, dockers and other paragons of the industrial proletariat.
Instead, he says: “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…” This is the England of ‘concrete roads’, ‘the naked democracy of the swimming-pools’ and “a rather restless, cultureless life, centring around tinned food, Picture Post, the radio and the internal combustion engine.”
There is more than a nod to John Betjeman in the reference to Slough and tinned food. Orwell names the driving force for change as “the new indeterminate class of skilled workers, technical experts, airman, scientists, architects and journalists, the people who feel at home in the radio and ferroconcrete age.”
We recognise Orwell’s great descriptions of hop-pickers, miners and tramps, but his evocation of this emergent inter-war class of technical experts and professionals is no less potent. Most importantly, Orwell’s description of Englishness is not without criticism, and the primary one is the dead weight of the class system. He singles out the ‘moneyed class’ as ‘simply parasites, less useful to society than his fleas are to a dog.’ He blames them for much, but most viscerally for ‘the military incompetence which has again and again startled the world’. This is Orwell’s central critique – that Britain is losing the war because of the idiots in charge. England is, in the famous and enduring phrase, ‘a family with the wrong members in control’.
In part two, Shopkeepers at War, Orwell expands on this theme: “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.” His solution, naturally enough for one whose politics was self-described in 1946 as ‘against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism’, is democratic socialism. Orwell says: “We cannot establish anything that a western nation would regard as Socialism without defeating Hitler, on the other hand we cannot defeat Hitler while we remain economically and socially in the nineteenth century.”
It may be hard for some, without any knowledge of, or feeling for, distinctive British socialism to comprehend what Orwell’s socialism is, and how it differs from Leninism, Marxism or what he calls ‘the mixture of humbug and Utopianism’. The most appealing and lasting feature of The Lion and the Unicorn is its home-grown socialism, free from dogma or doctrine.
This democratic socialism is part of a tradition, linking, as Bernard Crick wrote, “William Morris, Robert Blatchford, Edward Carpenter, the early HG Wells, RH Tawney, GDH Cole, Harold Laski and Aneurin Bevan”. Professor Crick might have also mentioned Annie Besant, Beatrice Webb, Margaret Bondfield, Ellen Wilkinson, or Jennie Lee. This tradition, according to Crick, held that: “Only in a radically more egalitarian, more fraternal and less competitive society can liberties flourish and abound for all and ordinary people thus achieve their full human potential. It has been a tradition that has stressed the importance of ethical commitment, social justice and personal example, and has believed more (though it can be a matter of relative emphasis rather than absolute dichotomy) in the possibility and importance of freely held values than in the systematic theories of continental socialism and Marxism which stress structural factors of class and modes of production.”
Crick is right, of course, but for the avoidance of doubt, Orwell peppers his own work with a repudiation of ‘extremist’ Marxism in all its varieties. The chief importance of the British Communist party ‘and that of the whole left wing of the Labour movement, was the part they played in alienating the middle classes from Socialism.’
Orwell singles out the “middle class intelligentsia, the type who has ceased to love his own country but still feels the need of patriotism, and therefore develops patriotic sentiments towards Russia.” He denounces the “nineteenth century doctrine of the class war” and its adherents who “continued year after year to preach this out-of-date gospel and never drew any inference from the fact it got them no followers.”
The Communists, he says, “wanted to go on and on, suffering a comfortable martyrdom, meeting with endless defeats and afterwards putting the blame on other people.” Plus ça change. This serves, then as now, as a perspicacious description of the paper-sellers, grifters, and T-shirt wearers of the decidedly unrevolutionary ‘revolutionary’ left, both inside and outside the Labour party.
Orwell also repudiates the pre-war Labour party itself, which he says stood for a ‘timid reformism’, had ‘degenerated into a Permanent Opposition’, dominated by docile trade unions. He was no fan of Clement Attlee. Orwell left the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1939 because of its pacifism, but aligned only with the Labour Tribunite wing of Foot and Bevan rather than the Labour party as a whole. This, it is worth saying, was the original, radical Tribune, not the fan-club newsletter currently bearing the same title.
Part three, The English Revolution, details Orwell’s own socialist programme. ‘Revolution’ is a tricky concept here. He is not talking about an armed workers’ revolution along the lines of the Bolsheviks’ in 1917. Indeed, he says ‘the English revolution started several years ago’. It is happening ‘in a sleepy, unwilling way’ and the war had sped it up: “War is the greatest of all agents of change”. He is talking about a cultural, social and economic revolution, not heads on spikes, in the same way William Beveridge’s report the next year stated that a ‘revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions.
Orwell is no Fabian gradualist; he does not decry all revolutionary violence and suggests the prospect of executing traitors (which of course the British government did during the war). He saw the Dads’ Army defence force, which he joined, as a proto-revolutionary workers’ militia, of the kind he had seen in Spain. But he says the revolution will be messy and incomplete, with an end to the Stock Exchange and the House of Lords, but the survival of the monarchy and the ancient heraldic lion and unicorn on soldiers’ buttons. This becomes the synecdoche for Orwell’s untidy, undoctrinaire and very English revolution. As ever, Orwell imperiously uses ‘England’ to mean both England itself, and also at times the United Kingdom.
Orwell turns his breathless urgency towards solutions. He believes: ‘The fact we are war has turned Socialism from a text-book word into a realisable policy.” One of the central themes of the book is how to use the patriotism in the first part to deliver the socialism in the third part: “An intelligent Socialist movement will use their patriotism, instead of merely insulting it, as hitherto.”
This speaks loudly to our own times, when the mere appearance of Sir Keir Starmer in front of a union flag can trigger apoplexy amongst some Corbynites. One Corbyn supporter recently tweeted that Starmer had appeared with ‘the butcher’s apron’ when the union flag appeared in the backdrop, showing how dislocated their instincts are from the majority of people, and why so many voters were repelled by Labour between 2015 and 2019. “Patriotism,” says Orwell rightly, “has nothing to do with Conservatism.” Orwell has a six-point plan for his democratic socialist revolution. The standout anachronism is the prescription for the Empire, with India offered a ‘partnership’ on its way to full independence and an Imperial General Council “in which coloured people (sic) are to be represented”. Orwell’s language on the topics of ethnicity, race, and colonialism is representative of his times and milieu, notwithstanding his own anti-colonial politics. His discussions throughout his published work on race, antisemitism and other issues jar horribly with the modern reader. We should hope that were Orwell alive today, he would use language with greater awareness and sensitivity, not least because he understood better than anyone the power of words to shape our view of the world.
However, the domestic prescriptions are solid enough Tribunite fare, and presage the 1945 Labour manifesto Let Us Face the Future and many of the actions of Labour in government: nationalisation of mines, railways, banks and major industries; and a reformed ‘democratic’ education system. Orwell’s desire for a minimum wage would have to wait for Tony Blair and as for a maximum wage, we are still waiting, perhaps in vain. What is interesting about Orwell’s plan for incomes is that it explicitly rejects some fantastical arithmetic equality of incomes in favour of a graduated system with some incentives to work, but without the extremes of poverty (which he knew well) and luxury (which he tended to avoid). He mentions nothing about public health, nor the prospect of an NHS.
Orwell’s final cri de coeur is an appeal to the true ‘heirs of Nelson and Cromwell’ not in the House of Lords but “in the fields and the streets, in the factories and the armed forces, in the four-ale bar and the suburban back garden, and at present they are still kept under by a generation of ghosts”. If there was hope, it must lie in the proles.
Orwell’s call was largely heeded. In 1945, Orwell wrote, in his essay on PG Wodehouse, that: “for the two years following Dunkirk, British morale depended largely upon the feeling that this was not only a war for democracy but a war which the common people had to win by their own efforts”.
Even Churchill realised that to win the war, the forces of modernity must be mobilised and the whole nation given a single purpose. You needed radar and Mulberry harbours, not bayonets and horses. The people were patriotic. As Orwell described, when Anthony Eden called for volunteers for the Local Defence Volunteers, a quarter of a million men reported for duty in the first 24 hours. But they wanted more than victory over the Germans. Despite Churchill’s outdated references to race and Empire, the bulk of the population were with Orwell, seeing the war as the means to a better future, without dole queues, slums, and soup kitchens. When Labour invited them to ‘win the peace’ in July 1945, the heirs to Nelson and Cromwell did so in record numbers. Those that had queued for jobs in the 1930s and queued to join the army in 1940, queued at the ballot box in 1945. The revolution, when it came, was peaceful and democratic, and its sounds were the trundle of prams bearing babies full of milk, not tumbrils en route to the guillotine.
In 1943 Orwell was offered another chance to describe the English when he was commissioned by publishers Collins to write The English People. When it appeared after the war as part of a series Britain in Pictures, he was unhappy with it, considering it propaganda, and refused a reprint. In one section he exhorts the English to: “breed faster, work harder, and probably live more simply, think more deeply, get rid of their snobbishness and their anachronistic class distinctions, and pay more attention to the world and less to their own backyards. Nearly all of them love their country, but they must learn to love it intelligently.”
This was Orwell’s patriotism: not flag-waving and jingoistic, but outward-looking, restless for change, and intelligent. Linked to the past, but not living in it. Patriotic, but not nationalist. The reviewer in The Listener magazine noted: “Mr Orwell is a socialist and a patriot – a rare combination amongst our intellectuals.”
Fyvel wrote that it ‘caught a patriotic English Socialist moment’. Through this frame, love of country could be commandeered in the service of progressive social change, something which Major Attlee and his ministers well understood after July 1945. His publisher Fred Warburg said that Orwell’s jargon-free patriotic socialism made many recruits to the Labour party. By disentangling patriotism, a love for one’s country, from nationalism, a hatred for other people’s countries, Orwell showed how it can be a progressive force, and avoid the dead end of xenophobia.
The Lion and the Unicorn should be read alongside Animal Farm, the allegory of revolution betrayed, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the warning of revolution subverted, as the statement of what revolution could or should be. They form a triptych of Orwell’s political credo, and the ideas are interlinked. For example, the most chilling phrase from Nineteen Eighty-Four, the metaphor of humanity’s future being ‘a boot crashing down on a face’, appears first in The Lion and the Unicorn. Another Orwell biographer Gordon Bowker says the book represents ‘a distillation of Orwell’s thinking over the previous quarter of a century’, or in other words since he left the Burmese police. It certainly crystallises Orwell’s politics formed after his experiences in Spain in 1936-7, after which everything he wrote was ‘against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism’ in purpose, and ‘to make political writing into an art’ by design.
Orwell’s fundamental appeal was not to class enmities or the othering of minorities, but to the innate decency of the people. He saw the crisis of his own times as the catalyst for forward momentum, as we should see ours. Unlike the downbeat endings to Homage to Catalonia (which gloomily predicted the bombs falling on Britain), or the pessimism of Animal Farm, The Lion and the Unicorn is optimistic. Socialists have a special duty to be optimistic. As a broader contribution to the vitality of democratic socialism, The Lion and the Unicorn has never been more useful. After a period when all the talk about socialism has been dominated by one noisy strand, with a one-size-fits-all domestic prescription and anti-Western worldview, it may come as a surprise to some, or a reassuring reminder to the rest of us, that another socialism is possible. That requires us to dig deep into our own native tradition, and avoid adherence to the so-called socialism of Venezuela, China or wherever else becomes the voguish standard bearer. We should always be wary of those supposed socialists who support regimes where Orwell’s works were banned.
In our own times, surely we have learned that collective action not private avarice is the only answer to pandemic, climate change and global poverty? But also that any such collective action must be based on the values and instincts of the many, not the prejudices and crankiness of a few. A socialism that is repugnant to the people it purports to serve is not any kind of socialism worth pursuing.
In 1948 Orwell wrote the introduction to a collection of radical pamphlets, and concluded: “The most encouraging fact about revolutionary activity is that, although it always fails, it always continues. The vision of a world of free and equal human beings, living together in a state of brotherhood, in one age it is called the Kingdom of Heaven, in another the classless society – never materialises, but the belief in it never seems to die out.”
The Lion and the Unicorn was written under a rain of bombs, to foment a socialist revolution from the squalor of war. It happened, up to a point, with the 1945 landslide, but not exactly as Orwell would have wanted. Eton still flourishes and the lady in the Rolls Royce still drives around London. But the values that underpin the book – the ancient love of liberty, the urgent demand for social justice, and an egalitarian longing for brotherhood and sisterhood – are eternal. They speak to us as urgently in the age of pandemic and populism as they did in a time of blackout and blitzkrieg. That’s why The Lion and the Unicorn matters today, as democratic socialists gather their wits after a decade down a dark hole, and stumble upwards towards the light.
Image credit: Colin Smith