Orwell on Patriotism

During the Conservative Party Conference last week, the prime minister gave a speech critical of those in the political class who turn up their noses at the public’s patriotism, national pride, and pro-British sentiment:

They find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal, your attachment to your job security inconvenient. They find the fact that more than seventeen million people voted to leave the European Union simply bewildering. Because if you’re well off and comfortable, Britain is a different country and these concerns are not your concerns.

The speech, which transparently aimed to draw in post-Brexit Leave voters from Labour and Ukip alike, contained the message that it is okay to be a patriot, and that it is not okay to suggest that patriotism is akin to xenophobia or racism. Read alongside the home secretary Amber Rudd’s speech at the same conference, which suggested that British companies with high numbers of migrant workers should be ‘named and shamed’, the whole conference felt a like a large-scale version of the familiar phrase “I’m not racist, but…”. However, if we can take anything useful from May’s speech it might be the idea that there is a more subtle distinction to be made between the negative forces of nationalism and the positive potential of patriotism. May’s acceptance of patriotism, indeed, recalls that greatest of left-wing thinkers: Blair.


I mean, of course, Eric Arthur Blair, or, as he’s more commonly known, George Orwell. In his seminal 1941 essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’, Orwell was concerned with precisely the ways in which patriotism can be harnessed and used to serve systems of government.* Written in London during the Blitz ( “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me”), Orwell’s essay offers a reconsideration of patriotism in the face of national crisis. He begins with the assertion that there are discernible differences between national characters, that “anyone able to use his eyes knows that the average of human behaviour differs enormously from country to country”. The English, or British (all but interchangeable for Orwell), might be divided by region, class, wealth, and power, but, for Orwell, “somehow these differences fade away the moment that any two Britons are confronted by a European”.

Orwell’s point is that there is something like a common English or British ‘character’ after all, one bound up with the idea of the nation. This he takes to be the reality of an individual’s relationship with place and nation, and of the relationship between the people within nation. For Orwell, a sense of national belonging and of collective identity is deep-rooted to the point of inextricability: “However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from [Britain] for any length of time. The suet puddings and the red pillar-boxes have entered into your soul”. We might be deceiving ourselves when we try to think ourselves out of the culture and history of the nations into which we were born. In seeing nations as only sets of restrictive and othering cultural boundaries, we come to want to shrug ourselves free of nationality; for Orwell, this is both unachievable, and largely undesirable.

The main point of the discussion of patriotism in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ is not to show that we identify with nations (even when we think or claim that we do not), but that national pride is a powerful political force that must be acknowledged. Providing a historical footing for his own essay, Orwell writes:

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.

Orwell does not want to suggest that the ‘positivity’ of patriotism is made manifest in the rise of fascism. Rather, in the move from national characteristics towards pride in those commonalities, Orwell sees the good that could come out of patriotism: a profound sense of unification that might lead to progressive political action. Patriotism can (Orwell does not think it always does) create a sense of togetherness that cuts across differences and generates positive change with unparalleled force. It is this sense of patriotism that Orwell thinks can drag a nation out of extreme circumstances and crisis; “There can be moments when the whole nation suddenly swings together and does the same thing, like a herd of cattle facing a wolf”.

The reason Orwell believes the left is not used to seeing these changes work for them is because the left detests patriotism, and doesn’t take up the banner of Britishness as do its opposites. “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality”, he said. In this sense, intellectualism is hopelessly at odds with the view of the public. In one of the only areas of thought where Orwell could be said to agree with Theresa May, he identifies in the left a common dislike of patriotism and Britishness, and an over-readiness to conflate the former concept with nationalism and racism. Is this true of the left today? It is hard to speak with certainty, but ask yourself what associations are called to mind when you meditate on the term ‘patriotism’. If we are honest with ourselves, we are probably more ready to think of Nigel Farage as a patriot than we are Jeremy Corbyn, and a slew of negative associations follow.

The popular idea that the left hates patriotism makes it very easy for figures like May on the right to attack the left for being ‘out of touch’ with the public in the wake of Brexit — a result which in large part has been understood to be a consequence of patriotic sentiment. Of course, racist sentiment was also a factor in play during the Brexit referendum, as was made clear by the spike in racially-motivated crimes that occurred in the days following the vote to leave the European Union (as the Independent has only recently reported). But neither Orwell nor May want us to oversimplify the relation between patriotism and nationalism to the extent that they become indistinguishable. When figures on the left in politics and the media appear to blur that distinction, the right will waste no time in accusing them of elitism and anti-Britishness. The then-Labour MP Emily Thornberry lost her job a few years ago for merely tweeting a photo of a house adorned with three St. George’s flags — an act of implicit snobbery and anti-Englishness that was met with widespread anger, and which, David Cameron suggested, showed that the “Labour party sneers at people who work hard, who are patriotic and who love their country”.

For Orwell, the left’s sense of shame at being British is wrong, and he believes that the conflation of patriotism with unthinking nationalism acts as an impediment to political (for him, socialist) progress:

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.

Orwell might be on to something. It is certainly true that when we interrogate our own relation with patriotism as a concept, our phobia of it can feel as deeply-entrenched as national pride is in the mind of patriots. Orwell wants us to ask: how can the left better understand patriotism and the patriotic? Can there be a love of one’s country reached through intellectualism? This would entail dropping what Orwell termed the “grossly over-simplifying” equation between patriotism and fascism that he saw in the leftist intellectuals of his day. Orwell does not instruct us how to reconcile intellectual enquiry with patriotic sentiment, only that it must happen.

Today, another question is prompted by Orwell’s essay: how can someone be pro-English or British and also be pro-Europe, or pro-world? This is a question Theresa May cannot answer positively, as she outlined in her speech: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means”. Orwell, who felt a unity with the other citizens of his nation based on a shared interest in drinking tea and on the commonality of bad teeth — and for whom the act of upholding manners and queuing respectfully were signs of a British tendency towards socialism and empathy for fellow humans —could not agree with May. And with the role that patriotism is apparently playing in current politics here and elsewhere (“Make America Great Again”), we might do well to look for more nuanced ways of understanding national pride than as essentially racist in character. Or else we can sit back and watch the Conservatives win around the votes of post-Brexit patriots. I will close with Orwell’s image of England as a family, one that seems to speak to our current concerns over how the country is being run:

[England] 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.

*All quotations of Orwell’s text refer to the original 1941 publication, as reproduced on The Orwell Prize website.

Chris Townsend is Articles Editor for the King's Review, and is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of Cambridge. He writes broadly on literary history and the arts. @marmeladrome.