No argument can fail to be enhanced by an Orwell quote. That's why he's become the authority of first resort for people who don't know what they're talking aboutby Alastair Harper / May 10, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
No-one, ultimately, had a clue about the election. The pollsters, the politicians, the pundits got it wrong. Even the bookies, who are always meant to be right, having a financial interest in being so, were wrong. No-one predicted the result we got or understands it now we’ve got it. Why did people vote this way here, that way there? Why did the Lib Dems lose seats? Who benefits most from a Tory deal? No idea.
Amid all this confusion, spare a thought for the poor political columnists, the people who have to pretend that they can still explain it all in 600 words. What on earth can they write? When a political journalist isn’t sure of their ground, the first rule is to keep things portentous, but vague. Tell the party leaders what they should be doing to make a success of this election. Just don’t say it’s what they will do. The second: when you do come down strongly on someone’s side, refer to a higher authority to give yourself the requisite gravitas. Someone whose authority will not be questioned – someone who radiates an indefinable but unimpeachable cachet. In America, if it’s not God, it’s the Founding Fathers. Over here, it’s Orwell.
Many journalists, moonlighting as clairvoyants, are able to reveal exactly what Orwell would think about any contemporary political question. In the last month alone we’ve learned how Orwell “foresaw our treatment of Sharon Shoesmith” (The Independent), that this election represented “a campaign that Orwell would recognise” (The Indie again), or how Orwell, an old Etonian just like Cameron, wouldn’t mind a bit of fagging (The Daily Telegraph).
If not giving us updates on Orwell’s spectral Twitter feed, then writers are letting us in on the secrets of the “real Orwell” (© The Times, The Scotsman and The Herald, all 2010), as if we’ve been making do with the beta version for the last 70 years. Another Times article is happy to set us straight about how “people invoke George Orwell … wrongly as universal patron saint and defender of the poor.” The fools! Thankfully, the columnist is able to explain to us that Orwell disliked the “benefit cheats” he met in Wigan, despite the non-existence of any real welfare state for them to cheat in the 1930s.
Crudely put, George Orwell is anyone’s bitch. Whatever the topic, whatever the political position, he can be wheeled out in support to enunciate universal truths in a voice as compelling as the ghost in Hamlet. From voting reform to CCTV, from Trident to the debates, there’s a perfect Orwell quotation, apposite, terse and oracular, just waiting to be plucked out and flourished. I know because I’ve done it myself – writing about media interest in the death of a young British girl overseas, I used a handy line from “The Decline of the English Murder” to bolster my argument. If Saint George is with me, I need fear no controversy.
But why Orwell? Why not Dickens, George Bernard Shaw or some other safely dead and highly moral writer? Perhaps vanity has something to do with it: unlike other canonical writers, Orwell was a working hack. Take the “As I Please” essays he did for Tribune, where he talks about everything from immigration to comic books – he was no proud literary lion, but a typewriter for hire. He too would roll up his sleeves and scribble for money. Perhaps the struggling journalist invokes the saint with a faint, wistful hope that he too will be as useful to his scribbling descendants in a couple of generations.
Chiefly, though, Orwell’s ambiguity makes him useful. Most of the columns on our 2010 general election are loaded with so much instantly outdated minutiae that within six months they will only be of interest to historians. In a generation only the most diligent academic will remember the newly unelected Charles Clarke, but his every up and down can be chartered in the political columns of the last decade. Orwell rarely spent his words on the details of the day – instead, he used them as springboards to boost him into the territory of the universal.
That’s what makes him so useful: he suits many writers on many occasions. Those suspicious of political motives for the conflict in Iraq may quote: “War against a foreign country only happens when the moneyed classes think they are going to profit from it.” A hawk might then defend the tactics of the same war thus: “To survive it is often necessary to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself.”
Like Jefferson’s writing, like Franklin’s, like the Bible, there’s a line in there to suit every side of every argument, and they all come from sources whose authority may not be questioned. The contrary Irwin, in Alan Bennett’s History Boys, recognises this when he suggests A-level students could argue that a modern Orwell would be a member of the National Front.
Of course, the real Orwell, whom I am delighted to be able to reveal exclusively to you, would have had no truck with all this beatification of himself or his prose. After all, it was he who said “Sainthood is a thing that human beings must avoid.” And who can argue with Orwell?