Orwell, Woolf and Priestley can inform today’s debateby Jason Whittaker / January 14, 2020 / Leave a comment
Labour leadership candidate Rebecca Long Bailey’s call to champion progressive patriotism at the close of 2019 led to a brief flurry of opinion pieces regarding the possible pros (and more often cons) of such a position for the party. She very quickly drew back from a detailed consideration of what such a position would look like, not least because as left-wing intellectuals discovered during the Second World War, any attempt to invoke such patriotism had to deal with an English identity that for too long had been yoked to imperial ambitions.
The most obvious—and still, in many ways, the most important—left-wing figure to have engaged with the question of English identity remains George Orwell. Editor Douglas Kerr has described Orwell as, intellectually, “a displaced person,” one who struggled against the colonialism of his upbringing. His evocation of Englishness could be a slippery one. The former police officer in Burma, who wrote about poverty in socially deprived northern England and served against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, was frequently torn by his commitment to both progressive forces and what literary critic Ben Clarke has called the rural idyll of his Edwardian childhood.
As the Second World War continued, Orwell was one of those on the left who felt that patriotism was a valuable force that could be mobilised in the fight against fascism, and he increasingly turned to what Englishness could mean, most notably in The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (1941) and Notes on Nationalism (1945). In the former, Orwell argued that the outdated class system was hampering the war effort and that the country needed a socialist revolution. “Patriotism” he wrote, “has nothing to do with Conservatism. It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same.”
The English radical Thomas Paine might have taken issue with Orwell’s bald statement that “no real revolutionary has ever been an internationalist,” but Orwell’s emotional line owed more to Romantics such as Blake and Wordsworth. In Notes on Nationalism, he asserted that nationalism, always bound up with the desire for power, was not to be confused with patriotism—the defence of what we value, culturally as well…