England October 2002

The Defeat of the Left

On George Orwell, World Cup soccer, and the Queen

Over and again during this riveting and bewildering past year I have found myself thinking of George Orwell. Poor Orwell. He has become a totemic figure; he has notoriously been the object of intellectual grave-robbing; he still excites angry passions. Christopher Hitchens has just published a spirited defense of his contemporary relevance, and Simon Schama, at the close of his televised History of Britain, focused on the two Englishmen whom he saw looming over the past century: Churchill and Orwell. Besides that, Orwell is continually invoked for debating purposes (mea culpa: I did so myself not long ago, in a column about the fighting in Afghanistan).

He survives all these uses and abuses because his writing is so penetrating—and so prescient. It illuminates life today as much as it did in his too-short lifetime. Speculation about what Orwell would have said or done if he'd lived to see the Cold War at its height, or Vietnam, or the collapse of Soviet Russia, is impudent and idle. We know what he did say, and it's quite enough to read what he wrote sixty years ago, so much of it still so eerily apt. Not least, he would have understood very well what we have been witnessing in England this year—both the renewed, simple, unpolitical patriotism of ordinary people and the resentments of the left-wing intelligentsia, about whom Orwell once wrote so sharply.

What distinguished those intellectuals in his time was that they were so "markedly hostile to their own country," as he put it; and what distinguished their newspapers was "their generally negative, querulous attitude." Plus ça change ... Orwell saw also that although patriotism in England "takes different forms in different classes ... it runs like a connecting thread through nearly all of them," and he wrote, "Only the Europeanised intelligentsia are really immune to it." True then, true now, as we've seen more than once this year. First came the death of the Queen Mother, and then the Golden Jubilee marking the fiftieth anniversary of the accession of her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II. The jubilee overlapped with the World Cup soccer tournament, and the visible consequences of them together were startling.

Last fall found the Stars and Stripes flying in every village and street in the United States. This summer the Union Jack was flying in every street here, and England's red cross of Saint George flew from any number of cars, to celebrate both the jubilee and our plucky lads' progress in the World Cup. (It will have escaped most American readers, but England got as far as the quarter-finals, gratifyingly beating Argentina, before losing to Brazil, the eventual Cup winner.) I have a little boy's memories of the coronation, in 1953; a fan's memories of 1966, when England actually managed to win the World Cup; and vivid memories of the Silver Jubilee, in 1977. All of those occasions were echoed in this year's upsurge of affectionate national pride.

Most remarkable was this year's jubilee. For years past the Queen and her family have been subject to a torrent of denigration. Not all the criticism was unfair, and some of the royal injuries were plainly self-inflicted. Although she in some ways deserves the tribute that A.J.P. Taylor paid her grandfather King George V ("a better record as constitutional sovereign than any monarch since William III"), the Queen cannot honestly be described as a very successful mother, and the antics of her dysfunctional family have only increased the vengeful chorus. But the detractors have forgotten what we saw during the summer. A monarchy doesn't necessarily mean fawning adulation of any individual, still less total obedience. It means a collective ritual. What took place in the summer was a celebration not merely of her, the Queen, but of us, the nation she reigns over. And a most benign and nourishing celebration it was, as these things go. Orwell would have known why. He wanted to see the back of capitalism and of most traditional British institutions, but he said he would be happy to keep the monarchy, not least because of "the part played by hereditary monarchs in canalising and neutralising emotions which would otherwise attach themselves to real rulers with genuine powers for evil."

That truth eludes the chattering-class commentariat, who were utterly disconcerted by the royal celebrations. Their delusion was notably apparent in the Guardian, our leading left-liberal paper and arguably the best of our broadsheets, where Jonathan Freedland and others predicted that no one would show up to say farewell to the Queen Mother. In the event enormous numbers did so, first at her lying-in-state and then at her funeral; to his credit, Freedland admitted that he had been quite wrong and made some attempt to work out why. And yet, with the wish again fathering the thought, the chatterati then predicted a flop for the jubilee, only to see their predictions confounded still more dramatically.

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