Brexit: What Would George Orwell Do?

The British writer cited his country’s “different air,” but he also supported a United States of Europe. Were those views mutually exclusive?

Toby Melville / Reuters

Much has been made about the historic Euroskepticism of the British Isles. The sentiment has been traced back to Queen Boudicca, the Celtic warrior who fought the Roman Empire in the first century; to Henry VIII, who broke with the Roman Catholic Church over his desire to annul his first marriage; and, more recently (albeit incorrectly), to Winston Churchill’s reported belief that If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea.” But as Britons vote in a referendum on whether to remain a part of the European Union, polls show a statistical dead heat—an indication, perhaps, that British views of the EU are more conflicted than uniformly skeptical.

And it’s a different historical Brit whose words perhaps best capture this conflicted view, a man the writer V.S. Pritchett once labeled the “wintry conscience of his generation”: George Orwell.

In 1941, as the Luftwaffe rained bombs on London, the former Eric Blair reminisced in the essay “England Your England” about the period after World War I, when the returning English working classes “brought back a hatred of all Europeans, except the Germans, whose courage they admired.” (Great Britain consists of England, Scotland, and Wales; these, together with Northern Ireland, form the United Kingdom, the sovereign state that is deciding whether or not to leave the EU on Thursday. Orwell tended to use “England” as his catchall for the United Kingdom.)

“In four years on French soil they did not even acquire a liking for wine,” Orwell wrote. “The insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time.”

“But,” he continued, “it plays its part in the English mystique, and the intellectuals who have tried to break it down have generally done more harm than good. At bottom it is the same quality in the English character that repels the tourist and keeps out the invader.”

The same kind of mystique has been fully on view in the often-angry, sometimes-entertaining debate over Thursday’s referendum. British politicians who favor leaving the bloc have invoked Hitler, and the U.K.’s tabloids, long skeptical of the political bloc based in Brussels, have been typically vocal: “Who will speak for England?” the Daily Mail blared; “BeLeave in Britain,” said the Sun, which even reported the “Queen Backs Brexit,” a headline Britain’s Independent Press Standards Organization ruled as “significantly misleading” given that the queen has stayed publicly neutral on the matter.

What about Orwell? He had spent time in Europe outside the U.K.: He fought in the Spanish Civil War, and lived in penury in Paris—experiences he immortalized in Homage to Catalonia and Down and Out in Paris and London. But England, he wrote, was distinct.

When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. Even in the first few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling. The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single identifiable character. …

But at the same time the vast majority of the people feel themselves to be a single nation and are conscious of resembling one another more than they resemble foreigners. Patriotism is usually stronger than class-hatred, and always stronger than any kind of internationalism.

Boris Johnson, the former London mayor and leading Brexit campaigner, could just as well have been channeling Orwell when pointed out there is “simply no common political culture in Europe; no common media, no common sense of humor or satire” or even an awareness of each other’s politics. It is we who are speaking up for the people, and it is they,” Johnson said, “who are defending an obscurantist and universalist system of government that is now well past its sell by date and which is ever more remote from ordinary voters.”

And yet “remain” campaigners could also call on Orwell’s “wintry conscience” in making their case. Although his best-known works, Animal Farm and 1984, warn against Soviet-style totalitarianism, he was also a passionate advocate for a United States of Europe based on democratic socialism, which one could argue is something EU member states, with their relatively generous welfare systems, free education, and health care, have achieved to a point. In his 1947 essay “Toward European Unity,” Orwell suggested that a united Europe was the only way through which war, which had wracked and wrecked Europe and the world at intervals for nearly half a century prior, could be avoided.

“The only way of avoiding [the dangers of war] … that I can imagine is to present somewhere or other, on a large scale, the spectacle of a community where people are relatively free and happy and where the main motive in life is not the pursuit of money or power,” he wrote in the essay, which was published in the Partisan Review in New York. “In other words, democratic Socialism must be made to work throughout some large area. But the only area in which it could conceivably be made to work, in any near future, is Western Europe.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron has frequently employed similar arguments for why the U.K. should vote to remain. “If I had to sum up this entire campaign in a word, it would be that word ‘together,’” Cameron said Wednesday. “I think together we are better able to face the challenges from terrorism and climate change, we are better able to grow our economies, better able to drive good trade deals ... and I want us to get the good deals so we give better chances to everyone in our country.”

Orwell’s United States of Europe would include those countries where he believed democratic Socialism existed: the nations in Scandinavia, as well as Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia (the communists would not fully seize power there until a year after Orwell was writing), Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Britain, Spain, and Italy. And while this might suggest Orwell did not view eastern European countries as potential members, he lived in a world where many of those nations that are now at the center of the debate over Brexit (because of immigration from there to the U.K.) were either part of the Soviet Union or its vassals. Orwell viewed a united Europe as a counterweight to the Soviets and to the U.S. And, he said:

If the United States of Europe is to be self-sufficient and able to hold its own against Russia and America, it must include Africa and the Middle East. But that means that the position of the indigenous peoples in those countries must be changed out of recognition — that Morocco or Nigeria or Abyssiania [modern-day Ethiopia] must cease to be colonies or semi-colonies and become autonomous republics on a complete equality with the European peoples.

This would mean many of the people from parts of the world that currently send large numbers of migrants to Europe—a trend decried by Brexit campaigners who want more control over immigrationwould have been part of Orwell’s Europe.

Orwell’s views about England’s distinctness and his support for a united Europe may not have been contradictory. And it could well be that Orwell might have viewed the EU’s evolution, from Europe’s greatest post-war experiment to a transnational bloc that exists mainly to facilitate trade among its member states, with disdain—not to mention that many of the EU’s regulations and its byzantine bureaucracy have on more than one occasion been described “Orwellian,” in the sense of the totalitarian dystopia envisioned in works like Animal Farm and 1984. While in 1947 Orwell wrote that a European superstate was the only way to prevent war, a year later, in 1984, he described a dystopian superstate that includes Britain (Air Strip One) and North America in a state of perpetual war against Eurasia, another superstate.

Did his views evolve in the period between 1941 and 1948? Or were they perhaps about where the British electorate seems to be right now—just about split on the costs versus the benefits of the U.K.’s relationship with Europe? Orwell isn’t around to tell us, and today’s Britain would, on the face of it, seem to have little in common with the era that Orwell was describing. And yet there are unmistakable echoes. “What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840?” Orwell asked in “England Your England.” “But then, 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.”