“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.