The Spectator's Notes

George Orwell’s legacy has been monopolised by the left

27 October 2018

9:00 AM

27 October 2018

9:00 AM

Mrs May says she is taking her stand on the issue of Northern Ireland and the integrity of the United Kingdom. If so, good; but it cannot be the whole truth. After all, she surrendered on the Irish border issue in negotiations last December until, at the very last minute, the DUP forced her to row back. I think the irreducible core of her position is something which she does not fully disclose: that she is determined to keep Britain in the customs union, though perhaps only approximately and certainly by another name. This cannot work, surely, because to the EU it is ‘cherry-picking’ and to the Brexiteers it is BRINO, but there must be a reason why she revives it each time it is stamped on. It would be very interesting to know if she has given some private undertakings to the British motor industry.

If you think about it, it is obvious that The People’s Vote march last Saturday in London could not have been attended by 750,000 people, as its organisers allege. That is the equivalent of every man, woman and child in Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge (to take three Remain-voting cities). Sky News reported that the organisers claimed more than 500,000 (itself a preposterous figure), and by Monday this had swollen in most reports by 250,000. Only the Sunday Telegraph mentioned that such estimates are dubious. It was a big march, certainly (and mostly an amiable one), but visibly much smaller than the march against the Iraq war in 2003 (two million claimed by the organisers, probably more like 300,000) and the Countryside Alliance’s Liberty and Livelihood March of 2002 (organisers and police roughly agreed on 400,000). Of course, I do not know how many were there on Saturday (I would guess about 150,000), but nor does anyone. And that is the point. Earlier this year, I checked with the Metropolitan Police. They told me they no longer produce their own estimates of crowd numbers, leaving it to organisers to announce the figures. This cop-out (mot juste) makes it much more likely that the march’s numbers will be successfully exaggerated for propaganda reasons because there is no objective check. The police would be the right people to provide one because, for public order reasons, they need to know about crowd sizes, and they have the helicopters. Numbers are the most important propaganda element in almost any demonstration, yet they have been allowed to become fictional.

There is much shock professed about the metaphors used to describe Mrs May’s political plight — talk of the ‘killing zone’, or her being stabbed, and worse. I feel this shock myself, but in fact such metaphors are routine in politics and almost always have been. Think, for example, of Harold Macmillan’s ‘Night of the Long Knives’ — arguably more tasteless, since it compared a cabinet reshuffle with a Nazi murder spree. The real reason it seems shocking in this case surely, as it did when John McDonnell favourably invoked people who wanted to lynch Esther McVey, is that it is men speaking about a woman. On this, old-fashioned chivalry and modern feminism agree.

It is a feature of our age of activist judges that a legal principle can be stretched way beyond what it is supposed to mean. The prototype was Roe vs Wade, in the United States, which discovered the right to abortion hidden inside the right to privacy. The latest such development is the expansion of ‘vicarious liability’, currently besetting Morrisons because a disgruntled employee leaked the company’s payroll data. The Appeal Court has decided the company is liable, even though the employee in question was acting criminally against the company. If the concept continues to enlarge in this way, it will soon be impossible for any business, charity, voluntary organisation, church, school to employ anyone. The unintended consequence will be a 100 per cent gig economy.

This year’s Orwell Lecture will be delivered by the novelist Kamila Shamsie. She will be complaining, it is announced, about this government’s talk of citizenship being ‘a privilege and not a right’. (Actually, it is both.) No doubt she will have interesting points to make, but it is a pity that Orwell’s flame is always tended by the left. There is a right-wing case for Orwell, or, to be more precise, an anti-left-wing case. Plenty of Orwell’s writing about England could make him a proto-Brexiteer, and it would be interesting to air this just now. His greatest satires were directed chiefly at communists, and he had a hearty dislike of the New Statesman. More than 50 years after his death, it was revealed that he had supplied the Attlee government with a secret list of people who should not work for its Information Research Department because they were Stalinists. One could describe the left’s monopoly of his memory as ‘Orwellian’.

Do you remember that brief couple of weeks in British history when we all had to say ‘I agree with Nick’? It seems a long time ago, and now Sir Nick Clegg is off to Silicon Valley to be the head of Facebook’s global affairs and communications team. Some sneer, but the move makes perfect sense. Correctly clocking that he has no future in British politics, and that the European Union is not an area of growth and opportunity, he thinks that the United States has a brighter future than our common European home. I agree with Nick.

Our son has revived the old game where you take the title of a book and change only one letter in it for comic effect. It is fun for all the family. He produced The Two Towels, Golf Hall and The Voyage of the Lawn Treader. Our daughter offered Lady Chatterley’s Liver and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Scone. My wife’s contribution was unrepeatable. I thought of The Gropes of Wrath. It is a wonderful feature of language that minute alteration can make all the difference.

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