The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius is a long essay by George Orwell, first published in 1941. It's divided into three parts: Part I, 'England Your England', which was originally published with the title The Ruling Class and published in 1940, Part II, 'Shopkeepers at War', which along with Part I was later published in The English People (1947), and Part III, 'The English Revolution'. The first place to begin with this is the title: The Lion and the Unicorn.
|Royal Coat of Arms.|
Above is the British Royal Coat of Arms. It's officially the Coat of Arms of the monarch, and it's also used for the British government. As you can see there's a lot of detail: the words at the bottom, "Dieu et mon droit", means "God and my right", and in the centre is written "Honi soit qui mal y pense", the motto of the Order of the Garter meaning "Shame on he who thinks evil". There are a number of other symbols too, for example above "Dieu et mon droit" you can see thistles, which represents Scotland, Tudor Roses to represent England (harking back to the union of the House of Lancaster and House of York under Henry VII), and shamrocks, representing Ireland. To the left we see a rampant golden lion (meaning the lion is standing) wearing St. Edward's Crown, named after Edward the Confessor (reigned from 1042 to 1066) and one of the oldest Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom: the lion, a Barbary lion, is the national animal of England. Then, to the right of the Coat of Arms, a silver unicorn, chained as a free unicorn was considered a very dangerous creature indeed. This unicorn, represented in history as an enemy of the lion, is the national animal of Scotland. Finally, if you're wondering where Wales is represented: traditionally it is represented with England in the lion following the Act of Union 1707, though at the top of the Coat of Arms under the lion at the centre you can see four ostrich feathers, or the Prince of Wales's feathers. There is, however, no dragon, which is Wales' national animal.
This, then, is where Orwell gets his title, the Royal Coat of Arms and most British of symbols. The essay begins with this very striking first line:
As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.
It is of course the Second World War, and he goes on to write of the role of patriotism in war time:
They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are “only doing their duty”, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.
One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognises the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilisation it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it. Hitler and Mussolini rose to power in their own countries very largely because they could grasp this fact and their opponents could not.To accept this, he says one must accept the differences between nations:
Till recently it was thought proper to pretend that all human beings are very much alike, but in fact anyone able to use his eyes knows that the average of human behaviour differs enormously from country to country. Things that could happen in one country could not happen in another.And by accepting this fact, he is then able to write on what it is to be English (I should note it might have been a little more accurate to simply name this essay "The Lion"), and in doing so noting the myriad of differences within the country and within the social classes:
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. Are there really such things as nations? Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?
But talk to foreigners, read foreign books or newspapers, and you are brought back to the same thought. Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? 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.
This is the gist of Part I, an analysis and even discovery of the peculiar Englishness, and how other systems and worldviews are simply not compatible with our way of life. Because of this, other systems cannot survive in England, for example Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists would never come to power:
Mosley’s Blackshirts, though now lying very low, are a more serious danger, because of the footing they probably possess in the armed forces. Still, even in its palmiest days Mosley’s following can hardly have numbered 50,000.
As he explores these concepts, he writes too on what threatens our Englishness; Nazis, yes, and also the ruling class or elite and the general "stupidity" of the right wing:
In an Empire that was simply stagnant, neither being developed nor falling to pieces, and in an England ruled by people whose chief asset was their stupidity, to be “clever” was to be suspect. If you had the kind of brain that could understand the poems of T. S. Eliot or the theories of Karl Marx, the higher-ups would see to it that you were kept out of any important job.
The right, he claims, aren't interested in radical ideas at all but wish to maintain the status quo with the rich kept rich and the poor kept down (in reading this I recalled the financial crisis of 2008: we're still, nine years later, suffering the austerity measures of the Tories whilst the super-rich continued to get wealthier). That's not to say the left-wing intellectuals are praised in Orwell's essay, far from it:
It is clear that the special position of the English intellectuals during the past ten years, as purely negative creatures, mere anti-Blimps, was a by-product of ruling-class stupidity. Society could not use them, and they had not got it in them to see that devotion to one’s country implies “for better, for worse”. Both Blimps and highbrows took for granted, as though it were a law of nature, the divorce between patriotism and intelligence. If you were a patriot you read Blackwood’s Magazine and publicly thanked God that you were “not brainy”. If you were an intellectual you sniggered at the Union Jack and regarded physical courage as barbarous. It is obvious that this preposterous convention cannot continue. The Bloomsbury highbrow, with his mechanical snigger, is as out-of-date as the cavalry colonel. A modern nation cannot afford either of them. Patriotism and intelligence will have to come together again. It is the fact that we are fighting a war, and a very peculiar kind of war, that may make this possible.
To be successful, in and out of war, is an English revolution, the subject of the final part of this essay, a revolution that would be in keeping with and essentially protect the English outlook. This would, for example, involve nationalisation:
What is needed is that the ownership of all major industry shall be formally vested in the State, representing the common people. Once that is done it becomes possible to eliminate the class of mere owners who live not by virtue of anything they produce but by the possession of title-deeds and share certificates. State-ownership implies, therefore, that nobody shall live without working.
Orwell also discusses income and a minimum wage, as well as "a democratic educational system", arguing "public-school education is partly a training in class prejudice and partly a sort of tax that the middle classes pay to the upper class in return for the right to enter certain professions". He finishes the essay by returning to the idea of patriotism, repeating a line he wrote in My Country Right or Left (1940), "Patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism". He continues,
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. It is the bridge between the future and the past. No real revolutionary has ever been an internationalist.
The left-wing thus far, he argues (and I still think this stands today) are not wildly helpful:
During the past twenty years the negative, fainéant outlook which has been fashionable among English left-wingers, the sniggering of the intellectuals at patriotism and physical courage, the persistent effort to chip away English morale and spread a hedonistic, what-do-I-get-out-of-it attitude to life, has done nothing but harm.
To bring good to the country, he more or less concludes, is to accept the idea of this peaceful revolution, to do away with the ruling elite, and above all remain true to England and Englishness.
But England has got to be true to herself. She is not being true to herself while the refugees who have sought our shores are penned up in concentration camps, and company directors work out subtle schemes to dodge their Excess Profits Tax. It is goodbye to the Tatler and the Bystander, and farewell to the lady in the Rolls-Royce car. The heirs of Nelson and of Cromwell are not in the House of Lords. They are in the fields and the streets, in the factories and the armed forces, in the four-ale bar and the suburban back garden; and at present they are still kept under by a generation of ghosts. Compared with the task of bringing the real England to the surface, even the winning of the war, necessary though it is, is secondary. By revolution we become more ourselves, not less. There is no question of stopping short, striking a compromise, salvaging “democracy”, standing still. Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.
The Lion and the Unicorn is a very powerful essay, and as complex as it is lengthy, though the idea is straight enough. It requires a great deal of thought, and more than one read I dare say. One of the reasons I love Orwell is his willingness not only to criticise the right wing elite, but also the left-wing intellectuals of the time. By doing so he is able to offer a more original suggestion, and Orwell believed that by implementing it one could have a stronger and better Britain, more able to defeat Nazism as well as solving problems at home, particularly the struggling economy, which was still suffering the Great Depression. I loved reading it and will revisit soon, there is so much going on in it, more than I've been able to write about today.
And that was my 14th essay for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: The Black Book's Messenger by Robert Greene.