Robert Colls in Spiked:
On 27 September 1938 Eileen Blair wrote to her sister-in-law Marjorie Dakin saying that her husband George Orwell (Eric Blair) was waiting to hear ‘what he calls the voice of the people’, which ‘he thinks might stop the war’. Right up to the declaration of war a year later and even after that, Orwell went on hoping that the people would speak so that war might be avoided. In fact, the British people came to the decision that war was unavoidable a year before Orwell and at least six months before its outbreak. Living in Marrakesh, the Blairs were clearly out of touch. While George was writing a pacifistic novel in his shirtsleeves, Eileen was expressing her horror at the Dakin family’s struggles to build an air-raid shelter. ‘It’s fantastic and horrifying that you may all be trying on gas masks at this moment.’ Eileen went on to refer to her husband’s belief in the people as a streak of ‘extraordinary political simplicity’ in him, but where else was he to look? Churchill was no political simpleton and he, too, was trying to find the people in this moment of danger. In the event, once the fighting started in earnest, in a bear-pit called the House of Commons, the people found him.
All Orwell’s writing can be seen as an attempt to listen. This often meant putting his ear to places, Wigan for example, he never really knew. He did know, however, that whole peoples could be misrepresented by their rulers. His first politics had been against the British Empire. Later, he would write about his prep school as a master class in deception. He saw the Soviet Union in the same light and, as everyone knows, Nineteen Eighty-Four is about the systematic misrepresentation of people to the point of extinction.
In 1940, Orwell stopped worrying about peace and waded into the fight. A spate of unashamed celebrations of Englishness followed, including ‘The Art of Donald McGill’ (1940); ‘Boys’ Weeklies’ (1940); ‘My Country Right or Left’ (1940); essays on Dickens (1940), Kipling (1942), and Wodehouse (1945); The Lion and the Unicorn(1941); a composite, The English People, written in 1943 but not published until 1947; Animal Farm (1945), and an essay on liberty, ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946). His critics might call this propaganda but he would have called it turning up the volume. Born in an age when only the toffs spoke for England, Orwell devoted his life to giving the people their voice and between them, they worked it out. That is what great writers do. They resonate and keep on resonating with those who follow. Orwell stands now as England’s most favoured way of talking about itself.