Wednesday, 5 November 2014

"1984" - and all that

On a bright cheerful afternoon last week, in the house of a friend who was away on holiday, I finally finished re-reading George Orwell's "1984". The first time was about thirty years ago - I have a little book somewhere that would tell me precisely (sad, but true), although I know for a fact I will not actually have read it in 1984; 1983, or 1985, but I'm far too contrary to have read it at the right time - and my memory of it from then was favourable in general, but dim on detail. I don't know that it's a particularly good novel, but you might argue that it's not really a novel at all. As political polemic for the Cynical Party it is excellent.

That morning, the 5.30 and 6 o'clock news had announced that the National Grid faced its greatest risk of shortages this winter for seven years. This might lead to what they called "blackouts". Well, I thought, that's a curious thing, I thought a blackout is what you get when you haven't eaten enough and stand up too quickly. But what they meant was "power cuts". This, for anyone who remembers the exciting days of the first Miners' Strike and the Three Day Week back in 1973-74, is a loaded term, redolent of the defeat of government by organised labour. So, the National Gridites had tempered their language to avoid provoking the government, yet, by the 7 o'clock news the government had issued a statement that there would be no blackouts. They gave no reason for countering the expressed opinion of those who knew what they were talking about, simply flatly denied it, without evidence.

It seemed to me this was an exercise in "newspeak" at the very least and possibly even "doublethink". To say that this or that is so, when manifestly it isn't, borders on insanity, but if a government does it, they are not called to account.

The same week we had a warning issued by the Foreign Office - but not by the Foreign Secretary - that the government's recently-adopted policy of drone-bombing in Iraq and Syria would put British citizens everywhere at risk of reprisals (and the purpose of all these interventions in the Middle East has been, since 2001, to keep us safe). This followed the House of Commons debate, and vote, in the course of which the Prime Minister promised us a campaign that might take "many years". It's hard not to see this as "continuous war", another feature of Oceania, Orwell's imagined state. "War on Terror", precisely because it is war on something that does not actually exist, can be precisely that - like the "war on drugs", which, though it has constantly failed, and been shown to by a Home Office report that was instantly dismissed by the government, leading to the minister's resignation in frustration, need never end. The government has a bogeyman to frighten us with for ever.

Oceania is one of three power blocs in the novel, the others are Eastasia and Eurasia, and is always friends with one and at war with the other, and it doesn't seem to matter which is which so long as there's someone to fear. The same week we had the spectacle of our Prime Minister posturing that he didn't know about a £1,700,000,000 bill from the EU, and certainly wasn't going to pay it. We also heard about billions of pounds of investment in the energy supply in the UK by the Chinese government. Are we soon to have new friends, and new enemies?

A little while before, Alan Milburn's report on social mobility was published. In a nutshell he said that in the UK social mobility has simply stopped. There is a class of people who will never rise about their present status; their are sent to school without being educated; sent to work, without being adequately remunerated; aspiration is stifled because it is pointless. Orwell calls them "the proles". They have public executions and Victory Gin - "bread and circuses as the ancient Romans would call them - and that keeps them subdued enough to accept their lot and not cause trouble. We have the television - another element in Orwell's fantasy - the lottery, cheap booze, and cheaper Chinese imports.

The food banks which have emerged all over the country as a compassionate response to the real hardship of the poorest citizens - many of them actually in work - are taken as a sign, not of the failure of government economic policy, but of the success of the Big Society, presided over by the smiling, complacent, slightly flushed, patrician features of Mr Cameron, our very own Big Brother.

Is it entirely fanciful to suppose that all this while the British people have been sleepwalking into Orwell's nightmare?

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2014

1 comment:

  1. Some of what Orwell foresaw has happened. Thoughtcrime is punishable now. Strange thing is, it was extreme left-wing policies at which Orwell poked fun in his novels.
    As for upward-mobility : if social and educational policies of the 1940s to 1970s worked, it was bound to come to an end for the broad population.