The writer of 1984 failed to see that Catholicism liberates the poor of England, says Francis Davis This week Ed Miliband chose the 75th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s travelogue The Road to Wigan Pier to make a call for a new patriotism as part of a re-emerging fascination with “Britishness” on the British Left. Orwell’s vivid descriptions of slum boarding houses and the lives of northern miners have, after all, long made it a reference point of international repute for the Left. But as I have made my own journey of discovery across England in recent months it has been particularly striking to learn both what Orwell left out and what has changed, where a certain kind of politics is now exhausted and where the Church may find new hope.
George Orwell was a quintessentially English radical: an Old Etonian who had dabbled in the Spanish Civil War, a commentator, critic and author writing for the soft-Left Tribune newspaper, and a man whose short life was constrained by repeated illness and a complex love life, but who produced millions of published words. Orwell hardly noticed the religion of the poor in his travels, while at the same time railing against Catholicism in particular in article after article. In one review he implied that Graham Greene was titillated by the prospect of hell and in others he dwelt on Catholics’ seemingly instinctive attraction to fascism. Elsewhere, he lamented the social and economic conservatism of Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton. But Wigan then, as now, was a significantly Catholic and religious place. Today, as then, places of worship form a vital part of the institutions of solidarity that make up the life of the English north west. Wigan Pier is today owned by the Wigan Leisure Services Trust. A successful tourist destination in its own right it forms part of a local enterprise which has gone on to acquire and run sports and recreation facilities across the country. The town’s rugby league club houses a team at the top of its game. In nearby Manchester the Government has announced a £50 million investment for research into graphene, which is one of the world’s most versatile materials and was invented in the city’s increasingly world-class university. The north has energy, is driving its own future and does not seek to be the subject of any modern writer’s pity. Meanwhile, the voluntary sector is renowned for the scale of its fundraising for eastern Europe both before and after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Orwell famously predicted the risks of bureaucracies for liberty in his novel 1984. Today, what he once called the “beehive” state has carefully ensconced itself in the dynamics of families struggling with need and unemployment in ways that even he could not have imagined. In Liverpool, I have met carers unable to even understand the application form for disability living allowance, from which they have been accused of “stealing” as they have sought a little funding for their frail relative. In Guildford, I have met parents to whom the Department of Work and Pensions will not speak about their severely ill 16-year-old child because they are not a “designated person”. And in the North East I have met council leaders and business leaders with creative ideas to address such madness but who are blocked from doing so by the inflexibility of Iain Duncan Smith’s mandarins who, they say, rarely visit.
Social need has changed since the 1930s, and so has the state. In the 1950s government cost the nation 14 per cent of its gross domestic product and was already too big for Orwell. Today, the state draws on 48 per cent of national income. Meanwhile, as current national spending reductions have been implemented they are falling disproportionately on services for those who have been raped. One in four of us have depression, while 700,000 Britons face severe mental ill-health. Crossing class, race, and creed like a scythe, such patterns confirm the modern English reality that most Britons who are poor or struggling no longer live in poor places. Similarly, considering the wealth of wards in, for example, Cheshire, Yorkshire and Tyneside, it is no longer so easy to point to a prosperous south which is leaving other areas behind.
Orwell’s work has almost nothing to say to Dorset, Cumbria, Devon or Suffolk. Walking from Winchester to East Sussex recently, I passed across the route of a radical predecessor of Orwell’s as he had ridden the countryside, noting how the lack of free trade of his day was creating immense rural poverty. William Cobbett’s Rural Rides and other journalism timelessly condemns the persecution of recusant Catholics with passion, and regrets the economic pressure on farming communities with equal vehemence. But Orwell’s social criticism is urban, metropolitan and at times quaint. For all its seemingly radical edge there is always something of the comfortable public schoolboy in the tone: looking on effortlessly while the rest of the urban world scampers for survival and the countryside is out of sight.
But perhaps this is where the prelates and their flocks that Orwell held in such contempt had then, and still do, have something to contribute. Long before Orwell made it to Wigan, Henry Edward Manning had fought rural poverty in West Sussex. As a young Anglican Archdeacon of Chichester he founded schools as energetically as he would later establish “rescue” societies for homeless Catholic children.
Last summer, as riots erupted on Britain’s streets, clergy of all denominations walked down London’s streets encouraging calm. Others simultaneously mingled at the Cowes Week service on the Isle of Wight to encourage social responsibility. Our political parties were almost absent in both locations as the churches sought to build one nation.
If Orwell’s Englishness has anything to teach us it is that a partisan narrative of national unity will not endure in the face of historical change. Orwell’s words in The Road to Wigan Pier were an archetype of that partisan approach, deliberately setting out to ignore those institutions, such as the churches, which then and now provide networks of social improvement and a basis for a common culture beyond geography, class, political base or illness.
In rightly seeking to re-imagine what might bring us together Ed Miliband would have more luck reaching for the cycles of the Church’s year, or setting out on his own voyage of exploration of life beyond Westminster, than hanging on to the anniversaries of a great writer whose assessments were of his time, rather than for all time. Francis Davis is an author and policy adviser. He writes in a personal capacity