‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’

“When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air.”  Discuss the idea of national culture as elaborated by George Orwell.

George Orwell’s pamphlet, ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’, opens with the line, “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”[1]  Written during the summer of 1940 with Britain under threat from Nazi invasion, his essay outlines what he believes to be the tenets of the English culture, to understand “what part England can play in the huge events.”[2]  He expounds the everyday qualities and activities of the English people, and uses these as stepping-stones to discuss the possibility of a socialist revolution within England.  By comparing English national culture with other nations’ cultures, Orwell discusses how and why England could undergo this vital revolution, while retaining the culture that defines and perpetuates its national identity.

Orwell begins by specifying the origin of the Nazi threat in detail.  He recognises that the threat comes not from the German men and women who build and operate the machines of war, but from Hitler and the wealthy, National Socialist elite.  This blaming of the upper class is a theme featured throughout, and Orwell discusses the ‘stupidity’ of the British elite extensively – a point I will return to later.  In his opening lines, Orwell ties the rise to power of Hitler and Mussolini to their understanding of “the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty… [which] their opponents could not.”[3], and disparages Christianity and international Socialism, saying they “are as weak as straw in comparison with it.”[4]  Orwell’s recognition of patriotism’s power, when used “as a positive force”[5], leads him to attempt to remove patriotism from its common association with right-wing extremism, and to demonstrate its importance in creating a more moderate socialist government; something I believe he does effectively.  Before I elaborate these ideas however, it is important to follow Orwell’s lead and define more fully what English national culture comprises.

Orwell defines the English culture in lists, “The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant.”[6]  These lists noticeably refer only to everyday events.  He does not list the Houses of Parliament, Oxford University, or the other great achievements of the Empire, but focuses on “The crowds in the big towns with their mild knobbly faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners.”[7]  He posits that these “dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling”[8] of England and that “these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.”[9]  It is the activities of the middle and lower classes, like the “the rattle of pin-tables in Soho pubs”[10], that make England different from Europe.  I agree with his notion, because, as he states, culture is a living creature that is grounded in its past.  The present and future direction of the nation are linked inextricably to what has occurred.  Parents, and the wider society, instruct children in lessons and morals that are conducive to the English view of life, just as they were instructed by their parents.  Orwell opines that English culture is grounded in its common citizens.  The ‘intelligentsia’ with their out-dated, leisure-seeking lifestyle, do not determine the overriding feel of English culture.  Rather, “They take their ‘cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow.’”[11]  Accordingly, it is the people within “the £6 a week to £2000 a year class”[12] whom Orwell targets to incite the Socialist revolution.

Orwell adds depth to his earlier lists by “noticing a minor English trait which is extremely well marked though not often commented on, and that is the love of flowers.”[13]  This does not literally mean that every English person loves flowers, but instils the image of one pottering around the garden.  This image reflects the value placed upon spare time and privacy.  “We are a nation of… stamp collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters… all the culture that is most truly native centres around things which even when they are communal are not official.”[14]  The liberty of the individual to own a home is something that is highly valued and treasured.  Orwell states that the “most hateful of all names in the English ear is Nosey Parker”[15] – one who meddles in the affairs of others.  I agree with Orwell’s characterisations.  As an Australian, I operate in a no-man’s land.  As a foreigner, I notice the differentiating English characteristics Orwell discusses, but as a member of the British Commonwealth, I notice the similarities.  The fear of being a “Nosey Parker”, roughly translates into the fear felt by an Australian of being a “Dibber-Dobber”.  In school, this was the worst insult that could be delivered, and as I have grown up, the term may have changed, but the derision directed towards someone who meddles continues.

Orwell states that the English belief in liberty combines with a second important English characteristic: gentleness.  He credits this gentleness as being critical to preventing a Hitler or Mussolini equivalent rising in England.  Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) may have existed, but as Orwell states later, Mosley was an ineffective leader because he modelled his movement on two countries that maintained fundamentally different cultural identities.  Unlike the Germans or Italians, “no politician could rise to power by promising them conquests or military ‘glory’”[16].  “The boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities.”[17]  and “The power-worship which is the new religion of Europe, and has infected the English intelligentsia, has never touched the common people.”[18]  As these quotes suggest, the BUF struggled to recruit the working and middle class – unlike the Nazis in Germany.  The prominent members of the BUF were the wealthy who sought to further their fortunes.  They were however, as mentioned earlier, largely irrelevant to the culture of England due to their ill-suited, and European focused way of life and ideas of power.

To support his view of the English as a gentle people who cherish liberty, Orwell discusses marching as a manifestation of national culture.  “A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance… expressing a certain philosophy of life.”[19]  He describes the goose step as an “affirmation of naked power”[20] which contains “the vision of a boot crashing down on a face.”[21]  He contrasts this with the English drill, which is “rigid and complicated… but without the definite swagger; the march is merely a formalised walk.”[22]  This idea continues today.  Many belligerent nations such as North Korea that wish to display dominance, hold massive military parades and march in goose-step style.  This is in direct contrast to most democratic nations, which march in the English style.  The goose step is not used in England because it is “ruled by the sword, no doubt, but a sword which must never be taken out of the scabbard.”[23]  Orwell argues that “what English people of nearly all classes loathe from the bottom of their hearts is the swaggering officer type, the jingle of spurs and the crash of boots.”[24]  This essence of gentleness, combined with the desire to determine their private lives and spare time, stops the army from overstepping its boundaries into everyday life.  Prussia, the nation that unified Germany, was renowned for its military prowess and culture.  As a result, militarism and ostentatious military display established itself in unified Germany as a national characteristic, which then passed to the Italians who “adopted the goose-step at about the time when Italy passed definitely under German control.”[25]

The mixture of gentleness with firm resistance to private intrusion, reflects Orwell’s contention that a deep-seated hypocrisy pervades all levels of English society.  The English hold conflicting ideas about the Empire, licencing laws attempt to restrict the common people who are “inveterate gamblers”[26] and “drink as much beer as their wages will permit”[27], and they have “retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ.”[28]  Orwell continues by saying, “the English are not gifted artistically.”[29], “the English are not intellectual”[30] and that “they have a horror of abstract thought, they feel no need for any philosophy or systematic ‘world-view’.”[31]  He asserts that these latter characteristics do not stem from a desire to be practical “as they are so fond of claiming of themselves”[32], but from the desire to maintain the status quo.

Of these hypocrisies, the English opinion regarding violence is the most confusing.  It extends into two main spheres: the law and the military.  In regards to British law, while “the policemen carry no revolvers”[33] this practice “is as out of date as the muskets in the Tower.”[34]  The hypocrisy is instituted by the “typically English figure of the hanging judge”[35], who hands out “savage sentences”[36].  Despite a supposed English abhorrence for violence, the judge and his decisions are tolerated.  Orwell claims this stems from “the all-important English trait: the respect for constitutionalism and legality, the belief in ‘the law’ as something above the State and the individual, something which is cruel and stupid of course, but at any rate incorruptible.”[37]  The role of violence in English society is illustrated by his ‘sword-in-scabbard’ analogy.  While Orwell concedes there is corruption in the form of the rich backing certain political candidates, he is correct in stating “You do not arrive at the polling booth to find men with revolvers telling you which way to vote.”[38]  The English belief in the rule of law as an incorruptible entity remains.  This characteristic reinforces Orwell’s earlier statement that Hitler would be unable to rise to power in England.  Whilst Hitler was legally elected into power, the tactics he employed on the street would not have been tolerated in England.  If the Munich Putsch of 1923 had occurred in London, it probably would have seen Hitler imprisoned for life.  Hitler’s use of the Brown Shirts and subsequent liquidation of their leaders during the Night of the Long Knives would have been impossible; the violence and menace of the Brown Shirts would have robbed Hitler’s party of its support and left him gaoled.  As Orwell states, in England “The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as the law, there is only power, has never taken root.  Even the intelligentsia have accepted it only in theory.”[39]  This fundamental difference between the two nations supports Orwell’s assertion that while the English may hold hypocritical views on violence, they are fundamentally a gentle people.

The English culture of hypocrisy extends into the military, and it is in this realm that Orwell’s argument that the English are gentle, falters.  I do however, believe his opinion survives this misstep.  I agree with Orwell’s defence of English Imperialism.  While “the English have absorbed a quarter of the earth and held on to it by means of a huge navy”[40], he makes the apt, and I believe correct observation that “there is no such thing as a naval dictatorship.”[41]  Masses of bored, desensitised soldiers roaming the streets causing trouble, and interfering with people’s private, daily lives are a necessary and integral constituent of the imposition of dictatorial power.  As Orwell stated, the English are famed for their naval power and sea control and did not deploy large colonial land armies.  The soldiers used to maintain British imperial power were, compared to contemporary European imperial powers, fewer and tamer in their conquests.  The English did not cause the international controversy of the Belgians in the Congo.  In India, the English incorporated the native Indians into their bureaucracy, appointing them to positions of power and delegating limited control, rather than cutting off native hands when they did not meet plantation quotas.  Despite their intrusion into Indian life, the English established the foundations of the democratic India of today; whether this is a good or bad thing is an entirely separate debate, but I think it can be agreed that within the context of Imperialism, the English were less brutal in their approach.

The one glaring exception where Orwell’s ‘sword-in-scabbard’ analogy and characterisation of the English as gentle, fails, is the activities of the Black and Tans and the Auxiliary Division in Ireland.  These paramilitary organisations embodied “the swaggering officer type”[42] that Orwell contends the English hated so much.  Their intrusion into private lives and their reprisals, such as Bloody Sunday and the Burning of Cork, occurred only twenty years before Orwell’s essay was written.  However, as his pamphlet deals with stereotypes and generalisations of culture, I believe that this example is not enough to discredit gentleness as a characteristic of the English national culture.  A number of politicians and the King openly condemned the worst behaviour, and the Army distanced itself from the actions of the paramilitaries, “[they] were totally undisciplined by our regimental standards.”[43]

Included in the list of ingredients of English culture is Orwell’s observation that “Economically, England is certainly two nations, if not three or four.”[44]  This is definitely true, and “England is the most class-ridden country under the sun.”[45]  I agree with Orwell’s point that the national culture is not defined by its moneyed class and that “the existence of these people was by any standard unjustifiable”[46], but I disagree with his assertion that during “the past three-quarters of a century there has been the decay of the ability in the ruling class.”[47] due to their ‘stupidity’.  Rather, I believe this decay arose from the change in the English social climate, and that if the ruling class can be accused of ‘stupidity’, the same label can be attached to all levels of the English class system, not just the rich.

It might well be true that since the “fifties every war in which England has engaged has started off with a series of disasters, after which the situation was saved by people comparatively low in the social scale”[48], but Orwell can recognise this only with the benefit of hindsight and the evolved social context.  Recognition of the power of the lower classes only began in the 1940s.  When the elite made poor decisions in the centuries preceding the 1850s, the rigid social hierarchy excluded the lower classes and made it impossible for them to make suggestions.  Victories occurred because effective elites were facing ineffective elites.  Martial victories from 1850 onward that were saved by those of a lower rank, occurred because other countries such as Germany maintained a more rigid hierarchy, forbidding the inclusion of the lower classes in the decisions of the State and military.  In World War I, the poor leadership arose not from the ‘stupidity’ of the elite, but from the rapid development of weapon technology.  The world had never experienced such swift and sweeping changes to technology, and an understanding of how to counter these weapons took time.   Therefore, the idea that the rich suddenly became ‘stupid’ is flawed.

Orwell’s dismissal of Chamberlain, and by extension the ruling class, as “a stupid old man doing his best according to his very dim lights”[49] is harsh and unfair.  The Appeasement Policy of the interwar years, although ineffective, resulted not from stupidity, but from an earnest desire to never again repeat the horrors of World War I.  Life was hard in England during the interwar years and there was financial ruin and hunger, but nowhere near the blight that Germany suffered.  The Treaty of Versailles robbed Germany of its wealth and also, the ability to feed itself and rebuild.  England was not similarly affected, so the appeal of fascism was entertained within the minds of the ruling class as an amusement or interest, rather than an explosive political movement to better their lives.  This explains the limited success and the class composition of the British Union of Fascists.  Orwell’s assertion that it is the masses that define England’s national culture is especially important in rejecting his claim that England’s trouble was the sole fault of the ruling class.  His contention that maintaining the status quo is an English trait, and that Chamberlain enjoyed popular support, show therefore, that poor decisions stemmed not from the ‘stupidity’ of the ruling class, but from the ‘stupidity’ of England as a whole.

Orwell’s essay focused on bad decisions while ignoring the good decisions.  As he wrote this essay from a position of hindsight, I will now do the same.  The ruling class that he wanted overthrown by socialist revolution was changing; it’s just that it was thrown into a period of flux so dramatic that they had little time to change.  The ruling class had previously given men and women the right to vote with the Representation of the People Act in 1928, had managed to maintain democracy and bring England through the perils of the Great Depression no worse than any other nation.  After the essay was written, the elite instigated great social change through the creation of the National Health System (NHS) and by making the schooling system accessible to the masses – all without Orwell’s desired revolution.  His goals were largely realised, it is just that England was consumed by crises and adversity in the first half of the 20th Century.  Although many of his criticism of the ruling elite were true, with the benefit of hindsight, it is shown that he was perhaps too harsh on a group of people who were not inherently ‘stupid’, but were facing unheard of change and adversity.

George Orwell’s ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’ successfully outlines the foundations of English national culture.  Reflecting the historical and social context of the time, Orwell ascribes the everyday activities of the lower and middle classes to be the main component of English culture.  He rejects the influence of the wealthy, ruling elite and calls for a socialist revolution, as he believes it to be the only way England can win the war and continue to prosper in the post Imperialist age while retaining their national culture.


Orwell, George, ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’, The Complete Works of George Orwell, Volume 12, A Patriot After All 1940-1941 (Secker and Warburg 1986-7)

Untitled, Web. 1st Jan. 2013 <http://www.kentfallen.com/PDF%20REPORTS/GLEAVE%20J.C.pdf&gt;

[1] Orwell, George, ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’, The Complete Works of George Orwell, Volume 12, A Patriot After All 1940-1941 (Secker and Warburg 1986-7) pg. 392

[2] Orwell, Pg. 393

[3] Orwell, Pg. 392

[4] Orwell, Pg. 392

[5] Orwell, Pg. 393

[6] Orwell, Pg. 392

[7] Orwell, Pg. 392

[8] Orwell, Pg. 392

[9] Orwell, Pg. 392

[10] Orwell, Pg. 392

[11] Orwell, Pg. 406

[12] Orwell, Pg. 421

[13] Orwell, Pg. 394

[14] Orwell, Pg. 394

[15] Orwell, Pg. 392

[16] Orwell, Pg. 395

[17] Orwell, Pg. 395

[18] Orwell, Pg. 395

[19] Orwell, Pg. 396

[20] Orwell, Pg. 396

[21] Orwell, Pg. 396

[22] Orwell, Pg. 396

[23] Orwell, Pg. 396

[24] Orwell, Pg. 396

[25] Orwell, Pg. 396

[26] Orwell, Pg. 394

[27] Orwell, Pg. 394

[28] Orwell, Pg. 394

[29] Orwell, Pg. 393

[30] Orwell, Pg. 393

[31] Orwell, Pg. 393

[32] Orwell, Pg. 393

[33] Orwell, Pg. 395

[34] Orwell, Pg. 395

[35] Orwell, Pg. 397

[36] Orwell, Pg. 397

[37] Orwell, Pg. 397

[38] Orwell, Pg. 397

[39] Orwell, Pg. 397

[40] Orwell, Pg. 396

[41] Orwell, Pg. 396

[42] Orwell, Pg. 396

[44] Orwell, Pg. 398

[45] Orwell, Pg. 400

[46] Orwell, Pg. 401

[47] Orwell, Pg. 401

[48] Orwell, Pg. 403

[49] Orwell, Pg. 400

© Guy Chandler and The Wide Sargasso Gyre, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Guy Chandler and The Wide Sargasso Gyre with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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