A timely warning from history
Are Churchill’s and Orwell’s warnings about to come to pass?
On 4 June 1945, – ironically just under a year after D-Day began the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi occupation – Winston Churchill went on BBC radio to issue a solemn, and subsequently much-derided, broadcast to Britain at the beginning of the General Election campaign.
Orwell’s near-death experience of Stalinist communism had fundamentally altered his politics
“No socialist government seeking to control the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp or violently worded expressions of public discontent”, the wartime leader warned. “They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance”. Warming to his theme, Churchill added: “And this would nip opinion in the bud; it would stop criticism as it reared its head; and it would gather all the power to the supreme party and the party leaders rising like stately pinnacles above their vast bureaucracies of civil servants, no longer servants and no longer civil”.
As Churchill spoke, a very different political animal, George Orwell, was beginning to write his last novel, the dystopian visionary nightmare, 1984. Though still calling himself a democratic socialist, Orwell’s near-death experience of Stalinist communism in ugly action during the Spanish Civil War had fundamentally altered his politics.
His dark masterpiece envisioned a world divided into three super states constantly at war. Britain had become “Airstrip One”, a province of Oceania ruled by an all-powerful dictatorship whose doctrine – “English socialism” or “Ingsoc” – had reduced the population to a powerless herd of helots; constantly monitored by high-tech surveillance, and liable at any time to arbitrary arrest, torture and disappearance.
The goal of the ruling party, as one of its officials O’Brien, explains to the novel’s hero, Winston Smith, is simply the perpetuation of its power and the abolition of all past history in the consciousness of people: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”.
So, though travelling by very different routes, these two men, Churchill and Orwell, the statesman and the writer, had arrived at similar conclusions about the dangers of totalitarian rule, aided and prolonged, in another Churchillian phrase “by the lights of perverted science”. More than six decades later, how far has our society advanced along that road?
We are spied upon in our own homes by invisible devices in the computers we use every day
Both these quintessential Englishmen admired their country and its traditional pragmatic politics and respect for individual freedoms. These qualities, they agreed, had helped to save the island from the twin totalitarianisms of fascism and communism – what Orwell called “the smelly little orthodoxies” – that had devoured most of Europe during their lifetimes. But they feared for the future.
Although Britain has thus far escaped the grosser aspects of totalitarian rule – the concentration camps, the rubber truncheons, the show trials, and the midnight knock on the door – the subtler means of coercion and state control have undoubtedly encroached to an alarming degree that should be unacceptable to all who believe in free thought.
We are spied upon in our own homes, not by the telescreens of 1984, but by invisible devices in the computers we use every day. Our speech and writings are dictated by apostles of our own age’s “smelly little orthodoxies” who patrol the borders of social media ready to pounce on those who may think or articulate thoughts disapproved of by the armies of the woke.
We may not yet have our own Gestapo or NKVD but we certainly do have a politicised police who appear to spend more time sniffing out thoughtcrimes than they do in pursuing and catching real criminals. Our civil servants are, as Churchill predicted, no longer the impartial servants of popular democratic decisions but pursue their own not-so-hidden agendas in defiance of the majority.
History, as Orwell prophesied, is no longer an inviolable record, but a subject that can be twisted, rewritten and distorted to suit the preferences and prejudices of those writing it in our own time. And if there is no tyrannical Ingsoc ruling party imposing policy, the differences between the nominal Lab-Con-Lib parties that govern us have been blurred to vanishing point. All subscribe to the Leftist rule book beyond which there is little dissent and no appeal.
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