This post was originally published on the Huffington Post UK on 3rd October 2013
Who else might the Daily Mail accuse of hating England? Who else has criticised aspects of England and Englishness yet still has significant influence over British politics and journalism?
One such author and journalist, writing at the same time as a young Ralph Miliband, was highly critical of aspects of England and Englishness. The English ‘are not gifted artistically’ he wrote. The English ‘are not intellectual’. They have, he wrote a ‘world-famed hypocrisy’. The English could be described, he said, as a ‘sleep-walking people’ whose ‘insularity’ has done them much harm. They are, he says, ‘inveterate gamblers, [who] drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world’. Indeed England is he said, ‘the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly’.
Did the author ‘hate’ England? Are these quotes enough to damn him in the pages of The Daily Mail?
I’ve deliberately cherry-picked these quotes from an essay by George Orwell from The Lion and the Unicorn. The essay looks at patriotism and at what makes the English, well, English. If these quotes are taken in context it is clear that far from hating England George Orwell was devoted to it.
As well as the hypocrisy and anti-intellectualism, Orwell noted the ‘gentleness’ of English civilisation. ‘It is a land’, he wrote, ‘where the bus conductors are good-tempered and the policemen carry no revolvers’. He described ‘the English hatred of war and militarism’, and how most people hold a quiet patriotism, not ‘the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff’. It is a country in which ‘such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in’.
There is another characteristic of Englishness that Orwell says is ‘so much a part of us that we barely notice it’. This is ‘the privateness of English life’. We are, Orwell writes, ‘a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans’.
It is this privateness, and what he calls the ‘liberty of the individual’ to pursue this privateness, that makes the English so distinctive. This has ‘nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit’. It is ‘the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above’.
As ever with George Orwell, he writes about what he observes. He is neither unnecessarily complimentary nor needlessly critical. For this reason his picture of the English is nuanced, accurate and human.
The Daily Mail does not fit well into this picture of England that Orwell draws in his essay. The Mail’s boasting and flag-wagging do not equate to the quiet patriotism Orwell sees in Englishness. The Mail is far from gentle and, as seen in its exchange with the Labour leader Ed Miliband, is not quick to stand down or apologise.
Though where the Mail really falls foul of Orwell’s essence of Englishness is in its approach to privateness. The Daily Mail, and particularly its online version, makes its money from prying and poking into people’s privateness. It makes a living by exploiting others for profit. This is not a pejorative statement, but simply a statement of fact.
Its routine and systematic plundering of individual liberty – as described by Orwell – runs directly counter to this definition of Englishness. ‘The most hateful of all names in an English ear’ Orwell writes, ‘is Nosey Parker’.
Yet as much as the Daily Mail is un-English, so it would be un-English in any way to constrain its freedom to print its venomous opinions. The English commitment to a free press, Orwell shows, is integral to its character. Even in 1941, a year of being at war, ‘newspapers and pamphlets abusing the Government, praising the enemy and clamouring for surrender are being sold on the streets, almost without interference’ Orwell writes.
The natural – and most effective – English response to bullies, says Orwell, is laughter. The goose-step, Orwell said, was the quintessential exemplification of the bully, ‘an affirmation of naked power’. It’s ugliness, he writes ‘is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me’, like the bully who makes faces at his victim’. But the goose-step could never be used in England because ‘the people in the street would laugh’. Such ‘military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army’.
The response to the Daily Mail should be the same. The Mail is desperate for its views to be taken seriously. It wants democratically elected politicians to be afraid of its opinion. Yet people are laughing at it. On blogs, in social networks, and on twitter, people are treating the Daily Mail as a joke. ‘It’s like having that embarrassing racist grandparent at a party’, said one tweet. No reaction could be more effective at diminishing the paper’s power, and no reaction could be more English.
We need newspapers to hold politicians to account, and to be integral to public life. It is not just the Daily Mail that is diminished by its attack on Ralph Miliband but British public life.